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Shani Davis – Winter Olympics and Managing Your Image

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Previously, I highlighted similarities between President Obama's missed opportunity to strengthen his political influence and how this tied into the importance of controlling your brand or image. The 2014 Winter Olympics make for yet another interesting example of how this works.

Take for example Shani Davis, the first African-American to win an individual gold medal in the history of the Winter Olympics. In fact, he won gold and silver medals in both the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics. Yet, in spite of his amazing achieving, the story about him in the 2006 Olympics was that he was a poor teammate for pulling out of the “team pursuit” race at the last minute. This story has been consistently referenced in spite of the fact that it has very little validity! How did this happen? Part of it has to do with the fact it is difficult to manage the narrative (story) about you after the fact. You have to be prepared for success and take control of the narrative that affects your brand for your own benefit. Otherwise, someone else may re-write that narrative for their own benefit!

In 2006 it was reported that Shani Davis was keeping Chad Hedrick from possibly winning 5 Gold Medals by not participating in the team pursuit skating event. It should be noted that this event had no visibility because it was first introduced in 2006. None of the great American speed skaters like Eric Heiden and Dan Jansen had ever participated in it and it probably would have remained an obscure event if not for the controversy.

This controversy came about when Chad Hedrick, an inline skater who became a very good skater announced that he wanted to win 5 Gold medals to equal the great Eric Heiden who won an unprecedented 5 gold medals in 1980. Hedrick announce stated in early February of 2006 that Shani Davis was hurting his efforts to achieve his goals by not skating the team pursuit competition. Note that he made this announcement was only a week before the Winter Olympics.

However, the news media and especially the sports press took this story and ran with it. They created an entire narrative that still holds sway today. If you look up Shani Davis and However, this narrative is built on a house of sand. In fact Shani Davis had indicated early in his training that he was going to focus on his individual events. In fact, he was attempting to make the team for both the short track and long track teams, an unprecedented achievement. [1]

He did not betray his teammates because he was never on the team. He never practiced with them or ever indicated that he was open to skating the pursuit event. In fact, after the Olympics the US Figure Skating association defended his decision. Tom Cushman, U.S. Olympic men's long-track coach said, "I think Shani has been done an injustice,"… [2] It should also be noted that Shani Davis was added by the U.S. Speed Skating Association without his knowledge. Furthermore, the head of the ISU technical committee noted that, “…substitutes could be used in case of emergency or illness.” [ibid]. This means that it is possible that Shani Davis was not even eligible to compete on the pursuit team!

Finally, here another quote from the U.S. Olympic committee Chief executive from the same article: "The way the public understood and the media portrayed the situation is inaccurate," said U.S. Olympic Committee Chief Executive Jim Scherr. "Shani never pulled out because he never entered. He made clear his desire to win the individual events he was focused on, and in the light of hindsight, with his two medals, that was the right decision."

However, once the story became a huge news and money maker, it became almost impossible to change the narrative. Few if any sports writers seemed to realize that it was a stretch for Chad Hedrick to win 5 gold medals given that he would have to defeat Shani Davis in both the 1,000 and 1,500 meters race. Shani Davis was not just, some guy, but was in fact the reigning world all-around champion in long track speed skating. In 2006 he had set the world record for 1,000 meters with a time of 1 minute 7.03 seconds, which was a full second fast than Chad Hedrick’s best time! [3] Fellow teammate Joey Cheek who supported Shani in his pursuit of the gold medal.

In spite of this, sports columnist Dan Wetzel stated that Shani Davis was at a disadvantage in the 1,000 and would only have an advantage if Hedrick was tired from participating in the team pursuit!

Specifically Wetzel said, “Of course, there is a secondary argument, one where Davis, by sitting out the team pursuit that requires two days of skating, will be fresher when he matches up with a potentially tired Hedrick in the Feb. 18 1,000 meters. It may be the only way Davis can beat Hedrick head-to-head.” [4]

Wetzel’s statement seems to show that he was blissfully unaware that Shani Davis was a world record holder in the 1,000 meter event and had a time that was so much faster that it would have almost taken a miracle for Chad Hedrick to win.

I could go on, but the fact Davis never practiced with the team, was favored in the 1,000 meters for a gold medal and defended by the U.S. Speedskating association for pursuing that godl and may not have even been eligible to compete on the pursuit team shows just how difficult it is to change a narrative once it gains momentum. This narrative will probably still continue to impact Shani Davis whether or not he wins a third gold medal this week.

Next week, I will discuss how this narrative came about and potential ways to manage these types of narratives so that they don’t control you.

Kevin Martin is an Executive Recruiter and a former technology entrepreneur. He can be reached at By1989@pacificnet.net