Less than four months from the Turin Olympics, a patch makes Shani Davis a no-name to many outside of speedskating. That’s right, a patch. More precisely a logo and what the logo represents. Because Davis skated one too many races with the logo of Europeanbased DSB Bank, he violated a clause in his athlete’s agreement contract with U.S. Speedskating, the sport’s national governing body. Qwest became an official sponsor of U.S. Speedskating in January. U.S. Speedskating then wanted Davis to remove the DSB Bank logo and replace it with a Qwest logo. Davis, raised in the south side of Chicago, said he made a decision based on what was best for him and his training. And now, because his athlete agreement has been terminated, he is not a member of the U.S. program, and he must pay for coaching and ice time. “If I make a world championship, I have to accommodate myself,” Davis said. “It’s pretty tough sometimes. But I’m pretty fortunate to have a good sponsor who helps me out.” Davis is speedskating’s world record holder in the 1,500 meters. He is the world all-around champion and the three-time U.S. all-around champion. Davis should become the first black person to make the U.S. Olympic long-track team. Don’t dismiss Davis’ skin color with regard to his gaining popularity. It’s a detail not lost on marketing and television folks. A black man on speed skates is an oddity. If the Olympics epitomizes reaching the American dream, Davis is good enough, good-looking enough and extroverted enough to be the poster child for the 2006 Winter Olympics. What’s shameful is Davis can’t have total blessings from his governing body as well as from sponsors he secures without U.S. Speedskating. The situation is eerily similar to what elite skier Jeremy Bloom went through with the NCAA. The NCAA told Bloom he had to make a choice between playing football for Colorado or continuing with his skiing career, a career that enabled Bloom to collect sponsors dollars. Bloom, who has the Olympics in his sights, did what was best for him and showed how stubborn the NCAA can be. Davis, by doing the same, is showing how obstinate U.S. Speedskating is and how slow the governing body is in regard to entering the 21st century. The governing body doesn’t want to make exceptions for exceptional athletes. That’s archaic thinking. If every athlete were created equal, Davis wouldn’t be the best in the world at what he does. Organizations should give equal respect, which is different than equal treatment. Treating an athlete with Davis’ talents and accomplishments as one would a hotshot who won his first race is not just bad business. It’s detrimental to the organization’s mission if that plight resembles anything similar to being extremely successful. Davis isn’t the first athlete to have problems with his governing body. Track and field superstar Carl Lewis had similar issues with USA Track and Field. Lewis, according to U.S. Speedskating marketing executive Thomas McLean, believed he should’ve been treated as a professional athlete. For many years, Lewis was the face of USA Track and Field. “Carl was absolutely correct,” said McLean, who worked in management for USA Track and Field for 12 years. “We should’ve been treating him as a professional. USA Track wasn’t moving as fast as Carl would’ve liked.” Davis’ accomplishments don’t mirror Lewis’. But Davis has the talent, ability and charisma to do so. “Shani is going to be an Olympic hero,” McLean said. “I believe that in my heart. He has it.” The rest of U.S. Speedskating needs to believe the same. But the organization appears to be in the same place U.S. Track and Field was in the mid-1980s. Speedskating can be big. It’s a television-friendly sport. It’s all about being the fastest. Americans are all about being the fastest. We like watching speed and knowing the world’s best. Right now, we know little about the world’s best. U.S. Speedskating must find a way to patch up that problem. Columnist Milo F. Bryant can be reached at 636-0252 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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