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Did Bode Miller Fail Us or Himself at the Olympics?

By Bill Peterson · March 1st, 2006 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

In honor of the ancient Greeks, who originated the Olympics, we're reminded that nature abhors a vacuum. Today, a civilization owes its gratitude to Bode Miller, who extended the ancient wisdom from nature, where we used to live, to the mediating technology of artificial need that we live in today.

The problem of material scarcity long ago solved, producers have moved on to the creation of needs to be sated by their products. Nike, for example, doesn't market shoes. We already have shoes. Nike markets spiritual awareness, the fulfillment of which is attained by identification with the Nike brand.

Nike's latest metaphysical confection, Bodeism, is a call to those who wish to join "the bold, the brazen, the unintimidated," as joinbode.com put it. The proselytized also are invited to "Join the idea that fun is the source of all joy ... Join not joining. Join that purpose is stronger than outcome ... Join your gut ... Join the hunger to find what makes you happy..." And so on. Evidently, the preachers left one out: Join your drinking problem.

Only shortly before the Turin Olympics did we learn that this new messiah, Bode Miller, not only is a four-time world skiing champion who last year became the first American in 22 years to win Alpine's World Cup but a moral sage to boot, the master and creator of his own values.

Said the 28-year-old Miller on his site before the Olympics, "When I believe I've done great by my own standards, I believe I've done great and I don't care what everyone else thinks."

He did great. But did he do great by his own standards? Five events, two of which he didn't finish. One disqualification, fifth place in the downhill and sixth in the giant slalom.

Forgettable. But those naughty nights in Sestriere will live forever.

"Me, it's been an awesome two weeks," Miller told the Associated Press. "I got to party and socialize at an Olympic level."

No malice toward Bode Miller is intended here. He is what he is. He grew up in a New Hampshire cabin without electricity or running water. He might have satisfied his material fantasies the first time he flushed a toilet and turned on a lamp.

Those in the know about skiing say Miller's style could have predicted his Olympic performance. He's a gambler on the slopes, playing for all or nothing. Win big or wipe out.

But if he's as uneasy with fame and dismissive of the media and so self-directed as he says he is, that didn't stop him from making a deal with the devil. The path to anonymity, privacy and one's own satisfaction is a simple path generally uncluttered by endorsement deals with Nike and Visa or a 60 Minutes interview in which he admitted to competing drunk.

Forces more powerful than the wise teachings of Bodeism prevailed. The Olympics approached and created a vacuum, abhorred no less by infotainment telesector than by nature itself. Nike needed a vehicle to fill the vacuum. Visa needed a vehicle. The news media needed a vehicle. And Miller made sense, a world champion coming off two silver medals at Salt Lake City in 2002, something of an athletic celebrity in Europe.

Miller isn't really the buffoon here. He just proved to be the exactly wrong guy to fill the vacuum because he avowedly didn't care about winning.

The true fools are his sponsors, who could have picked firmer ground. The biggest laugh is on Nike for oafishly translating Miller's hedonistic grasp of the right now into a spiritual calling, which is more seriously a wish for peace with the ineffable. It is precisely this confusion that's shared by Miller, Nike and the targets of their marketing.

Now Miller is up there as an Olympic marketing flop with Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson, two decathletes pushed hard by Reebok leading to the 1992 summer games in Barcelona. The campaign fizzled when O'Brien failed to even qualify for the Olympics and Johnson finished with a bronze medal.

But O'Brien and Johnson at least cared about winning. Miller took pains to manage expectations because, you know, purpose is stronger than outcomes.

As he put it on joinbode.com, "If I were to go and participate to the top of my ability, really race in a way that made me proud, you know, I put down performances that would make people inspired, they would witness that I was doing everything I could but somehow the circumstances allowed me to leave with no medals, I think that would be something that would make people address the fact that sometimes the inspiration and the really powerful performances don't correspond directly with gold medals or with standing on top of the podium."

As if the fact that sometimes the inspiration and the really powerful performances don't correspond directly with gold medals or with standing on top of the podium isn't addressed constantly in sports. As if that's not where the heart breaks, race after race, season after season. As if that's not addressed perpetually by everyone, including the champion, every minute, all day, every day. As if mothers don't console their daughters with "all you can do is try to do your best."

Maybe, though, that passes for insight if you grew up alone in a backwoods cabin in the middle of nowhere without so much as a telephone. Maybe you're not socialized to the commonplaces of futility, suffering and redemption, so you set your moral and ethical compass to what you want and feel right now. Or maybe you're just young and foolish.

"Right now, Miller is a mess," 1994 U.S. Olympic skier Carrie Sheinberg said on ESPN.com. "His performance was dismal, his reputation is in tatters. Nobody is happy."

To the end, though, Miller did Nike's vacuous, manufactured version of spirituality proud. Did he ever hear of the superego?

"I just did it my way," Miller told the AP once his Olympic washout ended. "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."

Rock on, brother. But you'll be happier if you turn down the volume. So will we.

contact bill peterson: letters@citybeat.com


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