February 14, 2006
SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Jim Litke)—He wouldn't be the last guy to waste a world of talent. The sports landscape is already littered front to back with athletes every bit as good and just as full of themselves.
But as Bode Miller is fast on his way to finding out, there's always room for one more.
Talent has always been equal parts blessing and burden. This should not be news, at least not to Miller, least of all now.
The recklessness that makes him the most dangerous skier on the planet is the same thing that makes Miller his own worst enemy. The genius that enabled him to survive one close call after another is the same thing that lures him out onto the edge again and again.
In that sense, Tuesday was Exhibit A:
Early in the afternoon, Miller careened down one mountain like a banshee in the downhill portion of the Olympic combined and stole everybody's breath. As nightfall set in, he carved his way down a second and in one foolhardy moment left them shaking their head.
The difference in quality between those two runs, between leaving one audience impressed and the other depressed, could be measured by the length of a gold medal. But that's a distinction that might forever be wasted on him.
"I don't really intend to get that disappointed, Miller said. "I mean, at least I don't have to go all the way down to Torino tomorrow.
Miller was referring to the medal stand set up at Piazza Castello, a 90-minute ride from the bottom of the slope where he'd just been disqualified. He was joking _ we think. This was a half-hour or so after the tip of his left ski bounced just outside the 42nd of 56 gates in the first of the two slalom runs that along with the downhill make up the Olympic combined.[pagebreak]The DQ for straddling the gate was nothing new. Since winning a World Cup slalom race over this same course little more than two years ago, Miller has failed to finish 11 of the last 14 on the circuit, including five of seven this season. Apparently, he found that comical, too.
"I've straddled probably more times, Miller said, "than most people have finished the slalom.
Five years ago, Miller was arguably the best slalom skier on the circuit, a point U.S. ski team coach Phil McNichol made during the break between the downhill portion of the combined and the slalom.
McNichol was one of those breathing easiest after Miller's win in the downhill gave him almost a third of a second cushion on the field and better than 2 seconds on the man who figured to be his closest rival, Benjamin Raich of Austria.
"A very important piece of the puzzle, the coach called it.
And that wasn't the only reason McNichol was feeling confident.
"Bode's very rested, very focused and you always like to see your guys that way, he added. "He's spending a lot of time in the athletes' village, hanging out with his teammates, laughing.
That description was in sharp contrast to the picture Miller has been painting for the public. During a whirlwind round of interviews last fall, he talked about skiing "wasted, about battling with team officials, sponsors and even his coaches, and how all of it was draining his desire.
The Olympics were supposed to wipe the slate clean. Since arriving in Sestriere, though, Miller has been rumored to have visited half the saloons in town. He was supposed to compete for all five Alpine medals, and he's already 0-for-2.
If Miller is as happy as he contends, half as happy as McNichol made it sound, either the skier is doing a good job of hiding it, or he really doesn't care. Looking on from the grandstand a few moments before the race, his father thought he knew which.[pagebreak]"What's going on is he's not happy with the situation he's in, Woody Miller said. "His drinking is a symptom of that, not the problem.
Woody Miller was clear about this, too. His son made his own bed. Winning brought the sponsors knocking at his door, but it was Bode, enjoying the trappings of moneey even as he curses it out of the other side of his mouth, who opened it and let them in.
"It's torture to do something you don't like, Woody Miller added. "It's a constant, constant drain.
Maybe it's not a coincidence that Miller killed his best chance at gold so far trying to cut a corner.
And maybe it's a coincidence, too, that Ted Ligety, who will be making the trip down to Turin on Wednesday to pick up his gold medal, is just 21 and largely free of serious expectations.
Four years ago, Ligety was a forerunner at the Salt Lake City Olympics, one of those who goes down the course ahead of the big guns to make sure no rocks peek out of the snow and the timing clocks are all set right.
"I have no idea how this will change my life, Ligety said afterward. "I'm pretty satisfied with my life so far, so I hope it doesn't change too much.
Too bad Miller didn't stick around very long. He could have provided the kid with chapter and verse on that one.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press