President Obama is sure to bring the U.S. Winter Olympic team to the White House for a visit sometime soon. There among the mainly White guests will be Shani Davis, America’s best long track speed skater and the current world record holder at two distances–the 1000 meters and the 1500 meters. Don’t expect to see Mr. Davis in a Disneyland ad or on a Wheaties box anytime soon, however. In spite of his height, 6’3″ inches, which is very unusual in speed skating, and his photogenic looks, his stolid individualism has been used as a rationale against promoting his image. Like Jack Johnson, the heavyweight champ of old, Shani Davis has won his way and stayed the pepper in the large, cold salt of the ice rinks.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg–Shani is simply not a ‘grateful Negro.’ For many decision-makers in the sport, particularly in America, immense talent is not enough. One must show obeisance and the proper attitude or one must be made to pay. Mr. Davis, other than Eric Heiden, the only American man to not only win multiple Olympic speed skating gold medals (Heiden won five, Davis two) but three overall World Cup championship medals besides, has constantly fought the American Speed Skating Federation and refused to participate in the only team event in speed skating, team pursuit. Meanwhile, Shani Davis has just won six straight 1000 meter races before and since the Olympics on the World Cup Tour, he holds or has held eight World Records in speed skating, and only he and Heiden have ever won, as Americans, both the all-around title and the world sprints championship. At the recent Olympics, he won gold in the 1000 and silver in the 1500. No disrespect to Apolo Ohno, who won more combined speed skating medals than any other American male or female Olympian, but none of those medals were gold at Vancouver. Shani Davis won gold at the Turin Olympic Games in 2006, and silver in the 1500, and repeated that in 2010. He remains the only American speed skater to have defended his gold medal in back-to-back Olympics and he should be considered “The Man” in the sport. However, it will be Ohno on Wheaties, not Davis.
This is not basketball, football, track and field, or even baseball, sports in which America has become accustomed to Black athletic domination. Ignoring or dissing one or several Blacks in any of these sports is business as usual nowadays. But ice sports has but very few Black participants, and as usual, once Blacks have decided to invest the time, energy and preparation, they rise to the top, and ice sports are no different in that regard. Giving any of them the back-of-the-hand treatment instantly raises the bugaboo of racism, and certainly that concept has been thrown into the Shani Davis story. Why, for instance, did Mr. Davis get third/fourth billing and sometimes no media attention at all during the Olympics? This was especially the case after he won “only” a silver medal in the 1500 meters, a distance in which he holds the world record. After all, of America’s nine golds and 15 silvers at the 2010 Olympics, one each belongs to Mr. Davis. Is this another political matrix that makes one go hmmm…? Do the political cultural wars continue in American sports even now? What happened to when you earn it, you wear the respect you deserve?
And to show that Shani Davis’ expertise is no fluke, in another fast, cold and hard White ice sport, hockey, there are many more Blacks there than meet the proverbial eye. The masks worn by many of the players sometimes disguise the darker hued ones, but that was a bona fide Black Canadian hockey puckster who played hero on Canada’s gold medal-winning Olympic foray recently in Vancouver. The puck was not the only black entity moving agilely through the American defense. His name is Jarome Iginla, and he is currently one of the most respected players in the NHL. There’s also the Chicago Blackhawks’ Dustin Byfuglien, and Atlanta’s Evander Kane. In fact, all total, there are over two dozen Black hockey players on NHL teams presently, at forward, defense, and on goal. They play for Calgary, New York, Florida, Minnesota, New Jersey, Buffalo, Dallas, Edmonton, Montreal, San Jose, Nashville and Los Angeles, among other NHL sites, and they play well. Not a mediocre iceman among them, and at least 40 more Black pucksters are retirees from the NHL.
Willie O’Ree, as the first African American player in the NHL, started it off in 1958 with the Boston Bruins. He played for 4 years, then went to the minors for a time. After Mr. O’Ree, however, Blacks didn’t show back up in the professional level of the sport until the 1970’s, with Alton White, who used to play for the old L.A. Sharks. In 1972, Mr. White became the first African American hockey player to score 20 goals in a single season.
In this and other fields, African Americans–and Black folk, in general–have a long-term habit of rising to the occasion when they are counted out, or more frequently, not counted at all. That has been a cultural trait since before the days of Kunta Kinte and it has been a characteristic that has helped sustain and strengthen the race. In spite of obstacles, ice storms, hurricanes and lynching trees, Black folk have survived, even occasionally thrived, in environments accurately described as hostile and daunting. No matter the landscape, Black folk have always found a way out, through, over, or around. Shani Davis and the other heroes of the ice capades continue that tradition.
The rest of us need to remember and repeat that lesson relentlessly. We must teach it to our offspring, and then teach it again. Resiliency needs to be their strongest weapon in this hostile environment, but it is not our children’s forte. And it is required now more than ever. To the icemen among us, may you keep slashing graceful figures of courage and integrity that we all can look up to and emulate. The warmth of the fireplace beckons us in comfort and safety, but we need to risk the frigid air to rescue ourselves from where we seem to be headed. Lead on, icemen. Lead on.
David Horne, Ph.D., is executive director of the California African American Political Economic Institute (CAAPEI) located at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

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