Shani Davis Goes His Own Way, and Controversy Follows

Shani Davis racing in the 1,500-meter event on Tuesday. He finished 19th.

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The American speedskater Shani Davis swerved around a corner, on foot, in a subterranean postrace interview room at the Gangneung Oval on Tuesday night and slowed to a halt in front of a small pack of mostly American journalists. Davis, a celebrated Olympian, was about to take his first questions from the news media since arriving at the Winter Games last week.

But first came a mandate from the press officer for the United States speedskating team. “Skating questions only,” he said, disqualifying with a single sentence about half of the questions on the reporters’ minds.

A 35-year-old four-time Olympic medalist, Davis could have treated his fifth Olympic Games as a sort of congenial victory lap. But as he has shown through the years, he tends to do things his own way.

While the American team, trying to bounce back from a disastrous showing at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, has tried hard to project a sense of placidity and collective well-being, Davis, the first African-American to win an individual gold medal at a Winter Olympics, has been more than happy to complicate that effort.

Last week, his long-fractured relationship with the United States Olympic Committee further degenerated when he publicly criticized a selection process that denied him a chance to carry the flag at the opening ceremony on Friday. The U.S.O.C. had used a coin flip to settle a tie vote between Davis and the luger Erin Hamlin, 31, a bronze medalist at the 2014 Games.

Davis took to Twitter and wrote that the committee “dishonorably tossed a coin to decide its 2018 flag bearer.”

“No problem,” he continued. “I can wait until 2022. #BlackHistoryMonth2018 #PyeongChange2018.”

Then he skipped the ceremony and made his Twitter account private. He also did not attend the team’s customary introductory news conference last week.

After his race on Tuesday — he finished 19th out of 35 skaters in the men’s 1,500 meters — the closest he got to addressing the controversy was when a reporter asked if the events of the previous week had affected his skating at all.

“Well, I’ve been through a lot worse than what’s going on the past few weeks,” Davis said. “So this didn’t disturb me whatsoever.”

Davis struck a positive tone after his race. He said he thought he was better suited for the 1,000 meters and complimented the atmosphere at the Games. He suggested his technique had never been better, but the burst of his younger days has been harder to find.

He may not be expected to win a medal, but as one of the biggest stars in speedskating, he still has the ability to invoke respect and awe in his competitors and teammates.

To grasp his influence on the generation of athletes making their mark now at the Games, one needs only to comb through the official athlete biographies, which give competitors here a chance to list their personal heroes. Davis was named by a disparate collection of skaters including Takuro Oda, 25, of Japan; Haavard Lorentzen, 25, of Norway; Ekaterina Konstantinova, 22, of Russia; and several of his younger American teammates.

Kimani Griffin, 27, a long-track skater from Winston-Salem, N.C., was 13 or 14 years old when he first met Davis at a short-track competition in Ohio. Griffin guessed Davis would not remember the interaction. But it had a big impact on Griffin as a young skater.

“I think I had a big Afro, and he had a big Afro back then,” Griffin said with a laugh.

As Griffin spent more time around Davis, his respect for him grew. In a sport that has struggled with diversity in the United States, Griffin found someone to whom he could relate, someone to emulate.

“Getting to know him as a person outside of the sport and more on a personal level, seeing how hard he dedicates himself to training, and all the accolades and accomplishments he has despite whatever adversity he may have overcome, it says a lot about his character,” Griffin said. “And for me, being half-African-American, he’s set the tone for me as far as what champions are made of, even with any adversity.”

“He’s accomplished everything there is to accomplish,” he added.

Davis won a gold medal in the 1,000 meters and a silver medal in the 1,500 meters at the Winter Games in 2006 in Turin, Italy, and repeated with the same medals in the same events at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Davis made reference to these accomplishments when he took to Twitter to express his disappointment that he had not been picked to carry the flag.

Most of his teammates have not publicly commented on his sentiments, though in a tweet that she eventually deleted, the luger Summer Britcher, 23, wrote: “Wow. Very happy a #soreloser like this is not representing us tomorrow. Good luck in your events, good thing character doesn’t play a part in your results.”

In the weeks before the Olympics, Davis had used social media to broadcast various grievances — with the U.S.O.C., with team sponsors, with the news media.

On Feb. 1, Davis wrote on Twitter, “The American speed skating team did not win in Sochi but it was the USOC that failed the entire team.”

And Davis has repeatedly called out NBC, the broadcaster of the Olympics, for what he seems to regard as negative narratives and mischaracterization about his career.

(Davis strikes a different tone on his personal blog, where he wrote last week about his hope to produce “pure, thoughtless skating, doing it for the love and skating from my heart and not with my head overcomplicating the process.”)

Asked whether he knew how much longer he would skate, Davis said he would have to think about that after these Games.

Anthony Barthell, a coach on the United States short-track team who at one point lived with Davis for five years, said his legacy would be secure no matter what, not only for his victories on the ice but also for the way he widened the lane for minority athletes in winter sports that demographically remain overwhelmingly white.

Barthell said Davis had paved the way for black skaters like himself and Maame Biney, an 18-year-old short-track skater who is at her first Olympics.

“A lot of things he had to endure, I didn’t have to go through that, and Maame doesn’t have to go through that,” Barthell said. “His record stands for itself. He’s going to be a legend no matter what. I think he’s the best long-tracker ever.”

Three minutes into the group interview, a reporter asked whether it would be O.K. to ask Davis why he would not answer questions about the other issues that had swirled around him for the past week.

The press officer raised his eyebrows and looked at Davis. “You can go,” he said.

“I can go?” Davis said.

“Yep,” the press officer said.

And then he was gone.

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