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So, America’s top skier likes to drink too much. That’s a surprise?

America’s top skier, Bode Miller

Before 60 Minutes encouraged him to hold forth about drinking and skiing, U.S. alpine star Bode Miller was the best interview in sports, bar none. You wouldn’t hear much about how he was Just Going To Go Out and Do My Best, or how he Owes It All to the Team, or any of the other automatic sports clichés that athletes repeat whenever journalists are around. With Bode, you would hear about how the Olympics are overhyped, why parents should teach their children not to emulate him, and perhaps some of his theories about parallel universes and transcendental philosophy. He was unafraid to address such radioactive subjects as his own lack of motivation and drug testing. (He thinks it’s ineffective and degrading to athletes, and he might be right.)

This was just the way he was, on mike or off: smart, original, sometimes half-baked, but for all the swagger, terribly sincere. Journalists and teammates called it The Bode Show, even before he signed on to do a Sirius satellite radio program by the same name.

Then, as all the world knows, he told 60 Minutes’ Bob Simon: “There’s been times when I’ve been in really tough shape at the top of the course. Talk about a hard challenge right there. I mean, if you ever tried to ski when you’re wasted, it’s not easy. Try and ski a slalom when … you hit a gate less than every one a second, so it’s risky, you know. You’re putting your life at risk there. It’s like driving drunk only there’s no rules about it in ski racing.”

CBS sent out a press release in advance of the Jan. 8 program, headlined “Bode Miller on Skiing Drunk.” His coaches piled on, professing to be shocked—shocked, I tell you!—and demanding an apology (which they got). Every holier-than-thou sports columnist in America then jumped on his neck. The Miller profile in this month’s Maxim, meanwhile, begins “Bode Miller is hung over as hell.”

There was even talk that he’d be forced to quit the U.S. Ski Team, presumably so it could crawl back into the publicity-free cave where it lived for the two decades before he showed up. We’ve come a long way from 1998, when Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati magnificently lived up to stereotype by testing positive for—drum roll—marijuana, and was allowed to keep his gold medal anyway (the IOC and the governing body of skiing had never reached an agreement on marijuana as a banned substance, meaning the IOC could not take the medal).

Miller tried to clarify his statements, explaining that he didn’t actually drink on race mornings, but that, on occasion, he’d arrived at the start with a hangover from the night before (and thus, in Breathalyzer terms, probably still “wasted”). He admitted to doing that once, last year, after he’d locked up the World Cup, becoming the first American to win the overall title in more than 20 years. And as usual with Bode, he had a good explanation, which he offered in his Denver Post online journal: “If you have a great race on Thursday, Friday or Saturday, all the downhillers are out partying on Saturday night,” he wrote. Slaloms are usually held on Sunday, he pointed out, which perhaps is why he finishes them so rarely these days.

But it shouldn’t have come as news to anyone that guys who make their living at 70-plus mph on skis might not always drive the speed limit and go to bed at 9 p.m., sober as a nun. (When I visited Miller two years ago, his blingiest accoutrements were a used Porsche and a very well-used Kegerator that he’d installed in his house.) While most other major sports have 12-step-ified themselves—even NASCAR, which originated with Southern moonshine runners—skiing definitely hasn’t. Ski towns are full of bars, for one thing, and there’s not much else to do at night. For another, flying down an icy mountain in a little rubber suit gets the adrenaline going in a way that practically demands a shot and a beer (or, for snowboarders, a little secondhand toke). That’s why Bode wanted to party with the let-it-hang-out downhillers. (For confirmation, check out the weird disclaimer at the end of this article from Ski Racing, in which the magazine says it has an “unofficial policy” not to cover Miller’s active nightlife.) As someone who’s spent time with the U.S. ski team, I can add some advice: If you play drinking games with these guys, you will lose. (Still, they’ve got nothing on Dock Ellis of the old Pittsburgh Pirates, who famously pitched while on LSD. I’d rather face a hungover Miller than a pitcher who thinks I’m a huge, fanged lizard.)

Anyone who’s ever been skiing knows that drinking and snow sports go hand in hand, whether you’re on the bunny slopes or the Olympic team. Sometimes the St. Bernard finds you, but more often, skiers go in search of the brandy (or the Budweiser) themselves. This is not always a good thing—which is why I usually try to get off the slopes by 2 p.m., especially if there are Kennedys around. There are very few skiers who haven’t reached the top of the hill on a winter’s morning with a self-inflicted headache of some sort. Next week’s legendary Hahnenkamm downhill, in Kitzbühel, Austria, for example, is nothing but an excuse for 50,000 fans to gather and get Teutonically smashed.

As for drinking while skiing, some major ski resorts practically require it, by scattering lovely sun-drenched outdoor bars all over their slopes. Vail alone has more than 10 on-mountain eateries, most of which serve booze in some form, including Look Ma’s midmountain bar, which the Vail Web site recommends visiting after lunch “for a little pick-me-up.” Last year, skiing in Italy, I got bored and had a beer at lunch, which is unusual for me. But it was a beautiful sunny day, and the slopes were wide and gentle. So an hour later, I had another. After my third delicious beer, with the altitude and the Alpine sun and the cold, I was definitely a danger to myself and others—much more so than a red-eyed, woozy-headed Miller, alone on a wide, empty slalom course, with orange safety netting on both sides and lots of blue and red poles to grab onto for support.

That “hangover race,” last March in Switzerland, was the last slalom where Miller managed to finish both runs. He came in sixth, which now seems quite amazing; he hasn’t finished a slalom so far this year. Maybe he should party more. I hope he keeps speaking his mind. It’d be a shame if this put an end to The Bode Show