SESTRIERE, ITALY — On Saturday, Bode Miller will probably have to win a medal of some color in the slalom to salvage any shred of respect with the American public. And that is a shame.
Even with two disqualifications, two indifferent races, and a public approval rating roughly equal to that of Genghis Khan, one indisputable fact remains: He is the most exciting skier on the planet. On any day of these Games, he was perhaps the most likely person to do something that no one had ever seen before - something of such unfathomable brilliance that Bob Costas would be quoting Tennyson.
Yet this season, at least, Miller has rarely been the world's best skier - as in the one most likely to win. And that is where the implosion of this Olympics begins.
In the run-up to the Games, America was intrigued by the legend of Miller - the hard-living, hard-skiing rebel who made no concessions to coach or common sense. In the past two weeks, however, the country has come face to face with the reality of Miller and realized what the skiing world has known for some time: It takes a stomach of steel to watch "The Bode Show."
On the World Cup circuit - completely anonymous and insignificant to most Americans - Miller is free to blow out of the course as many times as he chooses: He seeks not medals, but to ski "as fast as the natural universe will allow," as he says in his book, "Go Fast, Be Good, Have Fun." He's also free to stay out as late as he wants. Both of these, he does.
But the Olympics are supposed to instill some measure of reverence and desire to win as an event of national pride. More than that, the Olympics are about stories and personalities and people your mother wants to have over for dinner. Appreciation of the actual sport is a distant third, if anything at all.
By these measures, Miller was always a disaster waiting to happen - especially this season, when his results have been poor. In truth, he hasn't done anything differently here from what he has done anywhere else. Members of the United States ski federation could hold little cartoon bubbles over their heads with the phrase "that's just Bode being Bode" for as many times as they've said it.
Perhaps what America has discovered is that it really just doesn't like Bode. He is too raw, too callous, too dismissive of the moment of the Olympics - and just far too infuriating to watch skiing "like a cat thrown across an icy driveway" as a coach once said. Perhaps that's inevitable.
But it's a shame. There is a reason the Austrians revere him. To be honest, who can tell the difference between one skier and another? If the split times weren't flashed on the screen every 30 seconds, who would have any idea who was winning the race? No one. Probably not even the Austrians, for whom skiing is so vital that it could be listed as one of the four food groups.
Then Miller comes down the hill, and it's as if he's invented another sport. The speed of most skiers is refined over years by learning the accepted techniques of balance, position, and edge, and then honing them. Miller started from the opposite direction. He said: I am going to go as fast as my skis will allow, and I'll figure out the rest on the way down. Over years, he has had to essentially invent his own technique, since no one else in the world does it.
This Olympics has shown why no one else does it: It means you will fail as often - or more often - than you succeed. It's like attempting a Hail Mary on every play of a football game. No one has that kind of patience.
"Picture yourself as the kid who fails all the time," says Jack McEnany, who helped write Miller's autobiography. "That takes a lot of inner strength."
It has also meant that when he does succeed, he can do the impossible. In 2002, he won the Schladming slalom - the Super Bowl of slalom, where more than 50,000 Austrians surround the hill - by 0.66 seconds, with the No. 3 skier a full 2-1/2 seconds behind. At the 2005 World Championships, one ski popped off at the top of the run, but he kept skiing - and even went into a tuck at one point - before stopping well down the hill.
The opportunity for such a moment at these Games never seemed good. He writes: "I have hot years and I have building years, and they generally alternate." He won the World Cup overall title last year. That makes this year a building year, by his reckoning, and the results have borne that out.
So this Olympics, he was the great overhyped hope - as much his fault as anyone else's. "He's become a cottage industry," says McEnany. Perhaps Saturday he will redeem himself. Perhaps not. Either way, the squeamish should look away.