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Bode Miller at the 2006 Olympics, and After

Bode Miller explodes out of the starting gate
BODE: LOOKING BACK TO THE 2006 OLYMPICS

By John Fry

Even before they turned off the gas to the Olympic Winter Games flame at Turin, the celebration of the world’s most famous skier had become a roast. At websites, Bode Miller fans despaired about their zero-for-five hero who didn’t try hard enough. The U.S. Ski Team’s trustees seethed at Miller’s expression of gratitude to them, “unbelievable a-holes, rich, cocky, wicked conceited super-right-wing Republicans.”  Washington Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser created bodemillersucks.com about "one of the more colossal losers in recent sports history."

But then a remarkable thing happened. After a couple of weeks of playing golf and sightseeing in Paris, the prodigal star showed up at the World Cup finals in Sweden and did what he was supposed to have done in Italy. He won the Super G and placed second in the winter’s last downhill. He was relaxed and focused. Contrary to popular perception, Miller said that at the Olympics he’d been physically prepared and had tried hard. He complimented the Ski Team and its coaches. And his skiing reminded us of his prodigious talent.

Miller is the only American racer to have gold-medaled twice in a single alpine world championships. He is the first American to have won the overall World Cup title in more than 20 years. At his best, he combines Jean-Claude Killy’s natural feel for equipment with Hermann Maier’s colossal strength at his peak.

Along with Maier, he has shone a needed light on the invasive, less than foolproof way that the IOC’s Dick Pound and WADA are dealing with performance-enhancing drugs and blood enhancement.

Contrary to his self-indulgent image, Miller embraces the sport’s heritage. While other racers gobbled up World Cup points and money by specializing, Miller idealistically pursued the historic World Cup title of all-round skier, competing in every event. A purist undertaking.

In suggesting before the Olympics that participation is his main goal, Miller, in fact, echoed the ideal of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympics. Participating, not winning, is a good message to send to kids, even though Miller is not every parent’s idea of a role model.

Before the Games, Miller accurately reminded us, as Phil Mahre did 20 years earlier, of the slim chances of winning Olympic gold in alpine skiing, where the difference between winning and losing a two-mile race can be as little as one-hundredth of a second, only a few inches of distance. However, that insight, along with Bode’s weak performance leading up to the Games, was ignored by the national media as they played up the exotic story of a White Mountain Tarzan.

Miller has two personae which resonate with contemporary society and the press: the spectacular athlete and the celebrity bad boy. The squandering bad boy, rebelliously bristling at institutions, was on full display at the Olympics, willing to declare that he was comfortable with not winning a medal. He seemed barely to study the courses. Critics wondered: Why practice and go to Carnegie Hall just to be seen on the stage?

When the U.S. Ski Team was in need of leadership, Miler was AWOL. He lacked the grace to show up at the finish line of the Combined slalom to congratulate teammate Ted Ligety on winning the gold that Bode was expected to win. He failed to shut down the motor on the mouth that quipped it was convenient not to have to motor to Turin to accept a medal.

Not that Bode’s sponsors minded. It is sufficient today for an athlete not to win but to talk about his fantasies of meeting a certain figure skater or to perform a cockamamie stunt before the finish line and miss winning the gold medal. The reward of behaving like an arrested adolescent before or at the Olympics is that magazines and TV shows, which seldom cover winter sports, will play up any color and controversy they find.  Bode perfectly fit their quest. He was the gold medalist of publicity.

It was not the kind of publicity, however, that pleased Bill Marolt, the U.S. Ski Team’s chief executive officer and the architect of its recent successes, who had flown to Europe before the Olympics to give his best racer a verbal spanking. Asked later about athlete deportment during the Games, Marolt stiffened his lip and said that, “We will manage these situations with both short-term action with those involved.”

The truth is that the U.S. Ski Team has never enjoyed much success in keeping its competitors in a state of sober obedience. Marolt’s own earlier governance in the 1980s drew resentment from the Mahre twins and wild Bill Johnson. In the 1970s, Spider Sabich and Tyler Palmer rebelled against alpine chief Willy Schaeffler. Miller is heir to an undistinguished American ski racing heritage.

To succeed the team must create an environment for individuals like Miller to succeed. On the other hand, the racer who is selfish and overweening forgets why he needs the team. He may even move into a motor home.

As a consequence of his stoic, lonely Outward-Bound upbringing as a child, Miller tends to isolate himself in a world-defying solipsism. “I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” he seems to say. Actually, it was Muhammad Ali who said that. Not coincidentally, Miller brings to skiing the kind of wondrous technique that Ali brought to boxing.

Having persuaded myself to forgive his Olympic conduct, I suggest that you do the same. A tad of perspective may aid the act of forgiveness.  Skiing itself has not been without its malingerers, including racers who ignored Olympic rules by taking money under the table. Professional athletes are not models of decorum, as newspaper sports pages sordidly remind us daily. But Bode Miller is not among those who have assaulted coaches and hotel receptionists. He hasn’t Terrell-Owened his teammates, or served prison time. He’s simply an eccentric Yankee who tries people’s patience because he stubbornly persists in learning about life on his own.

After Sochi, and another bronze medal, Bode stands 11th on the men's all-time list of "Most Valuable Racers" in Alpine Olympic events. See Matteo Pacor's statistics here.