As the Olympics are now in full-swing, sports fans and casual observers alike are beginning to see and hear athletes’ names not only on the back page of newspapers and in SportsCenter highlights, but on headlines in practically every media outlet.
Certainly for the past two Winter Games (if not in 2002 as well) America’s most popular and most talked-about marquee Olympians have been short track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno and the enigmatic alpine skier Bode Miller. Although other athletes, particularly figure skaters, may have in one year garnered more attention, no one else has had such significant public images in the past three Olympic Games.
While the two have arguably been the face of Team USA, they’re something of an odd pair.
By the time Ohno saw his popularity and name-recognition explode in Salt Lake, he was already becoming a short track golden boy. He was training with Olympians in Colorado by age 14, and despite setbacks, was the fourth best skater in the World Championships in 1999. In the 2000-01 season, he won his first World Cup. In 2002, on the biggest stage in the world, he met expectations perfectly, grabbing a gold and silver medal. In 2006 he was a picture of relative consistency, coming home with a gold and two bronze. In Vancouver last week, Ohno received a silver medal in his first event, and in the best shape of his career, looks poised to once again turn in an outstanding Olympic performance. He has won more short track medals than any individual in the sport, as well as 23 World Championship medals and 10 national titles. Charming, good-looking, and well-spoken, he has been an advertiser’s dream; although not without competitive controversy, his public image is as clean and smooth as the ice he dominates year-in and year-out. He was even able to charm America to a “Dancing with the Stars” title in 2007.
Bode’s career has been markedly different. The New Hampshire native has been part success-story, part failure, part recluse, part party boy. In 2002, like Ohno, Miller burst onto the scene, winning his first World Cup race and leading Team USA with two medals (both silver) in the Olympics. In the three years before Torino he dominated the World Cup circuit, winning an overall title in 2005.
Then came 2006. Despite entering five events, Bode failed to pick-up a single medal. Not one. All he came home with were two “Did-Not-Finishes” and a disqualification. Miller’s epic failure was further highlighted by stories of him partying late-night on the Torino streets, as well as the dramatic build-up his Olympic hopes had had. In the months leading-up to the games, Nike launched an aggressive “Join Bode” advertising campaign that seemed to emphasize his peculiarities and individualism; his pensive nature, unique workout routine (featuring homemade equipment), and relative mystery, despite being the world’s best skier.
Nike was not thrilled, to say the least.
After an up-and-down few years between Torino and Vancouver, Bode has arrived at the Games of the 21st Winter Olympiad with a new attitude to accompany far diminished expectations. Having already won bronze in the downhill event, Miller –– who, regardless of how he finishes his career, will go down in history as an incredibly versatile skier –– seems likely to visit the medal stand again.
Suddenly, the down-and-out, burnt-out, washed-up Miller seems to be an Olympic icon once again.
By all accounts, Bode is the greatest American alpine skier of all time. He is also certainly one of the greatest in the world, especially of this generation. In his career, the 32-year old has 32 World Cup victories, and is only the fifth man ever to win World Cup races in all five of the alpine events. Yet, can he really compare to an athlete like Ohno? Apart from the first few years of his skating career, Apolo has been nothing if not consistent. While never completely dominating, he has always been successful, year after year, with a steady head and clear vision of his expectations. As his second-place finish in the 1500 meters this year can attest to, short track skating is a sport that punishes those who risk the high-and-lows; move too aggressively in the final turn, and you’re bound to wipe out, paving the way for consistent skaters like Ohno to reach the podium.
The comparison is not about talent or skill; I’d venture to say, judging by his versatility and periods of dominance, Bode is probably the most talented skier of this era. The comparison is between two completely different mindsets. Yet, do both truly deserve our affection?
After flopping in Torino, Miller was quoted as saying that he had an “awesome two weeks,” and that he “got to party and socialize at an Olympic level.”
There’s no need to question whether or not such an attitude violates the Olympic Spirit (it does) or if it made Miller appear like a grade-A tool (it did). What is curious is how the media and American viewing public are lauding Bode’s “return to glory” as if he recovered from a debilitating illness or injury.
He didn’t overcome obstacles; he just decided to try again.
Or, perhaps, revealed that he simply couldn’t handle the pressure in 2002, and prefers his aura of mystery that now once again surrounds him.
In an interview with NBC after his third-place finish, Miller’s agent, Lowell Taub commented on his client’s success by saying, “He’s ski racing because he wants to ski race.”
Does Miller, who lets his focus, interest, and subsequently his performance wax and wane, deserve the same credit and attention that someone who competes consistently like Apolo Ohno does? Up until now, it does seem that the Bode Miller bandwagon has not picked up too much steam. Yet, it will be curious to see how the perception of his public image, and once infamous bad boy past, changes if he continues to ski well.
“Join Bode?” Despite his history of apathy, if he keeps winning, we all just might.