Fame can go downhill, too

In Winter Games, heroes like Miller find adulation is a fleeting thing

Winter Olympics

February 16, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON | CANDUS THOMSON,SUN REPORTER

TURIN, Italy -- It seems like yesterday that Bode Miller was Time magazine's cover boy with the headline, "American Rebel." Newsweek put him out front, too. Rolling Stone, 60 Minutes, Outside, you name it, everywhere it was Miller time.

Miller swore he hated the attention, trashing the media even as he posed as often as a supermodel and sat for countless interviews.

Now, after failing to win an Olympic medal in two tries this week, it's payback time with a vengeance. Like angry hornets, radio talk show hosts, bloggers and columnists are swarming over Miller. He's tedious, irresponsible, a jerk, they say.

"Miller's Time Running on Empty," said one headline.

Outside magazine's publicity department worked e-mail overtime to remind journalists that it could tell us why Miller was top dog. It abruptly switched gears moments after teammate Ted Ligety won the downhill-slalom combined Tuesday, to tell us why Ligety is the main man.

Four thousand miles away from the Olympics, the people of Howard Dean's failed presidential campaign feel Bode Miller's pain.

The candidate and his staff felt the sting of tumbling from the top of the media heap to the recycling bin in the blink of an eye. The skier is finding that out.

"That's what happens to rebels," says Joe Trippi, the campaign manager who watched Dean ride the wave of publicity that peaked in 2003 only to wipe out early in the primaries. "Whether it's politics or sports, what makes them interesting is that they're different from everyone else. And when they make a mistake, people jump on them harder."

Those who know Miller best say the latest storm won't faze the skier any more than the adulation did. "He's only the next best thing if you're the first one to say it," says Jack McEnany, the Johns Hopkins-trained writer who helped Miller with his autobiography.

Trippi agrees. "In my experience on the political side, you don't really care. If Miller cared about this stuff, he probably wouldn't be the person he is."

As Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, World War II ace and Medal of Honor winner, said in his memoir: "Just name me a hero and I'll prove he's a bum."

The unmaking of the hero athlete is nothing new. Former Oriole Sammy Sosa was practically run out of Chicago after being a Cubs fan favorite for years. Rafael Palmeiro felt the boos after years of cheers in Baltimore in the wake of his positive test for steroids. Wayne Gretzky's status as hockey's Great One took a hit last week when his wife was linked to a sports gambling probe.

There is a flip side, too: Ted Williams, Muhammad Ali and Andre Agassi became beloved figures after years of scorn.

But the Olympics present an especially difficult public relations challenge, say sports marketing experts. Athletes rise suddenly from obscurity on the wings of commercials and NBC vignettes. Then, they have one or two shots to win a medal.

In a country where the Summer Games are more popular than the cold-weather version, the window of opportunity is even smaller.

"It's tougher than most sports, because the shelf life is very short," says Jason Maltby, executive director of national broadcast at Mindshare USA, a New York marketing company. "They only get two weeks every four years."

Some don't even get that. Reebok built its entire 1992 Olympic marketing campaign around decathletes Dave Johnson and Dan O'Brien. O'Brien failed to qualify, and the campaign had to be pared.

Sometimes, athletes bring themselves down. Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson went home in disgrace in 1988 when he tested positive for steroids and was stripped of his 100-meter gold medal. U.S. figure skater Debi Thomas was mocked for going through the motions at the 1988 Games in Calgary after she missed a jump early in her long program.

But all is not lost when an Olympian disappoints. Redemption is another popular narrative. Consider Dan Jansen, the American speed skater who fell twice in 1988, stumbled in 1992 but finally won gold in his last Olympic race in 1994. He's still remembered and is appearing in commercials during this Olympics.

"There are 15 ways to skin a cat," Maltby says. "You've just got to keep looking for a narrative and exploit it when you find it."

Trippi says Miller rings true not only with the Dean campaign, but with other risk-takers, too.

"I think there are people all the way through who can see parallels," he says. "I'm sure there are people in Silicon Valley who can relate. Some people become Google and some don't."

Miller has three more chances to reach the podium before the Winter Games end Feb. 26. Maltby says he sees hope for Miller, even if the skier doesn't win a medal.

"He's a different kind of animal, a wild card who's going to take this very aggressive approach," Maltby says. "And people knew that going in. If he struggles, they may only talk about him more."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.

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