The Olympics are all about pressure. The pressure athletes put on themselves. The expectations of their friends, families, and financial supporters. The prognostications of medal-hungry media. And, perhaps above all, the weight of national aspirations.
In the sport of speed skating, at least, it’s hard to argue that any athlete at these Vancouver 2010 Games came in with more of that baggage than Shani Davis of the United States. Four years ago in Turin, he took the men’s 1,000m race and became the first black man to ever win an individual Winter Olympics gold. Then he added a silver in the 1,500m. And still he managed to emerge as the great villain of the Games—putatively because he was adjudged to have let his teammates down by not skating in the pursuit event, but more truthfully, because he regularly blew off the people who were eager to tell what should have been his natural, feel-good story.
He’s a prickly guy (as witnessed by his pre-Olympics spat with comedian Stephen Colbert) and as a consequence he has spent four prime years of his skating career being put on trail in the media for his perceived sins.
But now, that’s all over. Davis’ gold medal winning performance in the men’s 1,000m race this evening, earns him the right to be as nice, or as nasty as he wishes. The winner of every single World Cup race at that distance this season, the 27-year-old was the prohibitive favourite coming into Vancouver. The American hype machine was again cranked up to the max, and his every decision—to again skip the team event, to drop out half-way through Monday’s 500m race—was dissected and critiqued. The pressure must have been skull crushing. And his answer to it all was to go out and blow away the competition with a time of one-minute, 8.94 seconds, .18 seconds ahead of his nearest rival. Tae-Bum Mo of South Korea added a silver to the gold he won in the 500m. And Davis’ teammate/one-time enemy Chad Hedrick took the bronze.
Speaking to the media after the race (something that happens about as often as an eclipse), Davis came as close to ebullient as he gets.
“It’s my moment. It’s my party. I can celebrate, I can dance, I can do whatever I want—I earned it,” he deadpanned.
“In 2006, I was on the offensive. I was attacking. This time I was on the defensive. I just had to weather the storm.”
But how did he cope with all that pressure? Davis just shrugged.
“The only pressure on me is the pressure I allow to be on me.”
Hedrick, the winner of three medals in Turin, including gold in the 5,000m, talked tonight about how he uses pressure to help him perform.
“Nobody expected me to leave here with a medal today—nobody but me. I put that pressure on myself. You’ve gotta do it,” he said. “I don’t come here for sixth place. I don’t wake up every morning for sixth place. I gotta expect big things of myself and put the pressure on myself.”
His prior Olympic experience was a detriment, said Hedrick, making him a little too calm.
“I had to force the pressure on myself to get that adrenaline going to make myself excited about these races.”
It’s a different mindset. Perhaps, even a uniquely American one.
But on a disappointing night for Canada’s speed skaters—Denny Morrison finished 13th; Jeremy Wotherspoon, in the final race of his Olympic career came 14th—it’s an interesting contrast.
Morrison who was considered a legitimate medal threat in the 1,000m—he won a silver at the world single distance championships in 2009, and the season before won 11 World Cup medals—is certainly meditating on the issue.
“I’m usually the kind of guy that performs well under pressure, but not on this occasion,” he said afterwards.
He didn’t offer excuses, the way pro athletes so often do. “I’m the one who had to perform and I didn’t do it.”
But his anger was palpable and heart-wrenching.
“It’s just frustrating,” he said. “Four years I spent getting myself psyched up, getting my confidence up, my technique perfected, my equipment honed, and I just don’t know.”
Morrison races again in the 1,500m Saturday. His plan between now and then? To get angry, he said.
Hopefully, it will make a difference.