The Crushing Weight of Olympic Gold

Pressure From the Outside “Made Him Surly and … Defiantly Non-Competitive.”

Mockingbird / 7.26.21

With the 2020 2021 Summer Olympics now in full swing, we thought it fitting to revisit the story of former Olympian Bode Miller — as told by Nick Lannon in his excellent book, Life is Impossible: And That’s Good News. We might love the idea that the exceptional athletes thrive under the spotlight, but the added pressure to perform doesn’t usually bring out the best in them (or us). 

Bode Miller was the clear goat (not G.O.A.T. as in “greatest of all time” — the other, negative one) of the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics. America’s best skier, Miller came into the Olympics expected to medal in all five events that he entered. He became infamous in the days leading up to the competition by making repeated claims that he didn’t care if he won, that he just wanted to have a good time, and by admitting that he had often skied drunk. Having won two medals four years earlier in Salt Lake City, Miller was the “darling black sheep” of American skiing. Coming into Torino, though, he was outspokenly apathetic: “Whether somebody wants me to get five gold medals or whatever it is, I sort of feel like they are all other people’s concerns and issues, not really mine … I don’t really care what everybody else says.”

For those Olympic fans out there, you know what happened. He won zero medals, and took major heat for saying the same thing after the Olympics (basically, to paraphrase, “I don’t care”) that he’d said before them. Pilloried for four years, Miller was dismissed in the run-up to the 2010 Games. Called “a clown” by much of the sports media; he was completely overshadowed by Lindsey Vonn coming into those Vancouver Games. In fact, he quit the U.S. ski team shortly after Torino, training only when he wanted.

Less than a year before Vancouver, though, Miller discovered in himself the desire to ski for his country. He applied for reinstatement, and was granted it. (I’m sure it didn’t hurt that he remained one of the best skiers in any downhill discipline in the world). In an Olympics in which all attention was focused on Vonn and he was all but forgotten, all Miller did was rack up three medals (a gold, silver, and bronze) in five events.

Miller credited the medal count to his attitude. It is interesting to note that his attitude was the same in Vancouver as it was in Torino. It’s the exterior forces that had changed. Here’s an excerpt from an article published shortly after the Vancouver Olympics. [1]

As for the Olympics, he added, it’s not about obsessing over medals — and certainly not about obsessing over other people obsessing about your winning medals.

Today, as he occupies the pinnacle of his sport on its biggest stage, having cemented his stature as the greatest American skier ever, he says that it’s about “having fun, about skiing like I did when I was a kid.”

As a teenager, Miller showed the sky’s-the-limit-potential he first delivered on with a pair of silvers in Salt Lake City eight years ago. But that success may have actually hurt him, setting him up for the huge fall of 2006, when other people’s expectations made him surly and, worse, almost defiantly non-competitive.

And there you have it: Pressure from the outside “made him surly and…defiantly non-competitive.” It was only when he was forgotten about, when the pressure was released, when he was branded a clown, that his performance reached his potential. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Miller’s performance was freed when he was seen for what he was: an over-hyped clown. Miller could, in Vancouver, own his clownish nature and ski without feeling the impossible-to-live-up-to pressure to be the cold-blooded Olympic assassin we all wanted him to be, but which he never was.

Miller’s story serves as a highlighter on our repeating message of possible and impossible, judgment and love, critique and grace, pressure and release. It is when pressure is released, when the law is lifted, and when impossible is acknowledged, that “performance” can meet expectation.