It was a strange sight. After all this -- 16 years, five Winter Games and as many career obituaries as medals -- TV's most mercurial Olympics star, Bode Miller, was shown mainly as a man ... waiting.
Yes, later there would be that cringe-inducing spectacle when a reporter prodded Miller so heavily about his late brother he fell to the ground in tears. It was a beyond-the-pale moment that tied in to a larger culture of death and victimhood (not to mention post-race grief-peddling) in NBC’s Olympics broadcast.
But for most of Sunday prime-time's Super-G competition, viewers saw Miller in a different, more passive context -- as he waited at the bottom of the hill gazing at the scoreboard, helpless and anxious and dependent on the folly of others. We were watching a man watching other men.
Miller, who had skied a decent but not great time for the modified slalom event midway through the group of 30 competitors, was on tenterhooks waiting to see if his score held up for a medal under the weight of the skilled pros that followed. So the camera got intimate with the Olympic star and his wife Morgan -- shooting them in close-up, miking them heavily -- and caught them in moments ordinary but revealing.
Morgan Miller was seen reassuring her famous husband as he berated himself. "I made mistakes," he could be heard telling her. (Everyone's been making mistakes, she told him.) Morgan also looked for validation. As the new times piled up -- most of them falling just short of Miller's -- she turned to U.S. slalom specialist Ted Ligety and sought reassurance that Miller's score would be good enough. (He didn't answer.
Incidentally, Morgan Miller also said of Norwegian Kjetil Jansrud, just before his gold-medal run, "He's a gamer.” NBC might want to consider hiring her as an analyst.
At one point, she even turned to Miller and said he had a hair on his face and proceeded to pull it off. With almost any other athlete, this would have been annoyingly banal. With Miller, it was fascinating, a man of such cipher-y proportions he would sometimes disappear in middle of a competition if it wasn't going his way now not only part of the group of athletes but one of its spectators, doted on by a spouse like your Uncle Herman is doted on by your Aunt Lily.
If it was odd to see the skier so passive, the resultant medal finish was pure Bode -- tense, validating, unconventional. Miller somehow managed to stay near the top of the leader board despite the abundance of great skiers after him -- but, appropriately for a man who during his runs sometimes barely seems to be hanging on, finished in a tie for a bronze, the rarest of rarities in a sport measured in micro-fractions of seconds.
And then, of course, the infamous crying scene, in which he again defied expectations: getting emotional in a situation in which traditionally he’s gone stone-faced. (As for a reporter pressing him three times on the question of his late brother, the snowboarder Chelone Miller, well, readers of this space will know our feelings on that issue.)
Miller, who can be equal parts charismatic and enigmatic in his interactions with the media, was willing to allow that it was a downright surreal finish. “Today was little but representative of some of my struggles over the last year,” he said to Matt Lauer in a post-race studio interview, also even returning, slightly more guarded, to the subject of his brother and his heavenward plea that the spirit of Chelone Miller grant him a few tenths of a second. “It was as close as it could possibly get in ski racing,” he said, “[so it] just seemed a little connected.”
The 36-year-old Miller, who has two more events in Sochi, will likely retire before the next Olympics, though he was offering a never-say-never attitude to Lauer. It will be for the worse. Miller has been one of the most complicated athletes of his generation, as prone to puzzling stumbles as he is jaw-dropping greatness. And yes, his stoicism and penchant for saying he simply won’t play has been curious at best and fist-shakingly frustrating at worse. But for all of that, he’s never been boring. Even when he’s just waiting.