By Mark Starr
The Root/New America Media
Speed skater Shani Davis will go down in history for his succession of Winter Olympic firsts, most notably as the first African-American athlete to win an individual gold at the Winter Games. But in his own sport, he is celebrated for his extraordinary record of sustained excellence.
Over the past decade, Davis has dominated speed skating’s middle distances: four Olympic medals, including two golds; 20 world championship medals; 57 World Cup victories, second most all-time; and world records at both 1,000 and 1,500 meters that have stood since 2006. Now, at 31 years old and still the world’s top-ranked speed skater, he will toe the line at the ice oval in Sochi, Russia, with his sights set on some lofty historic milestones.
About the only thing Davis hasn’t been able to outskate in his brilliant career is controversy that has dogged him since 2002, when, as a 19-year-old short-track skater, he made his first of four U.S. Olympic teams. After Davis won the final race to qualify for the U.S. squad, speed-skating officials claimed that his pals, including budding superstar Apolo Ohno, who had previously been undefeated in the competition, had enabled Davis to win by failing to challenge him while dogging the skater who was his rival for the final spot on the team.
An arbitration panel ultimately cleared Davis of any wrongdoing, but bad feelings on both side lingered, presaging an escalating estrangement between Davis and the U.S. speed-skating establishment. Davis skipped opening ceremonies and, when he learned that he would not skate on the relay team, left Salt Lake City early to compete in the two international long-track competitions for skaters in the junior ranks. He won back-to-back 1,500-meter races and never returned to the frenzied, short-track wars.
Salt Lake City proved a minor flap compared with the fireworks on the Olympic long-track team four years later in Turin, Italy. Davis, by then reigning world all-around champion, had intended to skate three races—the 1,000, 1,500 and 5,000 meters—and was not expected to compete in the team relay. When the coaches shifted the lineup and asked Davis to skate on the relay team, he declined. His teammate Chad Hedrick, himself a former world champ, trashed Davis, calling him selfish and warning that he would very likely cost his country a medal.
For a sport that barely registers among American sports fans, the outcry in the press, on sports talk radio and on the Internet was huge and harsh. When the relay team fell short of a medal, it got worse, with Davis’ patriotism being questioned. Davis would explain that he hadn’t wanted to deprive teammates who hadn’t qualified for individual events of a chance to skate in the Olympics, as had happened to him four years before.
As the highest-profile African American in Turin and one of America’s standout performers there, Davis had plenty of reason to regard the attacks on his patriotism as racist. Although he had previously trained on his own—and without a coach—Davis, incensed that he had been hung out to dry by his federation, Olympic coaches and teammates, broke all ties with US Speedskating. He refused to accept any more funding from the national body and wouldn’t even let it post his biography on its website.
But the breach didn’t slow Davis down. Four years later, at Vancouver 2010, Davis again won gold in the 1,000 meters, the first man ever to defend that title, as well as second silver in the 1,500.
But with the passage of time, Davis’ achievements have moved to the fore while the controversies have receded. In Sochi Davis is chasing history, and the stage is set for him to skate into the pantheon of U.S. Winter Olympians. Another victory at 1,000 meters would make him the first male to pull off a Winter Olympic three-peat since the 1920s. Moreover, if Davis wins one more medal, he will tie the legendary Eric Heiden for most Olympic medals by a U.S. male speed skater. And with a second medal, he would join Bonnie Blair at the top of the U.S. speed-skating medal chart.
Davis, a Chicagoan, was ushered into the sport at age 6 after he was too fast for a local roller-skating rink to contain. “I did not want to be a champion growing up, just a fast skater,” is the quote he showcases on his personal website. At 6 feet 2 and 185 pounds, Davis circles the rink with a powerful stride, and he has an extraordinary ability to ignore all distractions and deliver peak performance in the biggest races. “Being born and raised in Chicago made me tough,” he recently told NBC’s Today show. “It made me strong. I feel like I can deal with anything.”
In the run-up to Sochi, Davis has ventured a toe, perhaps even a whole foot, back into the public arena by granting more interviews. He views himself as not nearly as complicated as he has appeared to others, just a regular Chicago guy, one who roots for “da Bears” and the rest of the city’s sports teams and who couldn’t survive without regular infusions of the city’s signature deep-dish pizza. About the most controversial thing he’s revealed about himself is that he is strictly a Giordano’s pizza man, which might offend fellow Chicagoans who swear by Gino’s, Lou Malnati’s or any of the other contenders for top pizza honors.
The American mainstream press has never been entirely comfortable with “difference” of any kind in the athletes it covers. At the very least, Davis is due a reassessment of his career. Individualism isn’t the same thing as selfishness. Had Davis been all about himself, he would have skated those relays and, in all likelihood, would already stand atop the U.S. Olympic speed-skating medal chart. It seems that Davis, the man, is really that same kid who cared less about the medals than about skating fast.
And he has gone faster—and faster for longer—than even he could have imagined. In doing so, he has blazed a pioneering Olympic trail with gold and silver—not just for himself, but for all black athletes on roads less taken, for the sport of speed skating and for his country.
Mark Starr, a former national sports correspondent for Newsweek magazine, has covered 11 consecutive Olympics, including six Winter Games.