Heiden is hardly alone in his wonder. "[Shani is] not so much misunderstood," says Ohno. "More like not understood."
Shani and Cherie Davis come by their iconoclasm honestly. A single mom, Cherie found a refuge for her active toddler son at the Rainbow Roller Rink a few blocks from their home on Chicago's South Side. One day at her job as a legal secretary she prepared a speedskating document for her boss, a federation official, which offered a glimpse into the competitive world awaiting her son, by now six. Within two months of putting on skates Shani was entering regional competitions, so he and his mother moved to the North Side to be near an ice rink in Evanston. Rising through the ranks, he heard both "Oreo" from South Siders and "boy" from a young white rival in Lake Placid, N.Y., where Shani attended a residency training program when he was a teenager.
Cherie quickly took to the role of advocate and protector. In 2005, after U.S. speedskater Jennifer Rodriguez congratulated Shani for his World All-Around Championship, she earned a dressing-down from Cherie that left the '02 Olympic bronze medalist baffled. The Davises' row with the U.S. team goes back a decade and stems from quarrels over fines, sponsor recognition and financial support. "We would take things into our own hands and try to make the ideal situation for myself," Davis told the Chicago Tribune Magazine in '05, speaking of himself and his mother. "Sometimes that hurt me more than it helped. But in the long run it made me the strong person I am today."
Members of the speedskating community have tried to separate Shani from some of the maternal passion of Cherie, the woman who once said, "If it wasn't for me, my son would be in the streets selling drugs." But Shani didn't help his case with terse replies to NBC's Melissa Stark after winning gold in the 1,000 in Turin. He later said he believed Stark showed more interest in Hedrick's earlier gold in the 5,000 and turned attention to him only after his victory.
With golds from Davis, Hedrick and Joey Cheek (in the 500) four years ago, U.S. Speedskating should have basked in an Olympics to recall the days of Heiden and Bonnie Blair. Instead the fortnight degenerated into opéra bouffe. "It's a shame because a team like that doesn't come around every four years," says Heiden. "It's a big issue for Shani, for Chad, for the USOC and for U.S. Speedskating [that the drama] not repeat itself."
It shouldn't. Hedrick, the Texan once dubbed the Paris Hilton of speedskating by the Dutch press for his hard-partying ways, has since embraced Christianity and is married with a baby daughter. When Davis withheld his name from U.S. Speedskating's team-pursuit pool, Hedrick—who in Turin hadn't discouraged comparisons of himself with Heiden—held his tongue, even ceding his spot in the 10,000 when Davis looked like he wanted to skate that fifth individual distance.
As for Davis, in October he told the AP, "If it's negative, it's not good. I feel like in Torino it was really negative, and it shouldn't have been that way." That may explain his decision to keep his distance the last four years from a North American press corps that, as he put it in 2006, tends to "highlight everyone's belch and fart."
Nothing punctures a bubble more effectively than irony and satire, the stock in trade of The Colbert Report. Letting comedy into the sport is the price U.S. Speedskating paid to make up the shortfall after its primary sponsor, the Dutch bank DSB, collapsed last fall. (Speaking of irony: Before its collapse DSB also sponsored Team Shani Davis in a separate deal.)
After Christmas, Davis accepted Colbert's on-air challenge to a race-off, a 500-meter showdown that ended with a Davis victory (he gave Colbert a 13-minute head start) and a handshake. But it was a long road to that moment of détente. Following morning training at the World Cup event in Calgary on Dec. 3, Shi Davidi of the Canadian Press sidled up to Davis. After getting rebuffed on several topics—Davis's relationship with the U.S. federation ("That's a trap") and his friendship with Canadian skater Denny Morrison ("I don't want to talk about that")—Davidi brought up Colbert.
"He's a jerk," Davis said, "and you can put that in the paper."