GANGNEUNG, South Korea — After a strong seventh-place showing in what will probably be his final Olympic race, at the end of his fifth Olympic Games, Shani Davis sneaked out the back. He skated well in his specialty, the 1,000-meter race in which he holds the world record, enough to consider the whole thing as going out on his terms. But Davis wouldn’t say a word. His Olympic career might be over, and he left it to everyone else to discuss it at the end.
The International Olympic Committee requires athletes to pass reporters in the area called the mixed zone after their competition. Davis didn’t do that. When reporters asked to speak to a coach about the five-time Olympian, the coach declined on Davis’s behalf, according to U.S. Speedskating spokesman Matt Wheeler. Davis didn’t want to talk about Davis. He didn’t want anyone else to talk about him, either.
But they will talk about him. They always have. Davis’s career could only have ended like this, in nuanced and convoluted controversy, with anyone who knows his story stuck somewhere between wondering how he could possibly decide against discussing his legacy and how he could ever see the benefit in discussing it at all.
He answered questions about his Olympic credibility in 2002, when some wondered whether his teammates had thrown a qualifying race to get him to Salt Lake City. He defended his sportsmanship in Turin in 2006, when he wouldn’t race in the team pursuit and virtually guarantee the U.S. a medal — a decision he said he made to give other teammates a chance to compete, a decision teammates said he made to keep himself fresh.
He answered similar questions about the team pursuit in Vancouver in 2010, when he wasn’t even eligible to race it. In Sochi in 2014, there were those pesky, stiff racing suits that Davis ripped as part of a broader indictment of U.S. speedskating.
This month, he tweeted about the U.S. team’s selection of Erin Hamlin to bear the flag at the Opening Ceremonies instead of him — mostly about the fact that it reduced such an important decision to the flip of a coin. He sort of had a point. He’s almost always sort of had a point. He’s just never been able to convince everyone. Friday, he didn’t try.
Davis hinted at retirement on his website in November, saying that, after these Olympics, he expects to “finish up the season . . . then put down the skates and rest my mind, soul and body.”
If he retired today, he would do so as one of the most significant Winter Olympians the United States has ever produced. He was the first African American man to win a Winter Olympic medal. He won four total, two of them gold.
He would do so with an indisputable legacy carried on by young African American speedskaters such as Maame Biney and Erin Jackson, and in the D.C.-ICE (Inner City Excellence) program that connects him with kids hoping to find their way to skating in Washington. Davis could have used his final post-race press session to spin his legacy that way. He chose not to spin it at all.
Instead, if this is the end, Davis’s Olympic career will have ended with a well-skated 1,000-meter that earned him seventh place in a loaded field, a few spots behind teammate Joey Mantia, who took a surprise fourth. After not winning a medal in Sochi and deeming it a “disaster,” the American long-track men have yet to win one here, either. Mantia has one more chance in the mass start Saturday. Davis has none.
His last chance came Friday, when he took to the start line with that trademark stance — lips pursed, body not quite coiled but taut somehow, like a rubber band ready to fly across the room. But when he pushed around turns, he didn’t gain the ground he used to. When he glided up the straightaways, he looked like he labored.
Even so, the 35-year-old skated across the finish line in third place after 28 of 40 skaters. He left his hands on his knees as he glided around a turn, catching his breath. Then he stood up and waved, first to the fans in one corner, then to those along the straightaway, then to those in the next corner, his glide slowing little by little by little. As he passed each group of fans, he waved, and they waved back — though it was hard to tell whether he had initiated the thank-you or they had. As always with Davis, it was probably a little bit of both.
When he slid slowly back to where he started, Davis grabbed the pads on the side of the infield and collapsed into them. He watched on the big board as Korean skater Kim Tae-Yun skated a faster time, bumping Davis from medal contention. He picked up his sweatshirt, stood up and skated slowly to the benches. After five Olympic Games defined by high-decibel controversy, Davis exited quietly — perhaps the only way he could do so on his terms.