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Old skit may be why Shani Davis called Stephen Colbert a 'jerk'

I have been trying to figure out what led Olympic champion Shani Davis to call U.S. Speedskating's new benefactor, Stephen Colbert, "a jerk" last week.

Was it a reaction to Colbert's recent "attack"' of Canadians and Canadian speedskaters? Probably a little of that.

Was this just Davis' way of doing anything he can to distance himself from a federation with which he has been at odds for years?

Or, as I suspect, did it have most to do with the way Colbert treated the controversy involving Davis and U.S. teammate Chad Hedrick over team pursuit at the 2006 Olympics?

Even knowing the nature of Colbert's shtick, it is easy to understand how a Feb. 22, 2006 skit (video below) could have offended Davis.

The part when Colbert says, "Shani Davis should have skated in the team pursuit even though it interfered with his training for the 1,000 meters ... sometimes you have to put aside your ego and sacrifice individual glory for the sake of the team if you are black'' does not seem entirely tempered by the satirical context the comedian adds in the next minute or so. As a rare black man in his sport -- the first black athlete to win an individual-event gold medal in the Winter Olympics -- Davis long has dealt with stereotypes that discouraged other African Americans from competitive speedskating.

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Speed Skating Debacle
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor U.S. Speedskating

I attempted to speak with Davis on Monday, but a bad cellphone connection prevented me from doing more than exchange initial pleasantries. He did not respond to subsequent text and voice messages. His publicist, Kori Novak, told me today that Davis would have no comment.

A spokesperson for Colbert also said he would have no comment.

The back story: Colbert, host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report,'' stepped up to help raise funds for U.S. Speedskating after learning the federation was $300,000 in the hole after losing the sponsorship of a primary backer, DSB Bank of the Netherlands, when the bank went under. Colbert asked his viewers, the "Colbert Nation,"  to contribute; according to U.S. Speedskating, about 8,500 people have responded to raise about $250,000 so far.

In the process, Colbert took off from news reports about Canada restricting foreign skaters' use of the 2010 Olympic Oval in Vancouver, calling the Canadians "iceholes" and "syrup-suckers."

That provoked outraged, knee-jerk reaction by some in the Canadian media, their brains apparently too frozen by life in the Great White North to realize 1) Colbert was having some fun; and 2) his involvement probably has done more to raise awareness of speedskating in North America than any other event in the sport's history.

Both Davis, a 2006 Olympic gold and silver medalist, and short-track Olympic champion Apolo Anton Ohno, the two leading U.S. speedskaters, have chosen not to wear the Colbert logo (a "C" on the hood or "Colbert Nation" on the thigh) because they want their personal sponsors to get that placement.  U.S. Speedskating officials signed off on their decision, and they informed Colbert's people of the situation before he made the sport his cause.

"We're allotted certain spaces on our skinsuit throughout the negotiation process with a sponsor," Ohno said in a Monday teleconference about the upcoming Olympics.  "I cannot cover up that sponsor, Alaska Airlines, even if I had wanted to. 

"I'm happy that Stephen Colbert has stepped up. It brings a lot of good exposure to our sport and obviously, U.S. Speedskating is in dire need of financial support. I think we're really lucky that someone like that stepped up to help us out."

Asked about Colbert last week in Calgary, Canada, where a World Cup meet took place, Davis was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, "He's a jerk. You can put that in the paper."

Ohno said he had read accounts of what Davis said but had yet to talk with him about it.

"It was an interesting comment," Ohno said with a laugh, proving as adept at sidestepping as when he won "Dancing with the Stars'' in 2007.

Ohno said he "absolutely" understood what Colbert said about Canadians was meant as a joke. "I think he's funny, and this is a time when our country is in need of some humor," Ohno said.  "It's also a good cause."  

But it is understandable that Davis might be sensitive to someone dissing Canadians. He feels a specialShani fondness and gratitude to the Canadian speedskating community. Calgary was his training base leading up to the 2006 Olympics, and Canadian officials gave him both rink time and other support at the 1988 Olympic Oval there.

For that reason and the 2006 skit, Davis may have been less inclined to pass off Colbert's Canadian jokes as tongue-in-cheek.

Davis wasn't alone in being uneasy about Colbert's style of humor. Other U.S. skaters didn't know what to expect at first.

"One the one hand, we're Olympic athletes, so when Colbert first began sponsoring us, everyone was like, 'Is he going to make fun of us?"' said 2010 short-track Olympian Katherine Reutter of Champaign, Ill.

"But he has never done anything like that. He has really given us a lot of respect for going out there and doing the best that we can.

"At the same time, we do need to realize we skate in tiny circles in spandex suits. It can be humorous at times.

"I think it's a really good fit, and he's a very generous guy for coming in and helping us out. I couldn't be happier about it."

Davis' "jerk"' remark, indirectly a slap at the U.S. Speedskating, came at a time when he seemed to be engaged in rapprochement with the federation. After October's trials for the long-track World Cup team, Davis agreed to be placed in the pool for team pursuit, and he skated the first World Cup team pursuit event of the year, helping the U.S. team tie the Netherlands for first.

It was as if Davis were trying to put far behind him the negative media coverage that tarnished his memories of an exceptional performance at the 2006 Olympics. And although members of Team Davis were very upset by parts of my Chicago Tribune Magazine profile of him before the 2006 Olympics, he has been both courteous to me and willing to answer my questions at both October's trials and the 2007 World Single Distance Championships.

"I would love to enjoy an Olympics," Davis said in October. "One out of my three would be nice."

In 2002, Davis' selection to the Olympic short-track team was mired in controversy that, like the team pursuit issue in 2006, was not of his doing. He did not compete in the Salt Lake City Winter Games.

The way Davis has skated this season and last, it seems a lock for him to win medals in at least two races, the 1,000 meters and 1,500 meters, at the 2010 Winter Games, and two golds would not be a surprise.

It would be a shame if he were prevented from enjoying every bit of such an achievement.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Shani Davis waves to fans during his victory lap after winning the 1,000 meters in a track record time at last weekend's World Cup event in Calgary. Credit: Jeff McIntosh / Associated Press / The Canadian Press

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Comments (36)

|That provoked outraged, knee-jerk reaction by some in the Canadian media, their brains apparently too frozen by life in the Great White North to realize 1) Colbert was having some fun; and 2) his involvement probably has done more to raise awareness of speedskating in North America than any other event in the sport's history."


It's ironic that Philip is chastising the Canadian media for not being able to take what was obviously a joke by Colbert, when Philip himself does not realize that most of the media coverage over Colbert's comments was just as light-hearted. Sheesh.

Shani Davis has a chip on his shoulder that only reflects poorly on his character. I have zero sympathy for him.

Jim: satire is a game that can have multiple players. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

If the persons who booked Stephen Colbert for the White House Corespondents Dinner a few years back didn't quite get the satire, how can we expect Davis to get it?

I realize this story's a little older than last night but I watched him skate last night and he was the only US athlete not wearing the US uniform with the C on the hood and I think a Colbert on the thigh.

Phil: Can you update for my paper, the Chicago Trib?

This was at the World's in Canada. No one commented on it but I thought it weird. Is it his little protest against Colbert? If so, shame on him for having such a poor sense of humor and showing disrespect to a sponsor. Colbert picked up sponsorship of the team when no one else would and he deserves respect for that, regardless of his views.

Shani: It was a joke. Lighten up. Prove that you "get" the joke? It might even help your image and get people to like you more.

Who cares if Shani Davis likes Stephen Colbert, Davis just set another world record!

Late comment, but does "Bode Miller" ring a bell?

I still maintain that Stephen Colbert has about doubled the number of Americans who are aware that the winter Olympics are coming up.

Why would Davis be sore about Colbert's skit? Colbert was clearly making fun of the whole notion that the black man has to be the guy to take one for the team, like how the black guy always dies first in action movies. Not only that but Colbert even pointed out that Davis was the first black man of any nationality to win a gold metal in speed skating.

That clip didn't insult Davis at all, in fact it supported him.

Me thinks he doesn't get ironic humor. How sad that must be.

Who cares if Shani Davis doesn't likes Stephen Colbert? Colbert has a NATION behind him!

Why would that skit offend Shani? Unless he believes Colbert literally believes African-Americans should 'take one for the team' and allow themselves to be eaten by genetically engineered sharks.

It's clear from the end of the Colbert clip that Colbert actually agrees with Davis. He shows multiple clips of black guys getting screwed by being "good team players" and then points out that his teammate's desire for him to skate in the team event was more selfish than Davis not skating. The "if you are black" at the end of your quote goes to show that Colbert was criticizing the racially-tinged criticism of Davis, not Davis himself. Colbert was one of the few guys supporting Davis, but Davis clearly doesn't get it.

I have nothing much to add to the above except to say that this is sad. It's sad when a star athlete's ego predictably gets in the way of good things for himself and his team, which ironically was the main point Colbert was lampooning in that 2006 clip -- where he was clearly joking, and in a positive way.

I hope Davis does come around to see that the idea that he or his team or the Canadians are being victimized in any way is a laugh, and that actually laughing is the only response he should have. It doesn't take a great deal of sense to see that Colbert has unequivocally been good for his sport in publicizing his team and the Olympics. But maybe over time we'll find that yet another great athlete is also a jerk (I really hope not).

you've gotta be really dry or square to not pick up the sarcasm in Colbert's skit.

"I still maintain that Stephen Colbert has about doubled the number of Americans who are aware that the winter Olympics are coming up."

Yes. Who's Shani Davis? I don't know. But I gave $25 to support US Speedskating with the rest of Colbert Nation. Because if he hadn't publicized their plight, I wouldn't have known. I probably wouldn't have watched the Olympics either. But I plan on following the speedskaters this year. I'd like to see my team win.

Ha! You're saying the canadian media's reaction was stupid. You should pay attention to colbert or Jon Stewart's show and realise how most of the American media is ridiculous.

Phil this is irresponsible journalism but then what else is new with you. The Chicago Tribune knew better than to allow you to publish this nonsense in the hometown paper. For you to speculate on a completely incorrect assumption, and then further allow these "internet creatures" to speculate and write negative comments about this Great Olympian because of your incorrect assumption is completely unethical and irresponsible. So happy that your dumb ass will be covering figure skating at the Games because you are just a dirty old man with a gay son who bad who dresses poorly and apparently does not use mouth wash.

I must have missed the supposed "outrage" in the Canadian media about Colbert's digs at us.
I think we all got the joke.
But believe what you want /

It's been apparent for a while that Shani Davis, as talented of an athlete as he is, is a sheltered jerk. Now it's also apparent that he has no sense of humor or satire. NONE. I'm surprised his mother has jumped in with her comments yet.

Davis clearly had no reason to be upset at Colbert's skit. It was making fun of the notion of him "taking one for the team."

I just possible that he was angry for just the reason he stated. He has a fondness for Canada because they were instrumental his training that got him the damn gold medal. There's no need for any conspiracy theories concerning some supposed ulterior motivation for his comments. Quit making up bull$#!%.

How can anyone call Shani Davis a "Jerk". This man has been railroaded his entire career. No one said anything to support him when the true "JERK" Chad Hedrick called him out to because of the team pursuit. NO ONE spoke up about USA Speedskating for not coming to Shani's aide during a time when he should have been enjoying his accomplishments.
So what he didn't get the joke. I think Colbert is a genius, but I also understand that Shani has been fighting for respect in this sport all his life. I say "TO HELL with you" if you think this guy is anything but a true AMERICAN CHAMPION!!!
GO SHANI 2010!!!!

I think many people fail to understand that life experiences affect our reactions to humor and satire. Sarcasm is a beautiful thing, but in the toughest of times, human beings will react in different ways and we shouldn't judge them for it.

In Davis' case, he worked his entire life to represent the country including facing years of direct and nasty racism that built to the point where he was vilified in the media for something that anyone who knew anything about speedskating at all knew was completely unfounded.

Personally, at family funerals, I need satire and sarcasm to get through it, but I don't judge my family members who don't see the humor.

I certainly don't blame him for finding nothing funny in the situation.

Davis is the Jackie Robinson of Speedskating. He deserves every accolade possible and if people choose to judge him because as a young black male he doesn't react the way that they would in the situation, that says a lot more about their mindset than about anything he's done.

US Speedskating Federation are a bunch of stuffy foolish children. The fact of the matter is Shani Davis was never able to skate team pursuit as his name wasn't submitted to the OAC. Everyone associated with USF knew it and never defended him. There is no chip or angry black man nonsense. Just plain old fashioned throw the black man under the bus. That way a misinformed public can say he is unpatriotic and all that other BS that he still has to deal with 4 years later. Look it up. It was never true. Joseph your an idiot and motto a prick.

Those who made the negative comments about Shani Davis' reaction to the Colbert issue...So What!!! Davis has a right say what he wants. I personnally agree with Shani, Colbert was being a JERK! It is obvious Shani takes what he does very seriously and since speedskating is an individual sport, he has every right to make choices that will best benefit his goals in this Olympics rather than being obligated to further someone else's pursuits (Chad Hedrick in 2006). But since Shani just won the Gold in the 1000...I am sure he is laughing now. Ha, Ha, Ha and am I!

There are reports of him having a low IQ, so it doesn't surprise me that Shani can't comprehend satire. I'm sure people have tried to explain it to him, but his brain isn't capable of grasping the concept.



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