Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Another View: Media Coverage of Shani Davis

During the recent Olympic Games, an unscientific AOL poll showed that, overwhelmingly, viewers want more stories about sports rivalries. Perhaps that's why the media overplayed a trumped-up story of such a rift time and again during the Games. But the mere bemusement of easily bored viewers doesn't justify the unfair harm done to an athlete's reputation. The rift, cunningly engineered by speed skating teammate Chad Hedrick, turned many in the nation against speed skater Shani Davis. And few have taken the time to sort out myth from reality. You can read an exception to that trend from msnbc.com writer Mike Celizic here.

You had to look pretty hard through dozens of articles to sort through the tripe. The story goes that Shani Davis selfishly (and unpatriotically) refused to skate in team pursuit. Ever loving an emotional story, however contrived and false, the media generally sopped it up. In Dec. Speed Skating USA informed skaters that they must file applications by the end of Dec. for their races and that they could NOT skate in events for which they hadn't filed. Shani Davis never filed for pursuit, was never a member of the Olympic team-pursuit squad, and never once practiced with them. Pursuit team captain, Chad Hedrick, didn't want him or invite him until it was expedient -- for Chad Hedrick.

Here was Hedrick, an athlete whose pursuit of Olympic gold surfaced a mere four years ago, while playing poker and simultaneously watching the 2002 Olympics. Hedrick, an inline skater (and a good one) had never competed on ice. On ice, he skated well, becoming a top-ranked ice speed skater. That is not in question. What is questionable is the way that Hedrick's own personal drama and his huge ego persuaded the national press that the entire Olympics was about him. But he masked the fact by feigning patriotism at every turn and trying to destroy another's reputation. A week before the pursuit event, Chad, who egotistically thought that, after a little over three years of training on ice, he could best Eric Heiden's record five gold medals, realized the team times weren't good enough. That's when he asked Shani to bump another skater. Had Shani done it, he would have jeopardized his performance and the gold is his specialty, the very reason he was sent to Turin. He'd also have to bump a legitimate skater from USA speed skating. (See the MSNBC article for particulars about the implications of this.)

It was Chad Hedrick, the aspiring actor wanting discovery and his press, who refused to congratulate Davis upon Davis's gold. In an obvious slight, before US and world television audiences, when an interviewer asked how he felt about the first-second finish of the US skaters, Hedrick said he was happy for Joey Cheek. That was far from the end of it. Hedrick was sharp tongued and derogatory other times as well. Here's a young man (Davis) who'd trained much of his life, only to have Hedrick try to vocally and self-centeredly try to ruin his reputation before the world. Shani Davis, on the other hand, cheered on his fellow skaters, even Chad Hedrick; showed good will to skaters of other countries; and was a gentleman in both victory and defeat. In one moment, when the nastiness had gone on for a week, Davis said that it would be nice if Chad congratulated Shani when he won, not just when he lost. Sure it'd have been better had he not said that. But given the contrived bashing Chad Hedrick orchestrated against him, Davis was remarkably resilient.

Another rant I read about concerned the fact that Shani wore different clothing from team members. But a Dutch company sponsored Shani Davis's training when others at home wouldn't. He was contractually obligated to wear the clothing. Americans should be asking instead why did Shani finally have to seek outside/foreign funding? Where were his countrymen and women?

Despite all Hedrick's manipulations, other skaters aren't mad at Shani. In fact, as noted in the MSNBC article linked above, Apollo Ohno is his best friend. Yet the media's fawning coverage of Chad would let you believe otherwise. Now Shani Davis has even received hate mail. The first African American speed skater in the history of the sport won gold and silver. He worked hard, stayed out of trouble, and did us proud. It was a big deal. He deserves our respect; training support; and, yes, endorsements. Shani Davis will be back in four years. I hope Americans show more appreciation next time.