Davis' medal reason to evaluate color at Winter Olympics

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TURIN, Italy-- --The world's largest bathroom wall knows no limits.

What I saw was pure filth. It felt like someone activated the emergency sprinkler system in the middle of a party.

Shani Davis, a speed skater from Chicago, won Olympic gold yesterday. Even bigger, he became the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Games - ever.

As sad as that sounds, you have to start somewhere, so I walked away from the arena thinking about past athletic pioneers and wondering if any young black children were about to ask their parents for speed skating lessons as they were being tucked into bed.

And then I saw the bathroom wall. I logged onto shanidavis.org, the skater's official Web site and saw smut scrawled in a crass handwriting that we've all seen before.

"Break a leg [racial epithet]," someone posted. "Selfish [expletive] looks out only for his selfish personal goals and could give a [care] about the team, let him break a leg, fail to medal and drag his [expletive] home."

Whenever there's progress, you can almost always hear the voice of intolerance trying to push its way to the front. It's difficult to move forward without at least one reminder of what you're stepping away from.

Davis' win - coupled with the cultural composition of this year's U.S. team - has raised the bar and set important standards. This year's U.S. Olympic team features more minorities than ever before. Twenty-two of the 211 Americans competing here have non-white backgrounds. That's still a ridiculously low number, but it's progress - four times the number in 1998 and twice as many as 2002.

That no black athlete had ever won an individual gold in the Winter Games is astounding. That there are people who'd wish that winless streak lasted forever is sickening.

Clearly some people in the speed skating community are upset that Davis didn't skate for the United States in the team pursuit competition Thursday. Davis wanted to focus on his individual race, yesterday's 1,000-meter. Without Davis, the Americans finished in sixth place in the team competition.

Another message posted on Davis' site was titled "Traitor." "Just like a [racial epithet]," it read, "absolutely no loyalty to the country that gave him this opportunity, he says screw the team, screw the country, it is all about him. May he fall and lose and get zero medals. Selfish [racial epithet]."

An Olympic barrier fell. It might be tough to imagine, but Davis' gold might have more impact on whites - like the anonymous cowards who spout bigotry on a Web site - than blacks.

His victory resonates only so much. Speed skating isn't a mainstream sport. The Winter Games haven't historically been a stage for social change. And the black audience doesn't look to the ice for its sporting heroes.

Davis winning a race is not like John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists into the air. The skater isn't looking to pat himself on the back for color-coordinating black and gold.

"It's what people make of it," he said. "If people in America are excited and thrilled to have a black Olympic champion in speed skating, then I'm happy that I can make people happy."

Although he's part of a trend on the American team, he's still an oddity in his sport. Of course he faces ignorance, of course he gets stares, of course he hears them whispering.

"That happens when you're one of a kind," he said. "I'm one of a kind out here. I'm the only black guy speed skating. Who knows what the white people playing basketball have to go through? I have no idea."

But here's what makes Davis different from Carlos or Smith: The two track stars embraced their skin color. Perhaps he's simply tired of the same questions, but Davis seems to treat his race as happenstance.

That might have been the case before, but the world spins a bit faster once you make history. Davis has already taken notice.

"There's a lot of ignorance out there," he says. "But before all this Olympics stuff, I've never had any problems."

Now one race (skating) is only an opening to talk about the other (skin). It's important that we do. Huge sections of America's black population feel a disconnect with the Winter Games.

"Try not to laugh when someone says these are the world's greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the Winter Games look like a GOP convention." That's what Bryant Gumbel said on HBO's Real Sports last week. And that's the prevailing sentiment among many in the black community.

Davis can't win. He's been raised to focus on the individual, in part because the black speed skater isn't entirely understood by blacks or speed skaters.

"Go home" read another post on the Web site. "A loser, selfish punk. No medals, no Wheaties boxes, no money, just a loser label."

Got that one wrong. He'll go home with a new carry-on item, gold bling that has no shot of making it through the airport metal detector.

If you're looking for meaning, I get the feeling Davis' unprecedented accomplishment won't be celebrated the way it should be.

Unfortunately, even though the emotional win was one for the record books, many who could be inspired by it probably won't recognize the significance.

Even more sadly, the dissenting voice will only try harder to discredit Davis.

I just wish there was a way we could permanently scrub these thoughts from the bathroom wall.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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