PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Let’s get this out of the way first: I don’t care that Shani Davis didn’t talk to the media following what almost certainly was his final Olympic race Friday night. He owes nothing to us. He competes in an individual sport, so it’s not like his silence puts some burden on teammates to address a lack of accountability. He broke an IOC rule, which might as well be an oxymoron, because the IOC is as lawless, corrupt and irresponsible as any organization in sports.
Here’s the thing: Davis still screwed up. Whatever his frustrations with the media, whatever his thoughts on a seventh-place finish in the 1,000-meter speed skating event in which he still owns the world record, Davis squandered a choice opportunity. He could have said goodbye to the sport he revolutionized and given depth and context to his own happy ending.
Because that actually happened at the Gangneung Oval. When he crossed the line in 1 minute, 8.78 seconds – more than two seconds off his best, still better than 29 others, every one of them younger than the 35-year-old Davis – he glided around three-quarters of the track, at which point fans in one section started clapping for him. He raised his left hand, then his right, in response. Then another section clapped. He waved to them. Then another and another and another, each earning an acknowledgment, a nod, a thanks.
This was a great moment, almost certainly the denouement on a career that redefined speed skating. Not only was Davis the first black Winter Olympian to win individual gold, he excelled in the bumper-car madness of short track and the mellifluous beauty of long track. Toss aside his squabbles, his propensity for drama, all of the labels that chase him. His, if indeed over, was a brilliant athletic career, defined by back-to-back 1,000-meter golds and 1,500-meter silvers in the Turin and Vancouver Games.
Davis’ life is compelling and important, and that he hasn’t learned how to play puppeteer with a marionette media corps is far more shameful than his post-race silence. Seriously, this was so easy. This is exactly how it could’ve gone.
Q: Shani, are you satisfied with seventh place?
A: I wanted to get on the podium one last time, but the response from the fans made seventh feel like gold. They’re the reason I’ve done this, and to hear that from them was really special.
Q: Shani, are you still mad that you weren’t the American flag-bearer?
A: I’d rather not talk about that tonight. It was a great night for my teammates, and I’m really proud that I had the privilege to make five U.S. Olympic teams.
Q: Shani, was this your last Olympic race?
A: It was, and I’d like to thank my mom, who is my heart, and I’d like to thank the city of Chicago, which is my soul, and I’d like to thank everyone who made this all possible. This has been a privilege. I know I’ve been prickly, I know I’ve made some mistakes, but I hope you understand that when I talk about these people and places that made me, there is nothing but sincerity, because this is a great American story.
And look: Maybe he would be accused of disingenuousness, because never has Davis particularly cared about casting himself in a particular fashion. Even if Davis’ beef about being the flag-bearer instead of luger Erin Hamlin had merit, his pre-PyeongChang Games tweet about it reeked of pettiness on a level to which nobody, let alone someone with his array of medals, need stoop.
Of course, perhaps this is all purely fanciful, this notion that Davis would’ve even considered going the route of Lindsey Vonn. In the final Olympic downhill race of her career, she didn’t win the gold medal that should’ve been hers. Purely from a talent standpoint, her bronze was disappointing. And yet she showed zero sign of that. She cried. She reminisced. She talked about what the Olympics meant to her. She took a day that wasn’t what it was supposed to be and turned it into one that celebrated all the days that led to it.
No matter how much Davis hates the media, no matter how much joy he may derive from preventing his coach, Tom Cushman, from talking, too, the idea that he would skip out on a chance for others to celebrate him – well, rare is the athlete who makes that choice. It just so happens that Shani Davis is an exceedingly rare athlete in more than one way.
So since Davis didn’t do it himself, and since he has locked his Twitter and doesn’t Instagram and hasn’t updated his website in months and doesn’t seem altogether inclined to participate in any horn-tooting, I’m going to synopsize what he could’ve and should’ve:
Shani Davis, one of America’s greatest black athletes, a Winter Olympics deity, skated his final race Friday. His contributions are manifold, his influence apparent, his legacy intact. His words – or lack thereof – are but a part of his story. It is a raw one. It is a complicated one. And it is one that deserved so much better than what he gave it.
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