Bode Miller: Return of the drama king

Bode Miller has always taken a sideways approach to his place in skiing. Vancouver won't change that. Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

After 12 years of watching American skier Bode Miller shadowbox and rage against modern celebrity, it seems pretty clear the best way to enjoy him is to ignore what he says or does and just tune in to his races, beginning with the Olympic men's downhill on Saturday, the most glamorous Alpine event at any Winter Games. Don't even bother to call him one of those athletes you either love or hate. Miller, who grew up in a backwoods New Hampshire cabin with no running water or electricity, likes to style himself as one of the last true iconoclasts in sports. And he arrives in Vancouver this week starring in another open-ended drama of his own making.

He isn't supposed to win.

Which means he probably will.

A couple of weeks ago, Miller threw out a typically contrarian, completely un-seconded personal opinion that despite leaving Turin as the most disappointing American athlete at the 2006 Winter Games, he expects to slip more "under the radar" in Vancouver. He figures teammate Lindsey Vonn, the current women's World Cup all-around leader, has a better chance of winning medals in her five events than he does in his.

Going unnoticed is magical thinking on Miller's part. Vonn may indeed end up as the American face of these Games. But over the next two weeks, Miller, now 32, will not escape an endless rehash of how badly his five Turin races went. He arrived in Italy as the best skier in the world and raced abysmally, failing to even make the finish line in three of his five events. He said some stupid things along the way, and drunkenly held forth night after night in the only saloon in Sestriere though he still had plenty of skiing left.

Predictably, he was pilloried.

Any chance Miller had of keeping a low profile in Vancouver also vanished when he won his first World Cup race in two years in late January -- the super-combined (downhill and slalom) in Wengen, Switzerland.

It is just one win embedded in the muck of his long drought, but it got people's attention because it revived memories of the dozens of other races Miller has grabbed with his innate talent, against long odds, by taking the sort of racing lines down a mountain that few men dare to attempt at 80 mph. Wengen was just one win, all right, but it came just in time to stamp Miller a medal contender in Vancouver after months of speculation that he might not race at all.

In March, after he failed to win a medal at the world championships in Val d'Isere, France, Miller actually floated the idea he was considering retirement. Later, he waited months to respond to U.S. coach Sasha Rearick's phone invitation to rejoin the U.S. team after two years of competing on his own, though Rearick is a friend. Miller didn't formally announce his plans until September, months after everyone else was deep into training. Then a bad ankle sprain in December seemed to further compromise his Olympic chances.

Miller wouldn't be Miller if he didn't write recently on his blog that the uncertainty has been "fun."

The short window he left himself to prepare, his past greatness, and the long and scintillating history of huge upsets in Olympic ski races will again make Miller the most fascinating -- or at least enigmatic -- American athlete at the Games. He'll create true suspense. He could fail to finish all of his races. Or he could finally win those medals he was supposed to take in Turin. He could better the two silver medals he won at the 2000 Salt Lake City Games. In his last-chance Games, he could win the gold medal he still lacks and hang up a few barreling, reckless races that live in lore alongside winning runs by Franz Klammer and Bill Johnson at past Olympic Games.

It seems like a lot to ask -- except Miller himself said last week, "I think I'm at a place where I have the speed to compete for medals in all the events that I'll be in."

And Rearick, the U.S. men's alpine coach, said Tuesday via e-mail, "Bode has an innate feel for this sport and can generate speed on the hill where most wouldn't even consider."

And Lowell Taub, Miller's longtime agent, looked to Saturday's downhill and said Tuesday, "If Bode executes, he's consistently proven he's among the fastest ski racers in the world."

What Miller still won't concede is that he did anything in Turin that warranted a public apology, or that he comes to Vancouver chasing redemption. But he has complained about the suffocating expectations he faced in 2006. "That was a joke," he wrote on his blog a little over a week ago, neglecting to mention that he shoveled as much coal into the media furnace as anyone. He sat for a slew of pre-Games interviews, some of them disastrous. He raked in a dizzying array of endorsements that paid him millions, but confided to his father that he felt stuck in a "no-win" situation.

So what did his sponsors and fans get for their money and affection? A prickly guy who acted like a boor. An incorrigible maverick whose objections about the media's harsh treatment didn't spare him from hearing he brought it all on himself.

"It's been an awesome two weeks," Miller infamously told The Associated Press after lasting just three slalom gates into his final Turin race. "I got to party and socialize at an Olympic level."

Four years later, that glib remark still rankles. Losing wasn't the worst thing Miller did in Turin. That can happen to anybody. Pretending not to give a damn was his greatest sin. He reached for an out.

If that's the only thing Miller changes in Vancouver, it will be enough.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.