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Controversial Davis worth appreciation

By Shannon Ryan Chicago Tribune

This article was published February 13, 2018 at 2:20 a.m.

Shani Davis could have been a media star and the king of commercials, marketing his story of overcoming obstacles to become a pioneering Olympic gold medalist speedskater.

Just do what everyone else does.

Smile. Reply with savvy, I'm-just-happy-to-be-here answers. Deflect praise. Most of all, sound grateful.

But Davis isn't here to make you or U.S. Speedskating or the U.S. Olympic Committee comfortable. And for all the sanitized U.S. stars whose stories are delivered in linear, rags-to-riches, Disneyesque presentations, Davis has an authenticity we should appreciate -- even when it makes people uncomfortable.

He's a complex man reminding us that athletes don't have to come in perfectly wrapped packages to root for them.

Davis, 35, is competing in his fifth and likely final Olympics. He toes the line today in the 1,500 meters and on Feb. 23 in the 1,000 meters. His lasting legacy will be breaking down imposing barriers to become one of the best ever in his sport, all while refusing to acquiesce to public image expectations.

A Chicagoan who trained much of his life in Evanston, Ill., Davis was criticized last week after tweeting that he felt deserving of being the U.S. flag bearer at the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Critics especially took umbrage that Davis mentioned Black History Month as part of his gripe. A vote by teammates had resulted in a tie, and a rule required a coin flip that went to luger Erin Hamlin, a four-time Olympian with one bronze medal on her resume.

The rule is the rule. There wasn't much that could be done. And one could certainly argue that Davis, who skipped the opening ceremony, wasn't being gracious.

Davis should have been a no-brainer selection. He's the most decorated U.S. Olympian in South Korea, the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Games with his 1,000-meter victory in 2006. Four years later, he became the first skater to defend his title in that event. He also won silver medals in the 1,500 both years.

Pointing out that this is Black History Month isn't irrelevant, as many critics claimed, some even calling Davis racist. It's pointing out the irony that during a month dedicated to celebrating black leaders, Davis' fellow athletes chose not to make him the first black U.S. flag bearer in the Winter Olympics.

Davis isn't a go-along, get-along type. He has a friction-filled history with U.S. media, fellow skaters and U.S. Speedskating.

But he should have been selected not only for his success on the ice but also for the grit it took -- and still does -- to endure being "the only one" in a sport for decades. Imagine the spark of inspiration for young black boys and girls watching him carry the flag.

It's fair to wonder whether Maame Biney or Erin Jackson would be competing in South Korea as the first two black female Olympians in short- and long-track speedskating if not for Davis' pioneering.

We should also wonder why it was met with such backlash when a black athlete spoke candidly about not being duly honored in the twilight of his career.

Part of it, many black athletes have said, is that they bear a heavier burden to portray themselves as humble and grateful, lest they not seem likable or relatable.

Davis will be remembered for ignoring these rules, just like he ignored barriers that have kept black athletes from competing in many winter sports.

He seems like he can live with the consequences of his outspokenness.

Agree with him or not, we should appreciate his authenticity as much as his success.

Sports on 02/13/2018

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