January 06, 2006

Nectar of the Gods: Is it OK for Bode to ski drunk?

Alcohol and sport have a long association. Most sports involve a traditional post-game drink of celebration or commiseration with oneís playing partners and opponents. Golfers often slip into the bar after nine holes for a drink (and sometimes fail to re-emerge), darts players are notorious for drinking before, during and after their matches, and for a recreational skier an afternoon on the piste can easily turn into an afternoon on the piss.

So should we be shocked that Bode Miller has confessed to skiing drunk? His sport is glamorous, adrenalin-fuelled and life threatening, so itís hardly surprising that the man likes a drink to wind down after a hard day of putting himself within a broken binding of a broken neck. Whereís the harm if every so often that drink turns into five, which fuel a cry of ďall back to mine!Ē and he is left standing at the start gate the next morning wondering how he got there? Heís a young man. He should be allowed to have some fun.

There is a safety issue of course, but, freak accident aside, if he sets off down the hill still half-cut from the night before, the only person heís a danger to is himself. Itís not against the rules to ski drunk in competition or practice so he isnít running a risk of being sanctioned by the sportís governing body. On the face of it, heís doing no one any harm.

There are deeper considerations though. George Best, arguably the most famous drunk in the sporting world, was renowned for foxing defences with his wizardry with a ball at his feet. Had he been a shy, retiring, abstemious man off the pitch, he probably still would have been considered one of the gameís greats, but it was his ability to do everything he did on the pitch despite everything he got up to off it that cemented his status as a footballing legend.

This week, justgary posted two links that relate to each other. On Wednesday, we discussed the general perception that the gap between the professional athlete and the common man is growing. That is clearly true (regardless of any change in the reality of the situation) Ė sports stars were hard enough to aspire to when all they did was play like gods; it is doubly hard to imagine yourself in their shoes now that they look and live like gods too.

On Friday, we discussed Bode Millerís predilection for a glass of drink. In telling us that he likes the odd gin after work and has been known to turn up for work still somewhat the worse for wear from the night before, Bode Miller narrows that gap between sporting hero and common man. No doubt some people will greet the news with a deeply furrowed brow and then shield their childrenís gazes from the nasty truth, but I suspect the majority of people will smile to learn that heís mortal like the rest of us.

There is another factor involved however. Sport makes demands on the psyche as well as the body. All athletes are dogged by the fear of failure and (sometimes even more so) by the fear of success. It takes bravery to put your head on the block and see if you get your head chopped off. You can train as hard as you like and prepare yourself as best you can, but competition always requires you to make a leap of faith and trust the work you have done to see you through the examination.

People cope with that pressure in different ways. Some train extra hard and become obsessive - they set themselves goals and force everything unrelated to those goals out of their lives. Others, like Bode Miller, do the opposite. They deny having goals, they have a drink after work (or before work), and they say theyíre not bothered about such material considerations as money and medals. In short, they surround themselves with excuses.

If they win, we applaud them with extra vigour because they won despite being drunk the night before. If they fail, we know why, and they know why, and it doesnít occur to anyone to accuse them of bottling it. In a way though, thatís exactly what they have done. Worse still, they have bottled it long before they have even lined up at the start. They have prepared themselves thoroughly, but only for failure.

There is a tone Miller adopts in his interview that infers that he thinks himself brave to be a skier in the first place, and braver still to risk participating in a race while he is still drunk from the night before. On some levels, he is absolutely right Ė strapping a couple of planks to your feet and throwing yourself down a mountain as fast as you can is undeniably brave Ė but in another way he couldnít be more wrong. It would be braver by far to risk finding out you werenít good enough, even at your best, than to ski down that hill with a pocketful of excuses.

Itís unlikely to ever change though. Seeing the England cricket team falling, still drunk, out of a hotel the morning after they won the Ashes last summer made them all the more human a mere twelve hours after they had performed like gods on the pitch. We loved them for it. For all the moral high ground we may like to claim from time to time, and for all the times we complain of someone wasting his or her talents, we all like our genius served flawed; and as long as we demand it, sport and its stars will happily supply it.

Now, itís Friday night and the pub is calling Ė where did I put my darts?

posted by JJ to commentary at 11:54 AM - 0 comments

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