January 18, 2006

In Retreat from Excellence: Bill Marolt, Bode Miller, and the US Ski Team's identity crisis

The US Ski Team went into full-on crisis mode this week after remarks attributed to skier Bode Miller led to widespread controversy. The comments, on the subject of partying and racing and how well the two mix, were made on CBS's 60 Minutes, but were first brought into the public light in a clumsy (and, some would say, potentially libelous) way by advance publicity from CBS, under the headline, "WORLD CUP SKI CHAMP ADMITS TO BEING DRUNK ON THE SLOPES."

In fact, when the remarks were finally aired, they didn't add up to such an admission. The context was racing the morning after a night of hard partying, and what Miller said was, "If you ever tried to ski when you're wasted, it's not easy," and also, "There have been times when I've been in really tough shape at the top of the course."

To some people, "wasted" means only one thing -- drunk. In remarks made in the Denver Post on January 10th, however, Miller made it plain that that's not what he meant. In those remarks, Miller said, "I got a lot of attention last week for telling 60 Minutes I sometimes race while impaired by the effects of alcohol. They made it sound like I raced when I was drunk -- being hung over is a form of impairment, though. It's really hard to race that way. I probably should not have raced that slalom at the finals, even though I won the top split of the first run, won the second run by .3 of a second and finished sixth in the race."

No one will ever know if, in fact, Miller may not still have been intoxicated at that race. He didn't blow into a balloon at the start, and it's possible that he may have had some measurable blood alcohol level. Clearly, though, he felt that the problem was one of being hung over, and certainly he never admitted to "being drunk."

But Miller's clarification came too late to stave off a big reaction from Bill Marolt, president and CEO of the US Ski and Snowboard Association, the parent corporation of the US Ski Team. On January 9th, Marolt called Miller's comment's "unacceptable" and announced that he would be making a special trip to USSA headquarters in Park City, Utah, to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with Miller and sort things out. A meeting was had, resulting in a public statement in which Miller apologized -- not for skiing drunk, nor for skiing hung over, but for the miscommunication and the trouble that it caused for others. That seemed to be enough for Marolt, who pronounced himself "delighted" with Miller's statement. Everyone held hands and sang kumbaya, and the crisis was averted.

Or was it? The principals claim to have moved on, and the European bystanders are no doubt scratching their heads and wondering what the flap was all about, but within the American ski racing community the controversy is not cooling off quickly. Right now, the crowd around the campfire seems divided into those who think Miller's actions were reprehensible and that he should have apologized for them, those who think that his actions were okay but that he should have apologized for bad word choice just to shut everybody up, and those who thought he should have told Marolt and Company to go to hell. Within the team itself, the cracks are plastered over, but you have to wonder if anything was truly repaired by an apology that was the result of an ultimatum. You have to wonder how these particular cracks could be repaired, when they are clearly the result of an inevitable fissure between American ski racing's heart and history, and the sterile corporate professionalism that some believe is needed to -- what's that phrase? Oh yeah, "take it to the next level."

In the United States, the largest part of skiing culture is also the least visible part. The segment that gets the attention is the glamorous world of fashionistas and slope-side condos, valet parking at the base lodge, Lexus SUVs, five-star restaurants, six-dollar beers and seven-figure salaries. This is the image that most people have of skiing, but it's not where you'll find the roots of most American ski racers. They come instead from the world of the lifties, the instructors, the bartenders and waiters, the guys who run the snow guns and drive the groomers, and all the small-town folks for whom the mountain towns are home. It is a world that is all but invisible to those who don't inhabit it -- but the people in it know their own, even when one of them is raised to international prominence.

"That Bode Miller, he's a good one." That was what I heard from man who checked me in at the motel in Wilmington, New York. It was March 2003, and I was in town to watch the US Alpine Nationals at Whiteface. The man at the motel was what my dad used to call a woodchuck: a real North Country old-timer, his hair going gray, dressed in a worn flannel shirt, beat-up pack boots, and jeans stained and shiny with two-stroke oil. A member of the local VFD, he had access to the rescue vehicle barn at Whiteface, which had been taken over by the tour's ski techs to prep the racers' gear for the races. It was there that he'd seen the internationally famous Bode Miller, the King of St. Moritz, two-time world champion and winner of that year's combined World Cup title. But Miller wasn't wearing any crowns around Wilmington that week, a fact that impressed my informant enough to comment on.

"He's a good one," the man repeated, with a solemn nod. "He comes from a poor family, you know. He doesn't come from money. I was up at the mountain this morning, and they had about a million dollars worth of skis lying around. Had a dozen guys working on 'em, waxing and tuning 'em. And there he was, just sitting there in an old hooded sweatshirt, just like anybody else. He's a good one."

I knew what the guy meant, and he knew that I knew. When I walked into the motel in my jeans and sweatshirt, he'd immediately marked me as another person from another small scruffy ski town like Wilmington, or like Bode Miller's hometown of Franconia, New Hampshire. These towns are small, unglamorous, rural places where nobody has much money and everybody does without things that most Americans consider pretty basic. Miller's family kept it even more basic than that: He was raised in a cabin without plumbing or heating, by parents who valued simple living and taught their children the difference between need and want. When Miller was still just a sprat, his mother did what many ski-town parents do and got a job at the local area -- Cannon Mountain -- in order to get lift passes for the family. Miller became one of the local kids you see on every small mountain (and the big ones too, if you look for them), dressed in a rag-bag assortment of clothes, skiing on beat-up gear, squeezing every run out of every day -- and smoking everyone off the hill.

Ski area locals like Bode Miller aren't the only kids who start skiing at a young age. Particularly at areas that are big enough to call themselves resorts, on any given Saturday you'll see plenty of well-dressed, well-equipped children from affluent or middle-class families. But while those kids may learn to ski when they're quite young, and they may continue skiing all the while they grow up, they don't truly grow up skiing. They simply have too many other options and outlets: play dates or Playstations, after-school enrichment classes or SAT prep courses. Kids like Bode Miller, on the other hand, grow up on skis in a literal sense: the mountain is what they have for recreation, and so all the things that teenagers do together, all the socializing and posturing and silly stunts and carrying-on, these kids do on skis. Just think about the teenagers you know and the stuff they get up to, and then add skis to the picture. Every small ski hill has its stories, about that cliff out of bounds on the north side and who's managed to huck off it successfully (and who wasn't so successful and is now going to need some major base repair), or the time that so-and-so's brother skied off the roof of the lodge. It's all part of growing up for a kid in a ski town. It's living on skis, not just racing on skis, and it's the real reason why these ski town kids have always made up such a large share of American ski racing talent.

Bode Miller was one of those exceptionally talented kids. He moved beyond the local hill and eventually became a part of the US Ski Team in the mid '90s. This was right about the time that Bill Marolt was taking over as the President and CEO of the US Ski and Snowboard Association, the corporation of which the US Ski Team is a part. Marolt's background was as a competitive ski racer -- he garnished NCAA titles and national championships before spending time in international competition with the US team in the late '60s, and then went on to coach for CU and the national team. But when he took over leadership of the USSA in 1996, Marolt brought from somewhere a big dose of corporate culture. In his tenure, he has tried -- and largely succeeded -- in remodeling the USSA into an organization that looks, and runs, much like any other corporation. The USSA now has corporate goals (athletic excellence, financial strength, organizational growth and a clear corporate image), a corporate vision ("to make the United States of America the best in the world in Olympic skiing and snowboarding by 2006"), and a corporate mission ("to make the vision a reality by fielding and maintaining winning teams of world-class ski and snowboard athletes"). It has marketing, branding, and above all, funding.

The change was a welcome one at a time when the team was thin on talent and short of money. The US Ski Team needed a guy in a suit, or so the thinking went, someone who would run the team like a business and get it on a sounder fiscal footing. Marolt did the job. He raised funds aggressively to create new facilities in Park City, and consolidated the team's scattered sites into one headquarters. He formalized the training and conditioning programs to get the athletes in the best possible shape in the off-season. He created plans and policies and metrics, set expectations, raised the bar, got everyone on the same page. He talked and wrote a great deal about quality and excellence, and created the slogan "Best in the World," to match his expectations of the team. He did all the things that corporate executives are supposed to do, and, gradually, it seemed to be working. US skiers had always had the raw talent, but under Marolt the combined influx of money and insistence on structure created better development programs, ones that located and nurtured talent in a systematic way that yielded more reliable results.

But there was also a fundamental disconnect between what a corporate executive means by "excellence", and what the same word means to a kid from a ski town. Marolt's usage is familiar to anyone who's ever worked in corporate America, where every company and every CEO proclaims their commitment to quality and excellence, and where every process comes with metrics to measure it. In the context of the US Ski Team, quality and excellence are measured in tangible metrics from conditioning programs, or in podium finishes, or in medals. But in focusing on the excellence that can be measured, Marolt has lost sight of the excellence that can't. This excellence is found in the run that doesn't end in a win or even in a decent result, but in which the racer knows that he or she has made some kind of breakthrough, and has skied better than ever before. And this is the excellence that really matters in ski racing, because in a field of sixty or more racers, very few will be standing on the podium at the end of the day. The rest must go home with something else that will make them get up the next day and keep trying. They need that immeasurable excellence, and American ski racers, who get so little recognition even for the sport's highest achievements, need it more than any. If they stay in the sport, they stay for the intangible win that happens when no one is looking: simply to ski better than you ever have, maybe better than you thought you ever could.

Marolt's programs sought to channel that drive, but it's doubtful that they ever really understood it. Miller spoke frankly about that motivation. He spoke about needing to do his best more than he needed to win -- and anyone who watched him race believed him. After winning two silver medals at Salt Lake City, Miller missed his final chance for a gold in the slalom when a mistake sent him sliding past a gate. When he turned and began frantically scrambling up the hill to get back on course, some watchers understood why, and cheered, and some did not and stood silent. With the time lost, there was no hope of a medal, much less a win. But Miller needed to finish the race and do his best, even though there would be no medal, no metric, no corporate standard of excellence, to mark his effort.

Miller's motivations have never suited him to be a good corporate do-bee -- and now, like many another talented but outspoken denizen of the corporate world, he has said the wrong thing and come under the hammer for it. At the end of the week, everyone shook hands and made nice, but it's hard to see a long-term happy outcome from this. The USSA, which has considerably more power over the private conduct of its athletes than a corporation does over its employees, isn't interested in altering its policies according to the wishes of its athletes. But as much as the USSA has benefited from Marolt's methodical approach to creating a sustainable talent system, it needs to remember where that talent comes from, and how it grows in the years before its most remarkable examples join the US Ski Team.

Without that talent, and the things that drive it, Marolt's corporate vision is sunk. "Best in the world" simply will not happen without the world's best, and the world's best -- who got that way by skiing through the woods and ducking under snowmaking pipes, or by dodging the ski patrol -- will fail to thrive under a regime that punishes outspokenness and rewards a sterile and safe conformity. And so Marolt's plan seems primed to backfire, as the policies and programs and metrics that make up his corporate-themed pursuit of excellence turn paradoxically into a retreat from excellence when it comes wearing a controversial and unconventional form. Marolt's professionalism has borne much fruit to date, but it may have reached its limit, and become the limit of his team. An identity concocted by marketing wonks cannot form the heart of a sports team, where individuals must continually strive to do the seemingly impossible, and keep searching for excellence even when no one is watching.

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