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American Shani Davis has a chance at resounding Winter Olympic mark

The Sochi-bound speedskater could become the first man to win long-track gold medals in three Olympics — and make a case that he's the best in history.

January 18, 2014|By Philip Hersh
  • Shani Davis was all smiles after competing in the men's 1,500 meters speedskating trials three weeks ago. Davis was the top qualifier in the event.
Shani Davis was all smiles after competing in the men's 1,500 meters… (Rick Bowmer / Associated…)

Shani Davis qualified for the 2014 U.S. Olympic speedskating team in three individual events, winning two of them — the 1,000 and 1,500 meters — at the recent Olympic trials.

That gives him a chance to become the first man in the world to win long-track gold medals in three Olympics — he took the 1,000 meters in 2006 and 2010 — and the first U.S. man in any sport to win gold at three Winter Games.

Should Davis do that, he will cement his status in the pantheon of speedskating greats.

And you then could make a case for the 31-year-old Chicagoan as the greatest men's speedskater in history.

It would boil down to a variation of what could be called the Koufax-vs.-Spahn debate as to who is the best left-hander — and maybe the best pitcher — in baseball history.

In the final four years of a 12-year career in which he won 165 games, Sandy Koufax was the most impressive pitcher ever, left-hander or right-hander. He had a 97-27 record, 1.86 earned-run average, 31 shutouts, 1,228 strikeouts in 1,192 2/3 innings and a WHIP of .909.

Over a 21-year career, Warren Spahn won 363 games, with 13 20-win seasons, including a 23-7 mark with a 2.60 ERA at age 42 for a sixth-place team. He led the National League in victories eight times, in strikeouts four times, and he pitched complete games in 57% of his starts. He ranks sixth in all-time victories and shutouts (63), both the most by any pitcher since 1930.

Eric Heiden is Koufax.

Shani Davis is Spahn.

No, the comparison isn't exact, and many would say Norway's Johann Olav Koss also belongs in the speedskating discussion, but here are the salient points about Heiden and Davis:

When Heiden retired at 21, he had competed in two Olympics.

He finished seventh and 19th in his two races at the 1976 Winter Games at Innsbruck, Austria.

In the next, at Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980, Heiden won a record five gold medals, four in Olympic-record times, the fifth with a world record, under widely varying conditions on an outdoor rink.

That remains the greatest single-Games achievement in Winter Olympics history. The passing of time has made it seem even more remarkable that one person could win races from 500 meters, which took him 38.03 seconds, to 10,000 meters, which he covered in a world-record 14 minutes 28.13 seconds.

Davis has made four U.S. Olympic teams, the first in short track at Salt Lake City in 2002, when he did not compete. He has competed in two Winter Games so far — Turin, Italy, in 2006 and Vancouver, Canada, in 2010, winning gold in the 1,000 and silver in the 1,500 in long track at both.

Heiden and Davis are the only men to have won world titles in the all-around and sprint championships. Heiden won three all-around, four sprint; Davis has won two all-around, one sprint.

The breadth of men's competition was narrower in Heiden's career, before Japan and South Korea became factors in the sport. But the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 took its big players out of the field, and Russia's men have not been as strong since.

In 2004, Davis became the first — and only — U.S. man to compete in both short-track and long-track worlds in the same season. He also did it in 2005, winning a bronze medal in short track and the world title in all-around.

According to statistics from the speedskating website EvertStenlund.se, Heiden set senior world records 10 times and tied a record another time.

Those stats show Davis has set senior world records nine times, with three records (1,000, 1,500, all-around) still standing. His record for best overall score in the all-around has stood the test of time: seven-plus years.

(Clock comparisons between the two are essentially meaningless because Heiden raced outdoors, with ice conditions dramatically affected by weather, while Davis' best times all have come indoors.)

On the World Cup circuit, which began five years after Heiden retired, Davis stands second in career victories at 57, trailing Canada's Jeremy Wotherspoon by 10.

So, as in the case of Koufax and Spahn, we have with Heiden and Davis a debate between blinding brilliance over a short period and consistent excellence over a longer period.

At this point, Heiden still is No. 1.

But another gold medal for Davis would be a singular achievement in men's skating.

And, in this case, singular may be another way of saying No. 1.

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter: @olyphil

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