January 12, 2006

Battling Bode Miller

Outspoken American alpine star Bode Miller has been in the news again, after an interview on 60 Minutes where he confessed to skiing while drunk.

Talk about a hard challenge right there … If you ever tried to ski when you're wasted, it's not easy. Try and ski a slalom when … you hit a gate less than every one second, so it's risky. You're putting your life at risk. … It's like driving drunk, only there are no rules about it in ski racing.

Miller's comments have created quite an uproar — even more than when he argued that everybody should just chill out about doping. Bill Marolt, president of the US alpine ski federation (USSSA), has called the remarks "unacceptable," the FIS is ordering the American federation to keep him quiet, and the USOC is distancing itself from Miller as quickly as they can.

So what did Miller do that's so wrong? It can't be that he showed up for training under the influence. Chad Hedrick has a reputation for training while drunk, and nobody seems very upset about that. And frankly, I don't think it's that uncommon for athletes to do it on occasion. During my athlete days, I showed up hungover at morning practice a time or two. Is there an unwritten "don't ask, don't tell" policy on alcohol? Is it OK to drink and train, but not OK to admit it?

Or maybe this is just about rules. If Miller is admitting to racing while drunk — and I can't figure out whether he's admitting it or not — then he's been breaking some very serious rules, despite his claims that those rules don't exist. The 2005 Prohibited List published by WADA specifically states that alcohol is banned in-competition in skiing. That is, on the basis of a blood alcohol level exceeding 0.10 g/L, as measured by breath or blood analysis, an athlete could be disqualified from an FIS event.

(And if he has admitted to racing while drunk, will WADA come after him? After all, Tim Montgomery and Chryste Gains were suspended on the basis of an admission attested to by a single eyewitness; surely Miller's confession on network television would stand up at least as well. The ground-breaking aspect of the case would be that alcohol is only prohibited above a certain level, unlike steroids, which are prohibited at any level. A non-analytical positive will be more difficult to prove.)

But I don't think the reaction to Miller's comments is about the possibility that he may have broken FIS rules. And I don't think that it's even about drinking per se. I think what has upset people is the self-destructiveness of it. "You're putting your life at risk. It's like driving drunk, only there are no rules about it." Miller is showing us something dark about himself here, and it's not a comfortable view. Maybe Bode Miller is the kind of thrill-seeker for whom the rush of a ski race isn't quite enough. Maybe Bode Miller has a little too much in common with Bill Johnson.

Miller has since apologized for — but not retracted — his comments after a discussion with Marolt. Here's hoping that their discussion was at least a little bit about Bode Miller and his demons, and not just about the USSSA's donors and sponsors.

POSTSCRIPT I was laid up with the flu last weekend, and I missed the Ultimate Olympian's column on this issue over at SportsFilter. It's worth a read.

POSTSCRIPT I missed this — Miller wrote a special to the Denver Post where he describes the events in detail. Short version: he raced hungover, which is "a form of impairment," but not drunk. Thanks to lil brown bat at SportsFilter for pointing it out.

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