Bode's talent lost in media mess

Bode Miller stood up Thursday and did the right thing, apologizing for the flippant remarks about the virtues of skiing with a hangover that he made during an interview on "60 Minutes" Sunday.

America's iconoclastic ski champion -- who joked on the CBS news magazine show that it's not easy "to ski when you're wasted" -- found himself yet again in hot water over something he said.

With a few misplaced words -- when he admitted to interviewer Bob Simon that he raced in a slalom event last spring suffering the ill-effects of a hard night's partying after clinching the overall title -- Miller found himself in the center of a firestorm.

"There [have] been times I've been in really tough shape at the top of the course," Miller said in the TV interview. "Try and ski a slalom when you hit a gate less than every second, so it's risky. You're putting your life at risk there. It's like driving drunk only there's no rules about it in ski racing."

Fans, sponsors and U.S. Ski Team officials cried foul. It appeared Miller was condoning mixing alcohol with elite athletic performance, a dangerous cocktail by any measure. U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association president and CEO Bill Marolt even made an emergency trip to Europe this week to talk face-to-face with the errant star.

The brewing controversy was threatening to distract the reigning World Cup champion ahead of next month's Winter Olympics. And unfortunately, what's getting lost in all of the hype is Miller's gift on skis.

Like Lance Armstrong on a bike or Tiger Woods on a golf course, Miller injects unrivaled excitement every time he blasts down the ski hill.

More than an athlete, Miller fancies himself an artist, whose canvas is a vertical sheet of ice. He admits he takes more joy out of traversing a difficult section with sublime perfection and later crashing than he does finishing safely in the points.

Miller isn't afraid to say what comes to his mind, even when today's corporate sponsors would rather see their well-paid stars be cookie-cutter role models than risk ruffling feathers.

Late last year, Miller drew the ire of ski officials by suggesting that antidoping rules are hypocritical and should be relaxed.

He's also harped about the demands of celebrity, questioning his desire and motivation to continue to race. He even threatened to skip the Torino Games altogether because he didn't want to be bothered by the media attention that would inevitably come with it.

"I don't handle it very well," Miller said of his growing fame. "It's driving me away from the sport that I love and I've done my whole life. I'm getting ready to quit."

Miller has struggled to fit inside his celebrity skin ever since he burst onto the World Cup scene 10 years ago.

His profile has been on a steady rise since the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, where he won two silver medals. His overall World Cup crown last spring -- the first by an American in 22 years -- splashed his name across the front pages of newspapers worldwide.

And this latest "60 Minutes" spat revealed a long-simmering row between Miller and the U.S. Ski Team brass.

Miller does things his way, and he's long chafed against the top-down hierarchy since joining the national team as a teenager more than a decade ago. Three years ago, Miller bought his own RV and often hides away, rather than spend time with teammates and coaches at the team hotel.

Rather than play it safe, Miller routinely goes all out in a bid for victory in every run, a strategy that inevitably leads to crashes and exasperates his coaches. Had Miller played it safe in 2004, he probably would have won the overall World Cup title instead of finishing second to Hermann Maier.

Miller regularly throws convention to wind, evidenced by his insistence on starting every World Cup race -- both speed and technical events -- going on his fourth consecutive season, something unprecedented in today's specialized racing environment.

Like coach Phil McNichol said this week, trying to rein in Miller is akin to putting a "leash on a tornado."

But on Thursday, Miller sensed it was easier to torpedo the critics with a few choice words, rather than let the festering story continue to reel out of control.

"The most important thing is that I wanted to come straight out and apologize to mostly my family and friends," Miller said in an impromptu press conference after a training run ahead of this weekend's World Cup race in Switzerland.

"Because of the way I made those comments in the '60 Minutes' interview, it caused a lot of confusion and pain for all those people and obviously that's nothing I want to do."

The apology seemed to take the air out of critics who suggested that Miller, America's most winning ski racer in a generation, shouldn't be allowed to represent the U.S. national team at the upcoming Olympics (he will try to become America's first men's alpine Olympic gold medalist since 1994).

Although he refused to answer questions, Miller seemed genuinely upset about growing misconceptions around his unconventional take on his sporting career.

"The message that came through is not what I'm about in any way in my sporting career," Miller said. "Those who have watched me and know me, know that I don't put anything in front of my sporting career in terms of taking sport and my career seriously."

Marolt seemed placated by Miller's gesture and hoped to put the media frenzy behind the team and its star pupil.

"I was struck by the concern he felt about the impact his comments had on his family, kids and others who look up to him," Marolt said. "Bode is a charismatic and free-spirited individual -- that's what has made him an exciting personality and a great athlete. Family and kids are important to him. Even as a major sports hero, he still spends time with kids at events, and he recognizes the responsibility he has inherited, maybe now more than ever before."

While Miller's contrarian attitude rubs many observers the wrong way, that dichotomy is what also makes him the most fascinating athlete the world will see in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Torino.

If he brings home a big harvest of gold medals come February, people can't criticize him if he's drinking champagne late into the night.

Andrew Hood is a freelance writer living in Spain and the author of "Armstrong Rewrites History: The 2004 Tour de France" for VeloPress.