GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The remarkable and turbulent athletic career of Shani Davis had to die like this. It was going to be slow and lonely and with one last Olympic-size fracas. After a lifetime of fighting — and winning — there was no chance the aging pioneer would exit with a rocking chair tour.
Davis built his legend on extreme self-confidence and defiance. He has always navigated life using his own GPS, and it has led to petty controversies, the latest of which is surprising only because Davis actually wanted something more than a medal from a world that makes him skeptical. He wanted to be the U.S. flag bearer during the Opening Ceremonies. It basically means the 35-year-old speedskater wanted a farewell party.
For all the complexity we’ve sifted through during Davis’s five Olympics, this may be the most intricate and confounding Shani-ism of all: the man obsessed with standing alone — the barrier-breaking first black athlete to win an individual Winter Games gold medal — needed to be appreciated, for once. When he wasn’t, when Team USA chose luger Erin Hamlin by breaking a tie with a coin flip, Davis turned colder than ever.
He wrote on Twitter last week: “I am an American and when I won the 1000m in 2010 I became the first American to 2-peat in that event. @TeamUSA dishonorably tossed a coin to decide its 2018 flag bearer. No problem. I can wait until 2022. #BlackHistoryMonth2018 #PyeongChang2018.”
Davis arrived at PyeongChang as a four-time Olympic medalist who could have garnered well-deserved admiration in this twilight of his career. Instead, he’s a symbol for selfishness and poor sportsmanship, all because of a stupid and emotional tweet. It’s just the kind of dumb spat that Davis would create to mar his swan Games.
He’s an old man by athletic standards. He’s more likely to win a Nobel Peace Prize than to participate in the 2022 Olympics. He finished 19th in the 1,500 meters here Tuesday night at Gangneung Oval. This is it for Davis, and he’s still fighting perceived slights instead of basking and taking a victory lap in Korea this month.
Davis used to be able to combat any criticism with fast and graceful performances on the ice. But on this night, he bowed to time.
“The ice is super fast,” he said. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t.”
In his first interview with American reporters since tweeting his frustration, Davis barely addressed the controversy. Before the three-minute interview, U.S. speedskating communications director Matt Whewell said Davis would take questions only about skating. Davis wound up getting three questions about the flag bearer flap. He shot down the first, and Whewell ended the session after the last. But he entertained the second question, which was about whether he created a distraction.
“Well, I’ve been through a lot worse than what’s been going on the past few weeks, so this didn’t disturb me whatsoever,” Davis said. “I’m okay. Nothing really distracted me from anything. There’s no excuses for how I performed on the ice, except for that I just wasn’t strong enough to compete with the high, top-level guys here.”
It wouldn’t be an Olympics without a Davis incident. In retrospect, the others seem so silly. There was the quarrel with Chad Hedrick after Davis pulled out of the team pursuit in 2006, the year Davis won his historic first gold medal. In 2014, when Davis and the entire U.S. speedskating team bombed, tight and uncomfortable uniforms became a problem. Throughout his career, Davis has been a critic of the U.S. Olympic Committee. He mostly trains on his own with limited assistance from coaches.
Even the start of Davis’s career was controversial. After he made the 2002 Olympic team as a short-track speedskater, Apolo Ohno and Rusty Smith were alleged to have thrown the race so that their friend could earn a spot. For an athlete with a clean record off the ice and intelligent insights during most interviews, Davis has never been able to enjoy fame. Some of that is his fault. Some of it is ours. The result is a polarizing legend who is likely to stomp out of his sport rather than float away.
Although Davis has written blog entries about enjoying this Olympics experience, he talked about being too focused on the moment Tuesday.
“You know, that probably comes to me more after the Olympics are done, once I kind of sit back and just kind of go through everything in my mind,” he said when asked what he wants to get out of his fifth Olympics. “But I’m just happy to be here, man. The Olympics is a beautiful rink. The ice is super fast, and I feel good.”
Davis hoped for a better result in the 1,500, but he knew winning a medal would be a long shot. His best event is still the 1,000 meters. He won Olympic gold in 2006 and 2010 in that event. He thinks he has one more good race in him.
“I felt good,” Davis said. “It’s just that I didn’t have the snap and drive. I really feel that I’m more geared toward a 1,000 now. I really hope that this got all the cobwebs out, and I can refocus. I’ve got 10 days to figure it out, how to get on the podium for the 1,000.”
Triumph is the only way he can exit properly. He won’t walk away on rose petals. He can’t. He’s not that guy. Kobe Bryant was able to restrain the Black Mamba and leave the NBA in a sappy way. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a farewell tour. Roger Clemens, an intense competitor, turned into a warm and cuddly tale before the steroids accusations. Even Ray Lewis, the fearsome linebacker who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in connection with a double homicide, skipped out of the NFL.
But Davis isn’t a team sports star with a career of constant attention. And no fault of his own, we still live in an idealistic fantasy world with Olympians. We want them to be darlings. We want them to represent purity, no matter how ugly the Olympic movement becomes. We project onto them what we cannot onto mega-million athletes.
And then Davis comes along and complicates everything. He’s an amazing figure in Olympic history, and his impact on aspiring African American winter Olympians is only beginning to be felt. He’s also an unapologetic competitor who is out to take everything he thinks he deserves. Based on success alone, Davis was a better flag bearer candidate. And the U.S. shouldn’t award such a distinction by flipping a coin. That’s a preposterous way to break a tie. But it’s classless to throw a fit on Twitter and then refuse to explain yourself in greater detail.
This time, Davis probably isn’t good enough to answer the criticism with greatness.
“It’s hard to stay on top forever,” said Belgium speedskater Bart Swings, who was paired with Davis in the 1,500 and beat him by more than a second.
Davis can start a fight with Father Time if he wishes. He seems to know better, though. It’s almost over, and though some might miss him when he’s gone, they won’t be inspired to wave goodbye.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.