Only Medal For Bode Is Fool's Gold

By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, February 26, 2006

SESTRIERE, Italy For weeks now Nike has advised us to "Join Bode." Join him where? At the bar? That's one place you might find Bode Miller after the Turin Games, unless he's in his motor home, finding new ways to duck all that pressure he put on himself.

Miller is the biggest disappointment in the Winter Olympics, not because of the way he skied the mountain, but the way he acted at the bottom of it. The fact that he didn't win a medal at these Games, going 0 for 5 in the Alpine events, is beside the point. It's not the winning, it's the trying. The point is that he acted like he didn't try, and didn't care. Failing is forgivable. Getting fatter on beer while you're here is not.

If there has been a weaker performance by an American athlete on the international stage than that of Miller, I'm hard-pressed to think of one. To hear Miller tell it, he spent more time in Sestriere's nightclubs than he did in actual competition, which amounted to less than eight minutes. Miller's final Olympic event, the slalom, lasted all of 16 seconds. He bulled out of the start house, did a couple of quick scrimshaw turns, and promptly straddled a gate.

Fair enough -- Miller has struggled in the slalom this season, finishing just two of eight races, and it was a tough course. Nine of the top 29 skiers in the competition did not finish. It was Miller's behavior afterward that sealed his reputation as the goat of the Games. He thrust his hands in the air, stuck out his tongue, and waggled in mock celebration. Then he skied off the course, avoiding the cameras and throngs of people at the bottom of the hill. When Associated Press reporter Jim Litke found him later, he declared, "Man, I rocked."

Then he delivered a disquisition on his Olympic experience. "It's been an awesome two weeks," Miller said. "I got to party and socialize at an Olympic level."

Let's review his awesome two weeks. Miller arrived in Turin sullen and defensive, and blew his chance in the downhill when he lost time on the bottom of course, probably as a result of his lack of fitness. He blew another medal in the combined when he led after the downhill portion, but straddled a gate in the slalom. Next, he blew up a gate in the Super-G, and then insulted his rivals afterward by saying he wasn't one of those guys "who skies 70, 80 percent and gets on the podium."

Miller has worked awfully hard to reach this point; the relationship he has built with the public is the one he himself has constructed over many months. He was impossibly over-hyped coming into the Winter Games between Nike's ad campaign, his autobiography, and those nipple-baring magazine covers, all of which he cooperated with and cashed in on. Miller took the world's biggest ego bath -- until he realized it was going to be difficult to satisfy Olympic expectations, especially in a field chock full of Austrians.

Now he wants to distance himself from all the hype and commerce. "The expectations were other people's," he told the AP. "I'm comfortable with what I've accomplished, including at the Olympics."

The about-face has left Miller so confused that he can't get his stories straight. In one breath, he talks about giving it his all, and in the next, he talks about how hard he drank during the Games. "I just did it my way. I'm not a martyr, and I'm not a do-gooder. I just want to go out and rock. And man, I rocked here."

Or: "My quality of life is the priority. I wanted to have fun here, to enjoy the Olympic experience, not be holed up in a closet and not ever leave your room."

Miller's act has clearly worn on his coaches, and Bill Marolt, chief executive of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, suggested that officials would have "a heart-to-heart" talk with Miller at the end of this season regarding his behavior. Nor would Marolt speculate if Miller would be back on the team. "I don't believe we should have conversations like this in the media," Marolt said. "But clearly it will be something we will address at the year's end, and I don't know where that will go right now."

What they should tell Miller is this: Everyone can sympathize with his struggle to meet unrealistic expectations. And everyone respects what Miller has done on skis, from his two silvers at the Salt Lake Games to the overall World Cup title last season. But nobody respects the Bode Miller who showed up here -- maybe not even Miller himself -- and unless he can compete respectably, he shouldn't return to the team. There are few things less worthy of respect than the athlete who pretends not to care about the outcome. It's a bail-out position, a protection and an excuse. If you pretend not to care, then no one can say you really lost. Miller never committed to these Olympics, never put his ante on the table. He sauntered around the Games as if he was just here to watch.

Which is mostly what he did.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company