Bode Miller is looking to qualify for his fifth Olympic Games. (USAT Sports)
We have an early candidate for the face of the 2014 Olympic Games.
Ah, you can hear the groans coming from mountains all over America. Miller was the story leading up to the 2006 Winter Olympics, in Torino, and let's just say the performance didn't match the hype. There were so many retellings of his pre-Games confession about skiing drunk that the whole month of February felt like a long hangover. Miller collected zero medals, bragged about partying in the Olympic village, and was bombarded with clucking from the same media that wanted so desperately for him to be the snowbound Michael Phelps.
If Miller qualifies for the 2014 Games, this time might be different.
In an atmosphere where many American athletes are reluctant to express their feelings about Russia's anti-gay law, Miller eagerly sounded off this week at the Olympic media summit in Utah.
"I think it's absolutely embarrassing that there's countries and there's people who are that intolerant and that ignorant," he said.
Miller, who skis as fearlessly as he speaks, might be the perfect voice for those looking for a sports icon to rip the host country for its discriminatory laws. He comes from the live-free-or-die state of New Hampshire, raised in a McDonalds-less town, and he doesn't much care what people think of him. (Or at the very least, he makes it seem like he doesn't care what people think of him.) He has always been the rebel with the ski pole, questioning authority as if it was his job. Now he's questioning an authority that sorely needs to be questioned.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, and Miller is one of the first American winter athletes – and arguably the most famous – to call it as many around America see it.
Miller is also one of the very few Olympic athletes who have little to lose by speaking out. His turn in the glare of the mythmaking machine has come and gone; he turns 36 this month and already extremely accomplished – he has more medals (five) than any American skier ever. So his words resonate not only because of who he is, but because of what he's done.
The devil-may-care attitude didn't work too well in '06; it may work nicely now.
In a way, Miller was miscast in 2006. In order to be the face of Team USA, quite a bit of falling in line must be done. There are demands from corporate sponsors, from the team, and from media who both love and resent a man who veers off course (both literally and metaphorically). It was Phelps who was ideally suited to that role in the 2000s, willing to go wherever and do whatever for the cause. Miller, however, isn't one to conform. Yet he was asked to, almost by the hour, leading up to the 2006 Games. He referred to his own backers as "rich, cocky, wicked conceited, super-right-wing Republicans." The backlash was inevitable, and a much better performance in 2010 brought the admission that his Torino experience was "draining on my inspiration."
Miller's comments Monday about the pressure on all athletes in light of the Russian laws were subtly reflective of what he himself has been pushed to do. Namely: be a representative of himself, of his country, of his sponsors, and of some frontier ideal. Miller was tacitly asked to both say anything and say nothing. It just wasn't him.
"I think it's unfortunate when they get stuffed together because there are politics in sports and athletics," Miller said this week. "They always are intertwined, even though people try to keep them separate or try to act like they're separate. Asking an athlete to go somewhere and compete and be a representative of a philosophy and … then tell them they can't express their views or they can't say what they believe, I think is pretty hypocritical or unfair."
The USOC has said it won't try to push its athletes to stay silent on political issues, yet speaking out carries consequences. It brings a flood of attention where it might not be desired. Athletes have the right to concentrate on chasing their Olympic dreams without having to declare their political opinions. Put simply, athletes have a right to be left alone.
Miller, perhaps more than anyone, will speak his mind without feeling the pressure to speak his mind. He'll be comfortable lashing out if he so chooses, but he'll also be comfortable saying nothing further than what he's already averred. He's liberated, both by his New Hampshire upbringing and also by his Olympic experience. He's known success and disappointment. He's known the insatiable expectations of 2006 and the quieter vindication of a three-medal Games in 2010.
Miller wasn't very good at standing for the corporate behemoth the Olympics has become. He's quite good, however, at standing for the freedom of expression we're so proud of in this country.
"If they let me make the rules, I'll switch it for you, and I can solve a lot of stuff real quickly," Miller said. "Unfortunately, no one has elected me or given me that kind of power so far.”
He has more power than he realizes.
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