Bode Miller interview: Christin Cooper stepped over a very fine line

A Bode Miller interview broadcast on NBC Sunday has provoked outrage online. Critics say Christin Cooper badgered the skier with insensitive questions about his dead brother.

Gero Breloer/AP
United States' Bode Miller talks with his wife, Morgan, after finishing the men's super-G at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Sunday in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.

Admittedly, NBC has it tough.

When ARD1, the German network, comes to the Winter Olympics, it can cover the Winter Olympics. Its viewers need no wink and nudge during the luge coverage. No story about how one of the German speedskaters grew up in poverty in Chemnitz and rose to prominence eating only Beefaroni scoured from trash cans behind the local supermarket. (I just made that up.)

But you get the point, German viewers watch the biathlon because they want to watch biathlon, the same way Americans watch football because they want to watch football, not because Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman escaped the mean streets of Compton to excel at Stanford.

Sure, those stories are still there, but we'd watch football even if they weren't.

Which brings us to Bode Miller.

By the measure of social media chatter, it would seem that many people are upset with Christin Cooper's interview with Miller after he won bronze in Sunday's super-G. The word "badgering" has been used more than once.

In a nutshell, she kept asking Miller questions about his late brother Chelone, who died last year, until he dissolved into tears and couldn't continue the interview. Miller was so overcome with emotion that he walked away and huddled on the ground until his wife, Morgan, found him, picked him up, and embraced him.

As backstories go, Miller's is gripping, but more than that, it is fundamental to who he is now and why he has changed so deeply since Turin, when he essentially mocked the entire idea of the Olympics. Chelone, an elite-level snowboarder himself, had shared the dream of going to Sochi with his brother, and because of that, the Olympics now have intense personal meaning for Miller.

In other words, this was not NBC manufacturing emotion. It was real and a completely legitimate line of inquiry. 

Which bring us to Cooper's interview.

If NBC has decided that American viewers care more about Olympians than the Olympics (and it has), and television ratings suggest the network has got that right (and they do), then the Miller interview is just an example of how hard it is to tread that line without going over.

Later, sitting down with NBC's Matt Lauer, Miller gave the answer that Cooper was looking for, and it was worth getting.

Today, in the start, I knew it was gonna be a close race. There’s not much separating the field in these, and me and my brother had talked about coming to the Olympics here together – he was trying to qualify. Right in the start gate, I was kinda like, ‘If you’re here with me’ – I know I bring a part of him with me everywhere I go – I said, ‘give me a couple hundredths today. Just, like, give me that little extra push. I’m gonna be sending it.’ Everyone says, ‘Send it like Chilly,’ that’s kinda one of the mottos. I really wanted to ski my best. But I did kinda just connect those two in a way inside. And then for it to come down and be as close as it can possibly get in ski racing and end up with a medal was just kinda, I don’t know, it seemed kinda connected. At that point, I was just pretty overwhelmed with the feeling of getting a little bit of help from my brother.

Despite a mistake-filled run, Miller ended tied for bronze, with the fourth-placed skier 0.02 seconds behind. And because of his words to Lauer, we know with certainty that the bronze was something far more than a medal to Miller. It was an answer to the deepest yearnings of a shaken faith that appeared to defy explanation.

His words about who he was talking to when he looked up to the sky at the start gate were beautiful. NBC should be commended for getting him to share that with viewers.

The problem is that he clearly wasn't in any fit emotional state to share that with Cooper, and yet she plowed on. Other members of the press, for example, would likely have asked Miller about his brother, too – would have wanted that quote. But they would have shifted gears because they were also interested in the actual race itself – where did he make his mistakes, how did the snow conditions affect him, how did he assess he chances in the giant slalom ahead?

But to NBC, Miller's brother was virtually the entire story.

Miller himself recognizes that NBC is playing a different game. Later in the day, he retweeted:

Four years ago in Vancouver, Miller had found a way to be at peace about this. He didn't necessarily like that so much of what swirls around the Olympics has nothing to do with sport – for Miller, skiing has always been about skiing – but he was no longer rebelling against it.

Here in Sochi, however, Miller is in the utterly unfamiliar position of seeing the Olympics as something more than just another chance to go down a hill fast. In many ways, he has come to see this Olympics the way NBC sees it, as an intimate part of a broader narrative that is both heartbreaking and triumphant.

And because of that, as astonishing as it might have seemed in 2006, America is now on his side.

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