Vassal of American Presumption
The Heroism of Bode Miller
Pierre Tristam/Daytona Beach News-Journal, February 28, 2006
I must admit that I’d never heard of U.S. skier Bode Miller until Newsweek featured his ice-capaded face on its Jan. 23 cover. That was about the time when Hamas — the Palestinian Taliban — won its Super G (for goring) victory in the Palestinian elections; when Iraq ratified its Allah-is-great election results, giving Iranian-backed thugs in a pretend-parliament the satisfaction of establishing a theocracy under America’s nose; when President Bush was at his East German best in a daily defense of his lawless domestic spying program; when Samuel Alito — Robert Bork’s last laugh — was confirmed to the Supreme Court by a Senate almost as relevant as Baghdad’s parliament; and when Canada, that forgotten province to the north of American indifference, elected its most conservative prime minister in 12 years.
How, amid all this, Bode Miller ends up on the cover of a supposedly serious national newsweekly explains, I think, why Bode Miller — occasional drunkard, eternal individualist, anti-team-player, corporate commodity, media punching bag and supreme Olympic loser Bode Miller — was the only true American hero of the Turin Winter Games. He lived up to the meaning of America in the world’s eyes these days: Presumptuous, self-absorbed, ignorant, loutish, incompetent.
I’m not saying that those are Miller’s actual traits (or those of most Americans, for that matter). For the most part they’re not. Looking past his media make-up, Miller turns out to be a complex individual who packs a more interesting persona in his left ski on an off day than most athletes manage in their entire life. He recognizes that his silver medal at the Salt Lake games in 2002 was a miracle. He warned that it was fine with him if he never repeated. He nails his sport’s promoters’ true brand — “rich, cocky, wicked conceited, super-right-wing Republicans.” He justly ridicules sports’ hypocritical rules about performance-enhancing drugs, or that athletes should somehow be “role” models, a notion as idiotic as deeming Homer’s warriors the gold standard of valor. Miller treats the media the way the media treat him, with a mixture of contempt and pandering. He wants to be his own man, not just as a cliché. But ultimately he’s just one guy in a culture that idealizes individualism as long as no one actually practices it. If you’re not a “team player” — the corporate euphemism for that other management school known as Leninism — you’re a traitor.
Whether he wanted it or not — he mostly didn’t — Miller was assigned a role: To be the games’ American blockbuster. He failed, partly by choice, partly because his talent peaked sometime in 2005, mostly because those who saw him as some sort of Great American Hope refuse to see a world of competing strengths beyond American borders. They’re blaming his failures on his drinking and partying. They should blame it on their blindness. There’s more to the world than U.S.-anointed heroes, than U.S. narratives of success. The focus on Bode Miller’s failures became a fixation at the games in proportion to the lack of focus on the more absorbing stories of the Olympics. Some truly great ones involved Americans (Apolo Anton Ohno is both a Greek and American god in my book). Most, in games where Americans won less than 10 percent of the medals, did not. Put more simply: there’s more to the world than the United States , though most of the time you wouldn’t know it from reading “serious” magazines like Newsweek or watching network television.
It’s one of those paradoxes of the age of globalism. On one hand, the media sermonize about the wealth of nations enabled by globalism, the worth of individuals enabled by multiculturalism and the rights of peoples enabled by American-styled democracy. On the other hand the worship of the parochial and the narcissistic overwhelms everything else. It’s what leads to national newsmagazines in print or on TV devoting every other cover story to the latest in colon polyps or stressed out 13-year-olds or the diet to end all diets or hung-over athletes while the rest of the world burns—half the time because of American matches. It’s what leads to Olympic games where, every two years now, Americans are shocked to discover that so much of the world can compete as well or better than Americans, and many of America ’s best lout their way to mediocrity on a world stage.
With its presumed dominance and interior hollowness, the American projection of power is beginning to take on the feel of those Soviet athletes of the last century, who represented their country’s rotten core so well — all muscle and brawn, no moral center. The fear was there, the admiration wasn’t. In America ’s case, the fear is building up, along with the ridicule. The admirable is like Bode Miller: a foreigner in his own country.
Pierre Tristam is an editorial writer and columnist at the Daytona Beach, Fla., News-Journal, and editor of Candide's Notebooks. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org