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

December 9, 2009 |  3:47 pm

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