Column: Shani Davis says goodbye to speedskating without saying a word
In the absence of a competitor taking a club to a knee or vandalizing a gas station bathroom, the scene Friday night at the Gangneung Oval marked the height of absurdity at these Olympics.
Facing a small army of reporters, Matt Kooreman fielded questions about Shani Davis.
That Kooreman was introduced by a U.S. speedskating spokesman as Joey Mantia’s and Mitchell Whitmore’s coach didn’t alter the lines of inquiry.
Davis was the story. He’s always the story.
And after finishing seventh in what was likely his final Olympic race, the 1,000 meters, the two-time gold medalist risked discipline from the Games’ sanctioning body and skipped his post-race media obligations.
Still, there were stories to be written and airtime to be filled. Someone had to say something about Davis.
Tom Cushman, who sometimes coaches Davis, declined to speak because Davis didn’t want him to, according to the spokesman.
Which is how Kooreman, who doesn’t work with Davis, found himself in the media mix zone, summoned there under the absurd pretense that reporters wanted to ask him about Mantia and Whitmore.
Is it unfortunate Davis’ reaction to not being chosen as the opening ceremony flag bearer overshadowed everything else the U.S. speedskating team did at these Games?
Kooreman: “No one feels that at all. These guys love to skate and compete. Once we get back out there and when you’re at the rink, that’s what we do. We don’t worry about that.”
Was Davis satisfied or disappointed with his performance?
Kooreman: “I don’t know.”
Was this the 35-year-old Davis’ last race?
Kooreman: “I don’t know.”
Could someone his age continue to perform at this level?
Kooreman: “If he wants to.”
And so it went.
None of this was particularly newsworthy, which is what made the circus-like scene noteworthy.
Speedskating mattered enough for a crowd of reporters to scribble and record words that meant absolutely nothing, just as it would if it was at an NBA or NFL game.
Plenty has already been said and written about how Davis fundamentally changed the nature of winter sports when he became the first black athlete to claim an individual gold medal when he won the 1,000 meters at the Winter Olympics in 2006.
His legacy extends beyond the medals he won and the records he broke — his mark in the 1,000 meters, set in 2009, still stands. The barriers he smashed cleared the path for African American speedskaters Maame Biney and Erin Jackson to be here. He inspired the creation of the DC-ICE (Inner City Excellence) program in the Washington area.
His also had a more immediate impact. He was a star who transcended his sport. There aren’t many of them, particularly in winter sports.
When Davis won his second gold medal in the 1,000 meters at the 2010 Vancouver Games, he became the first male skater to successfully defend his title in the event. He also won silver in the 1,500 meters at both the 2006 and 2010 Games.
His career has included nine world records and also he made an Olympic team as a short-track speedskater.
Olympic speedskaters ranging from Takuro Oda of Japan to Joel Dufter of Germany list Davis as their hero.
His elevated public profile was based on his background and on-ice achievements, but was further raised by the controversies in which he was involved. He made the 2002 Olympic short-track team by winning a race that led to accusations of race fixing by his teammates to assure him a spot on the team.
He clashed with teammate Chad Hedrick over his decision to not skate in the team pursuit. And, here, he caused a storm when he tweeted his displeasure over not being chosen as the opening ceremony flag bearer.
Certainly, there are some in the speedskating community who are looking forward to Davis’ departure with hopes of being spared another circus in four years. Only this is a case where people should be careful what they wish for.
Replacing a household name is rarely easy for fringe sports, as evidenced by U.S. figure skating’s decade-long search to find a successor to Michelle Kwan. The guess here is that in four years, a coach won’t be standing in front of 20 or so American reporters answering questions about a speedskater with whom he has minimal contact.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez
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