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The US Ski Team and the 2006 Winter Olympics

Bad juju was working on Bode Miller. Darren Ralves and Lindsey Kildow suffered some kind of bad luck, too. This had to have an effect on the entire the US Olympic Alpine Ski Team. From the sports press, a story emerged that went something something like, “Bode Miller is a jerk and he brought the ski team down.” I don’t buy it.

Most elite sports journalists probably do not understand ski racing. The ski industry, USSA and Team management do not seem to understand that, with alpine ski racing not exactly commanding star ratings, the prospects for growth depend on how well the sport can represent itself on the media stage. The US Olympic Alpine Ski Team and its managers have responsibility to represent the sport. Perception is everything, and the perception is negative. If steps are not taken, by next Winter Olympics who knows what the story will be?

I think everyone would agree that our Team needs to do a lot better in representing itself. Media strategy is not a black art. Proactive messaging, worst case scenario planning, all that stuff is orchestrated every day by movie stars, public companies, politicians and everybody else. In past Olympiads, ski racing has had the luxury of not getting enough publicity and attention. Thus, it hasn’t had to deal with too much attention. Ski racing was still one of those sports where the US wasn’t really expected to excel, and so any mediocre result, or any quirky story, was OK. This year, was different. There was a breakthrough and a huge opportunity lost.

In this Winter Olympic build-up media focus was fully on the Team, primarily because they declared themselves to be the best. This must have been a move calculated at the top. And it worked; the media took the bait. Sports Illustrated, Newsweek and Men’s Journal put the story on their covers in one form or another. Then, Bode made that little mistake. 60 Minutes set out to destroy him. Team management—deer in the headlights—acted as if they hoped it would all go away. Maybe they thought they’d best lie low and let results speak for themselves. If so, that was a naïve gamble. It’s clear, anyway, that there was no contingency planning as US ski racing central.
By the time of the men’s downhill, the stage had been set. The stories were virtually written in the alternative: triumph, or if not, the athletes let us down. In other words, by gaining the spotlight in these Winter Olympic Games, American ski racing reached a high water mark. For the first time, American ski racing, now in the national spotlight, became subject to the irony of stardom. I would have to guess that the American ski scene was very ill equipped to deal with this irony in particular and post modern journalism in general.

Fundamentally, American big sports media and the viewing public will never truly appreciate elite ski racing unless some very big changes occur. It’s hard to understand that if you fall once in a ski race you’re out, but you can fall twice in figure skating and get a silver medal. It’s even more difficult when the consuming public is used to thinking of sports heros as millionaire hooligans, wife beaters and drug abusers. Contrast the lives of Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson with Lindsey Kildow. Political media strategist Dick Morris said media has to have a certain portion of meat every day. If that is true, the Team operators fed the team to the lions in large doses. The Team operators left message choices and story lines to the imagination of sports journalists. They didn’t have a plan.

We know the Team and its management has not been seriously challenged to execute media relations on this level in the past. It was apparent they were unprepared for what happened at Turin. Going forward, they need to figure out what to do. For starters, it was possible to convey positive messages and images. It’s not difficult to imagine press conferences with team, coaches and supporters telling people what ski racing is all about.

I don’t think the athletes let the fans down. They were having the best season in history and failed to capitalize. Is that the athlete’s fault? (Hint: What happens to a coach when the team has a losing season?) But that is probably beside the point. As a team, we won a lot of medals and came in second. The Alpine Ski Team delivered only two medals, when it might have won ten. But, with credit to Apollo Ono, “that’s ski racing.” Ted Ligety and Julia Mancuso raced brilliantly. Lindsey Kildow sucked it up, as did Caroline Lalive, who missed her last Olympics with a last-minute knee injury. Chip Knight and Jimmy Cochran skied well as did Shlopy, Richardson, McCarthy and the others. There’s no doubt we have a deep and strong team that had earned the opportunity to achieve some remarkable results in these Games. That didn’t happen, but it’s so trivial compared to what these athletes achieved just to get there. Of course, we don’t know much about this because it wasn’t reported.

To me ski racing is all about sucking it up. Several years ago, in her column called “Racer X”, Edith Thys (Ski Magazine contributor and 1992 US Olympic Alpine Team member) used this phrase and it stuck with me. Frankly, I think the US skiers did suck it up as best they could on an individual level, but I think the team management and the coaches let the team down.

So, one could ask if these Games would have been better if the coverage had been better. I think definitely so. Coverage this year created angst. In fact, that was the story: our athletes let America down. Maybe they did let down the reporters (sorry, journalists), who evidently resented hanging out in Italy without a record medal count when they could have been in Baghdad. The Olympics inevitably provide a platform for sports reporters to raise issues bigger than any particular contest. Maybe this explains an article from Bill Pennington of the New York Times, author of The Heisman: Miller’s Last Olympic Stumble Is Final Blow to US Swagger. Or this from Selena Roberts of the Times: No Good-Conduct Medal for Ugly Americans. There, Roberts trashed skiers but defended skater Johnny Weir as a “standup guy who knows that sometimes it’s better not to make excuses.” (Wasn’t he the guy who was flummoxed by transportation woes, blew a medal, and said his “biorhythms were off”?) I don’t even want to get started on Bob Costas.

My personal opinion is that these Games have exposed the crisis in the American ski industry and American ski racing in particular. There may be some serious fall out for Winter Olympic coverage in general, but certainly for ski racing. It is possible that a recovery in both camps is needed in order for the next Winter Games to be a success on American TV. I don’t know the answer, but I would like to see the Winter Olympics covered in some ways similar to the way OLN covers the Tour de France—expert, all day, real-time. I would rather see less prime time coverage and more choices.

Categories: Alpine Skiing
  1. L. Gubb
    March 18, 2006 at 12:52 PM

    I agree the coverage of the games added a little too much critical editorial. As always there were tons of figure skating coverage and not enough skiing. Dick Button made comments more appropriate to a drill sergeant coach than a commentator and seemed to let loose with comments most people might keep to the privacy of their own living room. The woman (her name escapes me now) commentator seemed to grasp what the spirit of Olympic competition was about and seemed to be a little fairer in her criticism and comments. I really didn’t like Bob Costas’ comments regarding Bode Miller. I felt Bob should have stuck to reporting the stories and not have interjected his personal thoughts. It seemed he at times was confusing the Winter Olympic games with Monday Night (now Sunday Night I think) Football and how Bode Miller and perhaps some others should be more aware of their sponsors and fans or else their sponsors and fans won’t care about them anymore. When did the masses of Americans ever care a whole lot about skiing or most of the other Winter Olympic sports anyway, except once every four years and even then they only seem to care about what the medal count is in the end, not the “all” that the athletes put into their sport, win or lose. There seems a double edged sword surrounding the Olympics in modern times. The time and dedication needed for training to reach the top spots in any sport requires some sort of sponsorship for shelter, clothing and food even before equipment and coaching are included, be it by a family, a nation or a corporation and everyone seems to forget the meaning behind it all when money creeps in and takes over as the primary motivation.

    Unfortunately for the U.S. to level the playing field with other nations where many winter sports are big business and sometimes the only place where those nations can gain sports heroes, we need to either pump up our national (federal) support for our sports teams or allow commercial sponsorships and open them up to professional participants to a certain extent, which has been done, ( and ice hockey (and basketball) is simply like watching professional all star teams compete) but it muddies the water as far as what becomes more important, the sport and the competition or the payback, not necessarily in terms of a lot of winners from a nation, but how well a sponsoring company is going to do that year based on their support of a particular athlete.

    Consistency is high priority to keep on top of any sport, but in some sports consistency does not always mean the top position, but somewhere in a range of the top spot and only being once every four year supporters of their Winter Olympic teams, the vast majority of Americans are believing an Olympic Gold Medal is all there is to being a winner in a sport, the rest of the year and the years in between don’t seem to matter or count for much.

    Maybe out of this and because of both Bode’s wins or losses, the American public will become more informed about the sport of ski racing, among other Winter Olympic sports, I wouldn’t hold my breath, but it’s sometimes nice to dream.

    I don’t know how many people remember the movie “Downhill Racer” starring Robert Redford that came out in 1969, but it interestingly enough won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award in 1971 with Robert Redford winning as the best actor. I never thought Robert Redford to be the best actor there ever was, but I have enjoyed the subject matter of the movies he has been in and Downhill Racer seemed to really capture the challenges facing American ski racers in that period and maybe even still. There is the U.S. Ski Team and then there are the individuals that make up the team. Skiing is not a team sport, but the sum total of skier’s talent can make up a successful team. The dichotomy is that while skiers on a team are representing a group and the sponsors or nationality of the team, they are also representing themselves as individuals far more than star players on a football team or soccer team. In football or soccer, if one or several of the players on the team don’t do their, job the entire team can suffer greatly, in skiing, if one individual wins, the entire team wins, if an individual loses, there are still other chances for success that are not connected to team play and the team can still “win” if a single racer wins. “Downhill Racer” was a great movie for skiers and perhaps more specifically for racers as that was the basis of the story surrounding the plot which otherwise was perhaps not a very interesting one for non skiers. The focal point and character of the film “Dave Chappellet” (played by Redford) was portrayed as someone who had their own way of approaching the goal and was in many ways chastised for not conforming to the program everyone else was conforming to. It has already been said there were some parallels in the story to Bode Miller’s independent approach to team ski racing and the more obvious ones are the team/individual conundrum of skiing and the formation of teams around it as well as the general public interest in skiing in the United States versus other nations, more specifically the alpine nations where skiers and athletes of more “offbeat” sports are considered heroes and on par with the top football or baseball stars in America. Perhaps we skiers have a bias for the sport which desires more participation from all of America, not just the skiers of America. The unfortunate thing about the media circus surrounding the apparent “discovery” or rediscovery of the sport of skiing by the general American public in 2005-2006 was that it became a story of national interest in large part because of Bode’s interview in which he was misinterpreted about skiing and drinking. That put him in the national spotlight beyond those who ski or are in the skiing industry. It became a challenge almost to “see what this guy could do” in spite of his independent seemingly undisciplined approach to athletics. I don’t know Bode personally, so my comments are more speculation than anything and relating to what can be deemed from anecdotes about his personality and attitudes. It would appear that a part of Bode’s Karma is being himself and at the Olympics, while Bode was strictly himself, one can only imagine that there was some subconscious disturbance in his ability to be himself due to all the pressure by the media and perhaps his sponsors to be something other than just himself and be someone who could simply turn on the magic to meet expectations of a gold medal on the days the events were scheduled.

    I would guess skiers constantly have a certain pressure they put on themselves to “perform” otherwise they wouldn’t get where they are, nor would they continue to do it even if they were always the top finisher. In skiing you have to finish up high, but not always be in the medals to come out on top at the end of the season, it’s like any sport in that way really, but expectations surrounding the Olympics so networks can sell ads to sponsors and sponsors get viewers to see those ads and thus justify the cost of the athlete sponsorships begins to get in the way of sport itself. I suppose the real question we could all ask concerns the possibility of a “terminal velocity” for amateur sporting events which started out pretty much as events for anyone who wanted to enter and thought they had enough ability to come out on top. At the base entry level, events are still this way on local community levels to eliminate and eliminate to the point a few of the most talented individuals represent their, clubs school teams or communities, their regions and then their nation. The “terminal velocity” might occur at the earliest level where there is no where left to go to eek out the advantage by starting at earlier and earlier ages and spending all 24 hours or the maximum hours a day for productive training. When kids cannot start any earlier and all the hours that are possible are used up for training and all participants in sports essentially are professionals, by virtue of their being supported totally in order to pursue their sport, what happens to events like the Olympics? If they don’t start at three years of age and have the family or other support they need to dedicate all the time they can to their sport, how do athletes with real potential talent, but a missing part of the formula get onboard if they have missed the bus and didn’t get started at the same time all the other top athletes did?

    While Bode had to have the talent to survive all the elimination events to qualify for a spot on the U.S. Ski Team he personifies in some ways a break from what might be called the Soviet model of athlete farms. Perhaps what some of us like about Bode’s unconventional ways is that they remind us a lot of what amateurism is all about and as a Nike ad campaign had said, “just do it”, perhaps meaning do it whatever way works best for you if in the end you’re successful enough to satisfy what you’re looking for, not what everyone else is looking for. Sponsors make an investment risk in athletes that promises them a multiple return if they hit pay dirt. It brings a lot of questions to the purpose of sport if sponsorship becomes a distraction from a pure and personal motivation to win for athletes.

  2. March 18, 2006 at 10:22 PM

    Great to see that Bode is back and winning again. There are some quotes from his interview at http://www.skipressmag.com.

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