Bode Miller's confounding Olympic career takes another unexpected turn

Bode Miller finished eighth Sunday in a downhill race he was heavily favored to win, extending his perplexing legacy at the Olympics, where he seems to do the opposite of expectations.

Gero Breloer/AP
Bode Miller sits on his skis after finishing the men's downhill at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics Sunday in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.

The light was too flat.

This, in essence, was Bode Miller's explanation for why he finished eighth in the men's downhill Sunday – a race he was almost unanimously favored to win.

To be completely honest, it sounds a lot like an excuse. A whole bunch of people might not even know what "flat light" is. Even more might make the point that, at least for Sunday's race, the light conditions were similar for everyone.

Does Miller have flat light syndrome? Were his skis magically tuned to ski slower in flat light? Is he really an elite skier if a layer of cloud cover, making it difficult to see subtle differences in the snow's consistency, is enough to drive him off the podium?

In the answer to those questions is the answer to the confounding reality that is Bode Miller in the Olympics, disappointing when he is expected to win, winning when he is expected to fail.

In truth, Miller is not really built to win. He is built to push the mountain to the edge of its limits. Miller at 100 percent is faster than any other skier in the world, and it's not particularly close. Miller at 80 percent is better than average but nothing special.

Miller at 80 percent is eighth place in the Sochi men's downhill.

And that is the brilliance and the maddening frustration of Miller. His best runs are alchemical things – alpine supernovae that pulse through the skiing universe in whispers and dropped jaws.

When everything is just right, he does what other skiers cannot do, because they do not attempt it.

Last week, when the sky was clear and the visibility ideal, he laid down a practice run that Sunday's bronze medalist, Norwegian Kjetil Jansrud, called "epic," the fastest by 0.66 seconds. That run would have won Sunday's event.

When everything is not just right, his competitive advantage vanishes because he has no Plan B – he still attempts to ski to the edge of what is possible, but he can't find it. 

That is essentially how he described his run Sunday. "I ski a bit more on the edge, so I don't have as much tolerance" for various conditions, he said. "To know you're going to have to dial it back to 80 percent" is not a comfortable feeling.

Consistency = medals

Most racers live in the 80 percent. It is, after all, a far more consistent way to win ski races, given the difficulty of bringing conditions, health, and mental focus into perfect alignment. Austrian Matthias Mayer now has a gold medal around his neck because he excelled at skiing in the 80 percent.

"Bode and I were the fastest [during training], but he was the most consistent," said Aksel Lund Svindal, the world's top racer, who finished fourth.

This is why skiing fans in Europe treasure Miller. Any racer can win a race. But only Bode can do what Bode does. Maybe if he were an Austrian skier, he would infuriate them as much as he does Americans. But viewed from the bliss of neutrality, he is the variable most likely to turn an ordinary event into something indelible.

Sunday's result was foreshadowed two weeks earlier at Hahnenkamm, one of the world's most famous downhill races, where Miller left the skiing world buzzing after one of his practice runs. Forsaking the safer line that other skiers were taking down the steep top portion of the Streif course, Miller blitzed through a straighter line. He finished the practice run a second faster than Svindal; the third-best finisher was a mind-boggling three seconds back.

Then, on the race day, Miller finished third. He called the loss heartbreaking, blaming a mistake leading into the Larchenschuss flats.

Steep and challenging

The story started the same here with Miller's dominating practice runs on a course he admitted "was a pleasure for me to ski on" – steep and challenging. Yet it ended with Miller well out of the medals.

This was not Turin, where Miller seemed to be more focused on antagonizing the pomp of the Olympics than skiing. Here, there was no question that Miller wanted to win, badly. "I am going to be ready. I want to win," he said Saturday.

At the finish line, that chance gone, he huddled in one corner of the outrun in disbelief. Later, he said that he took his time before facing the media, saying he wanted to go over his run in his head before letting the press pick it apart. He didn't feel like he did much wrong, but he knew the drill from his Turin days: A race without a medal was a failure.

"I've got a lot more races ahead," he said.

Will Miller win a medal? That's a setup for disappointment.

Will Miller find that edge that lies somewhere out there on the mountain, where his chattering skis trace line between the possible and perfection? That's what the Olympics will answer.

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