Shani-Chad duel a catch-22 for speedskating

Updated: February 21, 2006, 5:49 PM ET
By Eric Adelson | ESPN The Magazine

TORINO, Italy -- It's amazing and sad how two wrongs can make a right.

Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick embarrassed themselves, and each other, in a frigid and nasty postrace news conference Tuesday -- and made their sport more interesting than ever.

They both lost to Italian hero Enrico Fabris (Davis finished second, Hedrick third), and then had a wonderful opportunity to shake hands, apologize, hug, exchange pins, whatever.

Davis, Fabris and Hedrick
AP Photo/Matt DunhamShani Davis, left, and Chad Hedrick both lost to Italy's Enrico Fabris, center, on Tuesday.

That did not happen.

They sat at the same table, a bit more than an arm's length from each other, and ignored each other's answers for the better part of a half-hour. Davis downplayed the rivalry, as did Hedrick. Both seemed to blame the media for the melodrama.

And yet, neither made eye contact. Neither nodded when the other made a point. Neither went into the second-person even once, each referring to the other as if he wasn't there.

Either could have been the true sportsman by turning to the other and reaching out a hand. That gesture would have ingratiated the truce-bearer to the world and made the recipient look like a villain.

But no. Instead, both looked like they wanted to use their skate blades for something besides winning.

The temperature dropped -- fast -- when the two started drawing lines in the ice. Davis said he doesn't want his sport to be a battle royal. Hedrick shot back that he likes the attention of the rivalry.

Hedrick said he might want to go into acting. Davis said he's "not a phony person" and "will never be a Hollywood actor."

Suddenly, a news conference that started with Hedrick saying "There's nothing going on between the two of us" had become a game of brinkmanship.

And at the end of the weaponless duel, just when it looked like the smoke would clear, Davis lit a match.

"I'll just throw this out there," he said.

Uh oh.

"It would have been nice after the 1,000 [meter final]," Davis said, "if he shook my hand."

Now, there's a lot to be said for this argument. Davis supporters can say Hedrick made the first low move by reacting so coolly to Davis' triumph. In the first awkward moment in the news conference, a group of Dutch curlers snuck into the back row and heckled Hedrick for this very reason. They were shooed out of the room, but their point was made: Hedrick was largely blamed for his post-1,000 behavior.

But that doesn't mean Davis should bring it up again. And it doesn't mean Davis should turn the presser into the "Jerry Springer Show" by getting up and walking out before Hedrick had his final say.

On his way to the door, Davis said, "Shakes my hand when I lose. Typical Chad."

Hedrick smiled in defensiveness and disbelief. He could have saved his own rep by saying he's sorry Davis feels that way, but he has no hard feelings.

Nope.

Hedrick joined the battle, saying he was upset that Davis not only snubbed the pursuit, but didn't even talk about the matter with him.

"I felt betrayed," Hedrick said after Davis left. "He didn't participate in the race, and he didn't discuss it with me. He passed up a medal."

At that point, the U.S. media relations representative motioned to a colleague that Hedrick should be escorted to a door opposite of where Davis left. That was the last straw: A chance at détente had turned into a Don King event.

Hedrick got up and walked out. Half the assembled reporters chased him, the other half chased Davis.

And so it will be with Americans: Half will choose Hedrick, and the other half will choose Davis.

Davis fans will say their guy is the true speedskater. He chose one sport and stuck to it all of his life. He also chose one ultimate goal -- the gold in the 1,000 meters -- and stuck to that. Davis supporters will call Hedrick a Chad-come-lately, a self-righteous phony and a sore loser.

Hedrick fans will point to Davis' refusal to be a good teammate and his pathetic performance on NBC after achieving his lifelong dream. They will say Davis is bitter and angry, and no representative of the optimistic American ideal.

What's ironic is that this immature catfight will actually help speedskating. A sport that no one cared about last week is now the source of the most fascinating Winter Olympics topic since the Nancy and Tonya fiasco. Davis' gold-medal performance will bring in city slickers and aspiring black athletes; Hedrick's opening-night triumph will woo Southerners and inliners. And if Davis and Hedrick stay competitive, Vancouver will bring the most anticipated rematch since Ali-Frazier. (Or perhaps, Balboa-Creed.)

The Olympics are, at their best, an escape from the daily shouting about Terrell Owens and Barry Bonds. Davis even said, "We're not Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal," minutes before making himself and Hedrick into just that. This is exactly what Davis feared, that his sport would become a sideshow, that he would turn into "a punching bag to make people care about a sport they don't care about."

Forget reigning gold-medalist Derek Parra and his inspiring story. Goodbye to Joey Cheek and his stirring philanthropy. Now, it's Take Your Pick: Shani or Chad! And that is a shame for America, but one hell of a mixed blessing for speedskating.

It's funny. This type of rivalry goes all the way back to the beginning of U.S. history. More than 200 years ago, a Northerner named Alexander Hamilton and a Southerner named Thomas Jefferson disliked each other so intensely that a new nation nearly crumbled in their wake. And even though that rift still exists today, we have both of them to thank for the role they played in building America.

We can only hope to eventually say the same about the fallout from SkateGate II.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.

Eric Adelson | email

ESPN The Magazine
Eric Adelson was a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.