I was pretty hard on Bode Miller after his no-show in Torino four years ago, about as hard as I’ve ever been on anyone who wasn’t in a position of political authority. Looking back, I don’t regret a word of it. He established himself as the archetype of American sports marketing, and his all-hype no-results performance was about as embarrassing as anything in the history of the US Olympic team.
Lately, as I watched both athletes seeking Redemption® (Copyright 2010 by NBC; all rights reserved) in the Vancouver games , I’ve thought back on their various self-indulgences. Both are four years older. Miller has a kid now and seems a little more responsibly minded. Jacobellis seems duly chastised (and why not – for the last four years she’s been the sports world’s version of Miss Teen South Carolina, such as). The truth is that I was rooting for her to win this year. I’ve also been pulling for Miller, and was really happy when he finally won a gold yesterday in the Super-Combined. Unfortunately for Jacobellis, she crashed again (this time while actually racing).
Still, I’ve been thinking less about them per se than I have my own reactions to them. After all, the worst you could possibly believe about Miller and Jacobellis is that they’re just two clueless jocks. They haven’t killed anyone. They haven’t ruined the economy. Heck, as far as I know they haven’t even used steroids (and given the rigors of Olympic drug-testing, they’re probably cleaner than an obsessive-compulsive’s lunchbox). In an average day I come across stories about people a zillion times worse than they are, what? … a hundred times? A thousand?
And yet, all you have to do is read one of my Bode posts, linked above, to understand that their behavior damned near twisted my nipples off. I think I’ve figured out why.
It has to do with opportunity. The fact is that these two kids have been blessed with fantastic opportunities. They were born athletic and they were fortunate enough to find themselves in situations where they could develop their skills. There’s no question that they worked hard – I don’t care how gifted an athlete you are, you don’t get to the Olympics without working. Finally, as a result of this rare cocktail – native ability, a context that allowed them to practice, and lots of hard work (pretty much the archetypal trifecta that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in Outliers, in fact) – they found themselves on the brink of glory. And what did they do?
When opportunity knocks, piss on it.
Bode and Lindsey together were presented with more opportunity in a few short days than all the residents of some American towns and cities put together see in a lifetime. And they didn’t respect the opportunity. They didn’t recognize the gift before them. So instead of jumping it like a starved alley cat on the last fishstick on Earth, they blew it off. They partied. They hotdogged. And when they were called on their stupidity, each treated America to an epic exhibition of whatever.
I’m like a lot of people, I guess. What wouldn’t I have given to have that kind of talent and to get that kind of crack at Olympic success? What wouldn’t a lot of us give for a gold medal?
Better yet – what wouldn’t a lot of us give for a fraction of the money that comes with athletic success? How many people could feed their families for a week on what Bode flushed in Torino’s nightclubs the night before an event? What could a lot of poor school districts do with the endorsement dollars a gold would have brought Jacobellis (or that she got anyway, because in that culture, some assign street cred to that kind of “rebellious” fucking around)?
In short, there aren’t enough incredible, life-changing opportunities to go around, and to a guy who’s worked pretty hard for the chances he’s gotten, it’s simply unfathomable that you’d treat one of those golden tickets with anything short of pure reverence. They weren’t actually cheating me, but my feelings about opportunity are such that I couldn’t help taking it personally. And yes, I know that says more about me than it does them.
I can’t say what Bode and Lindsey really think deep inside, although I imagine Bode is probably pretty happy about that redemption meme that NBC has worked so hard to establish. Maybe some of the media pose we’ve seen in the past was a defense mechanism. Maybe they were beyond humiliated and they’re just trying to cope. I know I’d be, but who can say what others are thinking? And like I say above, I wish them both well. There’s a narrow window for an Olympic athlete, and Miller’s was probably damned near shut when he jumped out of the gate yesterday. Jacobellis will be 28 in four years, and it’s hard to say whether she’ll still be at the top of her game at that point. A lot can happen in four years.
More than anything, the message here is for the rest of us, and especially for those who are still young enough that most of their lives (and opportunities) lie ahead of them.
When opportunity knocks, open the door. And treat it with the respect it deserves, because this may the only time it comes to see you. Ever.