SOCHI, Russia -- Adler Arena Skating Center, the host arena for all the speed skating events at this Winter Olympics, is without question the quietest venue I've been to during my first week in Sochi. This is partly by design, of course. For the starting gun, the video board implores fans to be silent, with various female speed skaters putting their fingers to their lips. Perhaps it is believed that fans won't listen to male speed skaters?
But a sense of calm is native to the sport. This is not the chaos of the short-track speed skating, with arms flailing, mad dashes, lunacy, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria. This is a relaxed, soothing sport, where athletes fly by at ungodly speeds but look like they're barely even trying. Sprinters lunge; weightlifters grunt; speed skaters just gliiiiide along. It is lovely to watch. Before you have time to figure out how everybody's moving so fast, the race is over.
Another reason the arena was so quiet during today's 1,000-meter men's final was because the favorite was an American. Shani Davis has controlled this specific distance of this sport for nearly a decade, and today, he was going for his third consecutive Gold Medal. This was seen as historically significant -- Davis could have become the first ever male skater to win three straight Golds -- yet it would receive little attention in the two places that Davis might have deemed most important: in Adler Arena, and in the United States.
A quiet subplot of these games is just how few American fans have made the trip. With extremely limited exception, if you see someone wearing American garb in Sochi, that person is a family member of one of the competitors. The reasons for this are not difficult to calculate. When the U.S. State Department warns its athletes traveling to a tiny coastal town -- one that's still a three-hour flight away once you even get to Moscow -- that it might not be the best idea to display the American flag openly on their clothing, lest a terrorist attempt either to abduct them or blow them up, well, let's just say that'll suppress turnout.
So when an American is a heavy favorite in a low-key event like this one, it's not surprising to see barely anyone noticing the legend in the room. When Davis' name was announced for his run, the cheers were muted, barely a murmur above the sounds for the average racer. He's just an American. At every Olympics, the host country obviously has a substantial crowd advantage, but here it has been overwhelming. The crowd roars for every Russian competitor and is sedate for everyone else. (This was particularly disorienting during curling, as peaceful a sport as you will find, yet the crowd exploding in cacophony every time any Russian curler so much as twitched.) Shani Davis was attempting to make history, but here, Babe Ruth was Russia's Igor Bobgolyubsky, who finished 39th out of 40. It was like having Bob Dylan perform in your backyard but ignoring him to watch your three-year-old smack a drum with a whiffleball bat. When Davis was announced, the camera showed one sad lonely American waving one sad lonely flag. The seat next to him was empty.
You wonder how many people were watching at home too. Davis has long wrestled with the fact that he is the best in the world at a sport that, even among the limited audience of Winter Olympic sports, no one in his country gives a damn about. Davis owns multiple world records and four Olympics medals, but if he walked past you right now, you'd have no idea who he is. (He's the guy in the Ralph Lauren ads you don't recognize.) Davis has only 20,000 Twitter followers, which is one-fourth the number that follow @fauxpelini, a parody account of a balding middle-aged man in Nebraska. Davis is more famous in Holland than he is in the United States.
Davis told The Wall Street Journal that visiting Holland is " like being a rock star for maybe four or five days. And then you go back home and you can relax." After his race, Davis said, "The world audience that watches skating, they understand what I do. Not sure about the Americans. Maybe someday?"
This is all a long-winded way of saying: Don't worry, America. As it turns out, by not watching this Olympic legend cap off his career in glory … you didn't miss anything. Davis had a lousy run today, finishing eighth, 0.73 seconds behind Gold Medal-winning Dutchman Stefan Groothuis. It was a bad day for the Americans across the board; Brian Hansen, the team's second-best skater, finished in ninth, with Joey Mantia 15th and Jonathan Garcia 28th. This led to questions about whether the thicker, slower ice was an issue for the Americans -- who are used to the crazy-fast track in Salt Lake City, where they trained -- but Davis dismissed that with the usual "everybody has to skate the same track" bromides.
Not that Davis had much enlightenment to provide on what went south for him. "I just wasn't fast enough today," he said. "I don't know why. I felt fine. Nothing physical. I honestly couldn't tell you what was happening, what went wrong. I did the best I could possibly do. When I looked up, I just didn't have the time."
Davis didn't look devastated so much as he did lost. He ran well, he did what he usually does, and it just didn't work -- this time, he finished eighth. He has another race on Saturday to look forward to, the 1,500 meters, but this is his best event, his sweet spot. He wanted it, he wanted the history, he did everything he had to do, but he has nothing to show for it.
Not that America noticed. Davis' anonymity in his home country has always worked against him, but in defeat, at last, it favors him. No one is going to go on afternoon sports television tomorrow and call him a choker, or a fraud, or a chokefraud. He is one of the greatest American Winter Olympians of the last two decades, and no one has really cared. So when he comes up short like he did today, the advantage is that, still, no one cares. On the worst day of his athletic career, Davis has the cold solace of knowing that his disappointment is solely his own.