This is nothing new.
The same thing happened to Bode Miller back during the Winter Olympics in 2006. The New Hampshire native was already a two-time overall World Cup champion — something no American man had accomplished since Phil Mahre — and had a pair of Olympic silver medals he won at Salt Lake City in 2002. But four years later, Miller was a much bigger star, which meant Olympic broadcasting partner NBC went all in with the hype surrounding Miller’s opportunities in Turin, Italy.
Miller went 0-for-5 that year. He was roundly declared a massive disappointment, and his laissez-faire attitude translated to the general public as an athlete who didn’t care. The rest of us might simply know him as one of the best skiers in American history.
Now, it’s happening to another one of our country’s best-ever skiers.
To say these Olympic Games have been frustrating for Mikaela Shiffrin is an understatement. Mind you, the Burke Mountain Academy product came into this competition having tied Ingemar Stenmark’s 32-year-old record for victories in a single discipline with her 46th career win in women’s slalom, a win she secured at Killington Mountain Resort back in November. She is one of only five Americans to ever win the overall World Cup title (Miller, Mahre, Lindsey Vonn, and Tamara McKinney), has 73 World Cup wins, 116 podiums, and was the overall title winner for three-straight years (2016-19).
That’s some resume for an athlete that too many have suddenly thrust the “disappointment” tag upon.
Shiffrin DNF’d in her first two events, her strongest (slalom and giant slalom) at Beijing. The last time she pulled out in back-to-back races was in 2018. But the Olympics are on a global television stage, unlike World Cup stops, and with failure comes reason to criticize.
“The pressures that she is facing right now, from an ignorant nation, and an indifferent media team, would destroy any of us,” Black Mountain ski school director Ray Gilmore wrote this week in a terrific piece (“The Commentary on Mikaela Shiffrin’s Performance Has Turned Toxic“) for SKI Magazine. “If we had gone through what this young woman has endured over the past 24-months, we would be in a corner crying, begging the universe to make it stop. And yet, she still competes, carrying the weight of an unknowing nation upon her shoulders.”
Shiffrin tragically lost her father two years ago, a force in her life that pushed and inspired her on the race course. She was sidelined late last year with COVID. She has a new coaching staff. These are not storylines NBC’s audience can comprehend without glory. Win in the face of them, and you’re a champion. Fail, and you’re the goat of the Olympics. And we don’t mean the G.O.A.T.
“The American viewing audience has been trained to root for athletes in sports that they have little idea about,” Gilmore wrote. “She is being dogged by the media and an American population who didn’t care when she won a record 17 World Cup races in a single season back in 2019. Now that she is known to them and the NBC poster girl, the critics have come from every direction. It seems the critics who have never put on a pair of skis, or kicked out of a start gate, are the loudest.”
NBC received some criticism for how it handled Shiffrin’s DNF in the slalom, its camera lingering on the emotionally-distraught skier for some 20 minutes after she pulled off the course. It is the second-straight Olympics highlighted by the mental health of the athletes competing in them. Gymnast Simone Biles was the topic of much debate after pulling out of competition in Tokyo last summer.
“Makes me second-guess the last 15 years,” Shiffrin said after the slalom. “Everything I thought I knew about my own skiing and slalom and racing mentality. Just processing a lot.”
To Gilmore’s point, our obsession with individual athletes takes away from the team Americans are purportedly rooting for. But while Shiffrin dominates the headlines, it should be noted that fellow Burke product Nina O’Brien fractured her leg during the same event while University of Vermont alum Paula Moltzan finished eighth. Those storylines took a back seat to the Shiffrin drama.
“She doesn’t need more Olympic hardware to be one of the Greatest Of All Time, because she already is,” Gilmore wrote. “That’s what we should be focusing on, even when the athletes fall short of expectation.”
Eric Wilbur can be reached at [email protected].