By all accounts Bode Miller has had a successful Olympic Games. At age 36, he is the oldest alpine skier to medal in an Olympic event (taking bronze in the Super G this week) and finished just off the podium in arguably the hardest downhill in Olympic history. That being said, Miller's final Olympics is in danger of being remembered, once again, for something that occurred outside the racecourse—and that's just not fair.
After his bronze medal finish in the Super G, NBC reporter Christin Cooper asked Miller about the untimely death of his brother, Chelone. The question proved too much for a clearly emotional Miller, and we were all left a little stunned as the former Olympic champion broke down.
After the seemingly unnecessary questioning, I couldn’t help but think: Why does the media attack our greatest athletes? Story lines are great audience generators—controversy sells and all that jazz—but do we ever stop and consider the toll the media's coverage actually takes on our heroes? Why can’t the media focus on Bode Miller cementing his status as America’s greatest skier instead of his status as a guy who has a lot going on off the hill?
The media has done this many times before. Nearly 30 years ago to the day, Bill Johnson raced one of the greatest downhills in Olympic history, becoming the first American champion in the event after promising us he would do just that. At first celebrated, Johnson started taking heat only a year later when the media realized he wasn't the all-American golden boy they so desperately wanted him to be. Johnson was who he was—a straight shooter with a brash demeanor, the sport’s bad boy who loved to ski fast and was darn good at it. But Johnson didn't fit the mold, quickly becoming a scapegoat in the American media. By 1990 he was out of skiing, and just a few years later, bankrupt.
Miller is cut from a tougher cloth. After rising to prominence at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City with two silver medals (he made his debut in 1998, but didn't podium), he was touted as America's newest alpine star. However, the tide quickly turned in 2006 after he admitted in a “60 Minutes” interview to partying and skiing “wasted” on a fairly regular basis. When he failed to medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, Miller fanned the flames of media ire when he was quoted as saying he enjoyed the Olympics despite the lack of medals because he “got to party and socialize at an Olympic level.”
Interestingly, despite returning to championship caliber form for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, with a much improved attitude and gold, silver, and bronze medal performances, he was unable to fully regain the trust and respect of the media. The distrust extended into this year's Sochi Games with the intrusive Cooper interview, where instead of focusing on what Miller had just accomplished, she chose to make her line of questioning about Miller’s personal life.
It's times like these that make me question the battles "we the media" choose. How have we been so unable to see Miller simply for what he is—a truly spectacular skier? Were we that hurt by his 2006 antics? Were we that betrayed?
The media has overcomplicated a character who simply does what he was initially recognized for during the media’s brief 2002 love affair with him—he performs. With six Olympic medals, four World Championships, and two overall World Cup championships, Miller is the best racer our nation has ever seen.
A Bode Miller biographer may someday have a lot of layers to sort through, but now is not the time or place for alternate story lines. The 2014 Sochi Games should have been a chance for us to watch one of the greatest skiers to ever grace an Olympic course make his curtain call—nothing more, and nothing less. For once I'm asking the American media to dumb things down, take a step back, and let Miller enjoy the last few races of his career. Who knows, we might just enjoy them as well.
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