Join What, Exactly?

By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, February 19, 2006


Bode Miller is turning into a one-liner. Looks like even the ski gates saw those Nike ads with the slogan, "Join Bode." They took the campaign seriously. They keep running into him.

Miller is now 0 for 3 in Winter Olympic events, and twice he's failed to finish the course after becoming entangled in the gates. In the Super-G on Saturday, Miller finally got what he wanted: He managed to look like a great athlete without having to compete for a medal.

Give the 28-year-old Miller credit for this: His failures are as oversize as his blowfish ad campaign. Miller was leading by 0.22 of a second after the first time interval on the Kandahar course, with a chance to medal, when he hit a helix-shaped section about halfway down, lost control of his left ski and careened into a gate. He hit the thing so hard it looked like he detonated. It was a wonder his racing suit didn't rupture.

Miller flew up in the air, his poles whirling and his skis spiraling. His right ski pointed down the hill. The left ski spun around and pointed back up the hill, in the opposite direction. It was a frightening moment, as Miller fought to regain control. For a couple of long seconds, he hurtled downhill balanced solely on the right ski, until he managed to get his other foot around and pointed in the same direction without tearing himself in half.

He never even fell. It was a classic Miller moment, all acrobatic genius with no payoff. His race over, Miller made his way to the bottom, where he let his skis run past the finish line area, straight toward the parking lots, without so much as a word or a glance over his shoulder. In his vanishing trail, he left equal impressions of talent and gloom.

This is what we've come to expect from Miller in the Turin Games, flashes of supreme ability coupled with seeming indifference.

Afterward, U.S. Alpine Coach Phil McNichol was at a loss to explain Miller's performance, and seemed to choose his words carefully. "I can't answer how he's going to feel," McNichol said. "You're going to have to ask him how he feels. I would never attempt to say I know what he feels." Asked if Miller had skied any differently in the Super-G blowout, McNichol said, "For Bode, he seemed the same as any other day he didn't finish." Miller skis well in practice, McNichol added, and he can't explain why it hasn't translated to competition. "He's skiing as strong and as fast through split times or in training runs as anyone here."

I want to like Miller. I really do. He's a compelling performer who's obviously got physical courage on the course, and a kind of tongue-twisted articulacy off of it. But this spiritual search party he's on is increasingly difficult to sympathize with. If Miller's said it once, he's said four or five times during the Games, that he could care less about medals. His latest remarks came in an interview in the Italian Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper this week. "It's other people who want me to win medals," Miller said. "This year I just want to enjoy myself. I could give up tomorrow without having the slightest regret."

Who knows if this attitude is real or affected? Regardless, it violates a basic contract between the Olympic athlete and spectator. If athletes want spectators to take a sport seriously, to pay for them, buy tickets to them, watch them, and celebrate them, then surely they themselves should appear take it seriously.

But Miller has gone out of his way to signal his lack of regard for these Olympics, and worse, for his audience. He slouched through the Opening Ceremonies, walking by himself yards behind the rest of the U.S. team, hatless. He has reportedly haunted the bars and clubs of Sestriere, which may have compromised his performance in the downhill. He led the downhill race until the final section, when he inexplicably yielded time, something almost no other skier did.

You get the feeling that Miller is trying hard to exude the ethereal New Hampshire cabin-boy purity for which he is known. But really, what he exudes is a fundamental immaturity and indecisiveness. He can't seem to decide why he's here. In his self-contradictory interviews, he simultaneously courts fame and loathes what it's done to him. He heaps pressure on himself by making provocative remarks -- and then claims he's persecuted when the public reacts unfavorably.

"Sport is born clean and it would stay that way if it was the athletes who ran it for the pleasure of taking part, but then the fans and the media intervene and finish up by corrupting it with the pressure that they exercise," he said to the Italian paper.

Are his sensibilities really so much finer, and less corrupt, than those of his audience and his fellow skiers?

Miller's Hamlet-like performance looks simply silly next to those of serious multiple champions, like the 34-year-old gold medalist Kjetil Andre Aamodt of Norway, and the 33-year-old silver medalist Hermann Maier. Both men came back to the sport from career-threatening injuries, both were on the verge of retirement and knew exactly what they were skiing for. "It's not luck," Aamodt said of his fourth career Olympic gold. Maier barely lost the race, he said in a clipped bit of frankness, because "I missed the last bit of decisiveness. . . . It was my own fault not to do better." They dwarfed Miller not only with their times, but with their composure, self-determination, accomplishments, and certainty. Compared to them, he just seems young and insubstantial.

Miller has the talent to ski against anyone, and with two races left, he may yet win a medal. But to be honest, it seems unlikely so long as he is in the grip of such self-pity and self-questioning. If Miller really feels as if he could take it or leave it all, then he should just go home. Miller needs to make up his mind -- to compete in Turin, or not.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company