Five-Ring Circus

What NBC Missed about Bode Miller by Focusing on His Dead Brother

Bode Miller.

Photo by Agence Zoom/Getty Images

America’s best-known cold-weather athletes haven’t had much luck in these Winter Olympics. Shaun White and Shani Davis have both failed to medal. Ted Ligety has run far behind the leaders in every race he’s skied. Lindsey Vonn, rehabbing a knee injury, didn’t even make it to Sochi. If you watch the Olympics to see American superstars succeed, then you probably haven’t enjoyed the Sochi Games very much, because most of the athletes you’ve heard of have let you down.

The lack of American stars at Sochi has been a boon to NBC’s coverage in one regard: The network has been forced to focus on non-American athletes, and its nightly telecasts have been better for it. But NBC’s desperation for an American Olympic hero completely derailed its primetime telecast on Sunday night, which focused on tearjerking around 36-year-old Bode Miller. The network miked up Miller’s wife, Morgan, and cut to her in the crowd over and over again. Before Miller’s bronze-medal-winning super-G run, NBC aired a segment focusing on the recent death of his brother, Chelone, an Olympic-caliber snowboarder who had a fatal seizure in October. And in a controversial post-race interview, reporter Christin Cooper kept on pushing and pushing and pushing Miller to talk about his dead brother.

Lost in all this was Miller’s excellent super-G run, not to mention the run of his teammate Andrew Weibrecht, who won silver and then stood there awkwardly while NBC’s Cooper zeroed in on Miller’s family tragedy. Weibrecht’s amazing performance notwithstanding, it would’ve been totally reasonable to lavish attention on Miller’s prowess on the snow—after all, he’s now the oldest medalist ever in an Olympic Alpine skiing event. On an exceedingly difficult course that many skiers didn’t even finish, Miller rushed down the mountain, intent on forging the most direct path between the top and the bottom. This near-reckless intensity is what has made Miller the most-successful male Alpine skier in American history. And it’s why the simplistic narrative surrounding his Sochi sojourn is so supremely stupid.

Every Olympic cycle, the mainstream press discovers Miller anew and finds a novel way to present him to the world. Early in his career, everyone focused on how he was home-schooled by hippie parents and grew up using an outhouse. Then, in 2006, it was Miller as partier and drinker, the ostensible bad boy of the Alpine ski world. That year, he was an ingrate, an athlete who would be “unceremoniously forgotten,” in the words of NBC’s Bob Costas. Now, somehow, the Peacock seems to know Miller’s name very well. This Olympics, the hook is Bode in his dotage, older and wiser, with his wife and kids and personal tragedies to drive him to one last big score.

Each one of these claims about who Miller is and what he stands for is overly simplistic. On his travels through the Olympics mythmaking machine, Miller—one of the most complex sportsmen in recent American history—has either been presented as nothing but rough edges or had those edges sanded off. It was telling that in Sunday’s pre-race feature on Miller, NBC failed to note that the ski racer has been locked in a bitter, bizarre custody battle involving his then-unborn child. (Emily Bazelon has more on the disturbing precedent that case set.) But that’s not worth mentioning in 2014, which in NBC’s view is the Year of Bode’s New Wife and Bode’s Dead Brother. No other stories mattered.

What’s most frustrating about NBC’s efforts to focus on Miller as the main character in an ever-shifting morality play is that he’s such a fascinating figure as an athlete. In a 2009 piece for Outside, Bill Gifford accurately noted that Miller was interesting and different not because of his hippie upbringing, or his childhood bathroom habits, “but his organic, almost artistic approach to skiing. His uncanny feel for the snow and his preternatural sense of balance allow him to be creative on the course, skiing lines that most other racers would never dare.”

The point of any Alpine skiing race is to finish the course as quickly as possible. Most skiers, however, do not go at full speed on every part of the run. They’ll slow down for particularly treacherous sections, sacrificing speed for control, trying to limit the possibility of a crash. But Miller refuses to compromise his speed, even when he probably ought to do so. He is known for going fast from start to finish, taking the most direct possible line down the slope, thus increasing the chance of victory while simultaneously increasing the chance of disaster.

Like Shaun White and Shani Davis, two other standout American athletes who’ve had their share of controversy, Miller has had a rocky relationship with the leading figures in his sport. He famously split from the U.S. Ski Team in 2007 amid concerns over his behavior and dedication. While he’s back with the team nowadays, he’s still an independent spirit. In 2006, writing for Rolling Stone, Vanessa Grigoriadis aptly described Miller as “a one-man revolution against the conventions of skiing and the world order,” someone whose unorthodox training regimen and skiing style set him apart from the Alpine establishment. Miller isn’t technically perfect. There’s nothing classically beautiful about his skiing. But there is beauty in the way he goes all-out every single time. His skiing is slightly insane, and that’s why he wins so much, because he’ll do things that other skiers won’t.

In 2006, Miller discussed his style with Rolling Stone’s Grigoriadis: “I’ve been crashing forever, and coaches are like, ‘What are you doing? If you just backed off for a bit you’d be fine.’ I’m like, ‘What, you think I didn’t know that?’ But am I going to back off? No. Because I like to do it this way, and I don’t give a fuck if I crash.” His brother, Chelone Miller, apparently felt the same way; his seizures began after he crashed a motorcycle in 2006 while he wasn’t wearing a helmet. Grigoriadis asked Miller about his brother’s accident, and his answer was revealing:

But is the whole goal of life preserving your life as long as you can? No. The goal is to enjoy your life, to challenge yourself, to sometimes make stupid decisions, which are sometimes fun and sometimes idiotic and sometimes just a big, fat mistake that you regret. But the reason for it all is enjoyment; that’s the reason for life. It is not that I don’t recognize the danger in ski racing but that I don’t fear the consequences. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? You die, I guess. You’re all alone and you don’t know anything. You’re all done.

That’s a complicated, unsentimental answer. And, to me, it explains why NBC’s coverage of Miller was so wrongheaded and offensive. The network is incredibly well-positioned to explain to us why Miller is so great at what he does, and even how personal tragedy might inform his approach on the slopes. What NBC shouldn’t do is reduce him to a guy with a simplistic, maudlin backstory. You don’t need to exploit Bode Miller to show your audience that he’s a fascinating character. Just focus in on him as he races down the mountain, and tell us why he so often comes in first.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics.