Sunday, February 26, 2006

Wasted Talent

If you long ago grew tired of hearing about Bode Miller, and seeing his commercials, and following his unfortunate travails in Turin (which have come to and end with a whimper, not a bang), and you're looking for someone to blame between him and the incorrigible media that built him into something he's not, I guess it depends on what you think is worse: wasted talent or unsubstantiated, manufactured hype.

In the last two weeks Miller has become the face of failure and dumb American ego. He has gone from being America's great hope at Olympic glory to a stray dog to be kicked around by people who like to kick things around, particularly when said things are already down. It's easier that way.

But is it really Miller's fault that the powers that be in the forever foolish media decided to hype him the way they did? Would anyone be so down on Miller if people other than himself hadn't decided before he even reached Turin that he should bring home a bevy of medals and glory and should be an unconventional rebel while doing so? If not for the relentless hype, wouldn't Miller be seen simply as a top American skier who was good enough to represent the U.S. in five events, which isn't shabby, but came up short of the podium in each, which will happen when competing against the best athletes in the world?

Why should Miller be blamed because others were so wrong about him? They built him up, and now they tear him down. What an ugly, sickening process, right?

True, but...

For starters, for a guy who so often bemoans the hype, Miller seemed more than willing to feed it by talking to and posing for Time, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, 60 Minutes and any other news outlets of varying sizes that wanted a piece of the guy who would be great. He gladly ran with the image they tried to present. This seems hypocritical on his part, no? If you dislike the hype, then don't do your best to feed it.

Then there is all that wasted talent.

While I barely knew of Miller before as a top American skier, I think the hype first started to hit me after his claim of skiing "wasted." At the time, I instantly liked the guy. I figured he was a character, a free spirit. Hell, when the talk comes around to being "wasted," I figured I could relate. I'm "wasted" half the time myself. I saw Miller as a guy who did things his way, sort of a Steve Pefontaine, but on skis. I was intrigued.

Then I actually saw the interviews and read the articles and began to view him more as a guy about to toss his talent away behind a mask of foolish bravado.

Miller seems less like a free spirit and more like a guy who stubbornly refuses to give his obvious talent the dedication it deserves. I read about the fights with coaches, the reluctance to ski conservatively when needed, and his constant claim that winning isn't of utmost importance to him. He seemed to be setting himself up for disappointment and trying to soften the impending fall.

And I guess that's where he quickly veers away from someone like Prefontaine, or really, any athlete who's in it to win it and pushes their natural talent as far as it can be pushed.

So now a bunch of easily agitated Americans hear stories of Miller partying in the Olympic village and view him as a guy who cheated his country by giving less than his best. Hogwash. He earned his spot on the team and qualified fair and square.

Miller, however, may have cheated himself, which is probably worse.

I don't see Miller as the bad guy so many people are now painting him to be, but I can't help the feeling that he's fooling nobody but himself. He can make claims to any news outlet in the world that it isn't all about winning and losing, and while there is truth in this, truth to be valued in a world of cold hearts and sharks, I think he is less speaking the truth and more stubbornly refusing to admit that in the prime of his career, while his natural ability was at its peak, he chose to carelessly flaunt it rather than maximize its abilities, and now unless he competes again in 2010, there are no second chances. I can't help but feel that depsite what Miller steadfastly claims in public, that late at night, as he lies in bed, he knows he threw it all away.

And worse, years from now, when he's no longer a competitive skier, and nobody is coming around to get his latest controversial quote, he'll be saddened by what could have been.

Or what should have been.

Miller can tell the world a thousand times that he's content with what he accomplished in Turin, but he's probably trying to convince himself as much as anyone else.

Wasted talent. So, so sad.

So, no, Miller probably isn't a bad guy, and he doesn't deserve the backlash he's received. There are plenty of athletes in these or any other Olympics who never reach the podium. There is no shame in competing but not being the best.

But then, most never sit where Miller sits - in the eye of the perfect storm created by false hype and stubborn ego.

Besides, Nike's hype of Miller is far from the most ill-advised marketing blunder ever. That would have to be Reebok's "Dan vs. Dave" ad campaign, which would have been so much more worthwhile if O'Brien actually, you know, qualified for the Olympics.


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