PYEONGCHANG, South Korea >> Speedskating is a mainstream sport in the Netherlands, which explained the blocks of orange in the stands near the starting line for the men’s 1,500-meter competition Tuesday night at the Gangneung Oval.
The fans in orange reserved one of their most enthusiastic welcomes for a former champion, 35-year-old Shani Davis. The American had no real chance of medaling here, but the Dutch valued his achievements and made it a point to express their appreciation of him.
Davis acknowledged the reception by raising his arms.
The first black athlete to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Olympics, Davis should be showered by this kind of adoration as he closes his career.
He won’t let it. He never has and history will remember him as much for the controversy he inspired over the years as his triumphs on the ice.
In his latest brouhaha, which is over the flag-bearing responsibilities at the opening ceremony, Davis remains the designated “bad guy” and it’s entirely his fault. He could de-escalate the situation — or, at very least, shift the course of the discussion — but his pride won’t allow it.
In case you missed the story, here’s a quick summary: Davis wanted to be the flag bearer. He received four votes from a panel of athletes representing the Olympic federations, with luger Erin Hamlin claiming the other four. The stalemate was broken by a coin flip, per United States Olympic Committee rules. Hamlin won. Davis was upset and shared his feelings on Twitter, in the process reminding everyone it was Black History Month. Davis then skipped the opening ceremony.
Davis has refused to address the situation with American reporters, his only statement on the matter delivered to a Dutch newspaper.
“It happened for the better,” he said. “I probably needed the rest anyway. But, you know, once every four years, my fifth Olympics, I thought it would be really special to hold the flag. I guess the USOC and the other people thought differently.”
Davis refused to revisit the incident Tuesday night after finishing 19th in the 1,500. The moment he stepped into the media mix zone, a U.S. Speedskating press officer announced, “Skating questions only.”
Such requests are rarely obliged. What they do is postpone the inevitable, delaying the question everyone wants to ask until the subject has provided enough material for a story.
So the question came.
Davis was told his tweets were interpreted as disrespectful toward Hamlin. Did he want to offer any clarification on that?
“Before we started this interview, (we said) we were sticking to skating-only questions,” Davis said. “I would like to continue to focus on skating-only questions.”
Davis had been gifted a Get Out of Jail Free card. Instead of accepting it, he ripped it up and set the pieces on fire.
Diminishing Hamlin’s moment of glory was Davis’ only true crime. Address that and everything would have changed.
Being upset over not being chosen to carry the flag?
That was understandable.
Him sharing the outrage?
That was fine too. Fans appreciate transparency from athletes.
The #BlackHistoryMonth2018 hashtag on his tweet implying the USOC blew a chance to showcase his color-breaking achievements, as well as the increased ethnic diversity of the current team?
Skipping the opening ceremony?
No problem. It’s not as if he was part of a platoon marching into Baghdad and suddenly went AWOL. Plus, it was really cold. I would know. I was there.
Tarnishing what might have been the greatest moment of a fellow athlete’s career?
Apologize to Hamlin and the conversation about the situation would have changed, perhaps to whether Davis deserved to be the flag bearer, which he did.
Davis should have understood this. He probably did.
But a mea culpa was out of the question. The same competitive instincts that made Davis a champion negated any pacification efforts to giving in. And champions don’t give in. They bear down and that’s what Davis did, rendering him unable to even make a simple statement that he didn’t mean to diminish Hamlin.
Davis will have another opportunity to reconstruct the final part of his legacy next week, when he races again in the 1,000 meters. The guess here is that he won’t take it.
Listening to Davis closely Tuesday night, it was evident he was searching for a soft landing, as he was reflective and thoughtful when answering the questions he felt comfortable answering.
Comparing the feelings of these Olympics and the Sochi Games that were a disaster for U.S. Speedskating, Davis said, “It’s four years past. If I could rewind the clocks of time and be in this state that I am now four years ago, it would be a better situation for me. But unfortunately, we can’t rewind the clock, we can’t unring a bell.”
When he’s retired, he could be saying something similar about these Games.
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