When Bode Miller finished 8th in the men’s downhill after setting the pace in the practice trials, no one was more surprised than Miller himself. When he thought about his run down the mountain he believed he didn’t really make any mistakes. The course, it seems, had changed, become slower, and Miller could only throw his hands in the air, and accept a fate he worked so hard to avoid: “The conditions didn’t favor me today, but I think, all things considered, I skied really well.” Absent, in his comments, was the aggressive, attacking personality that has earned Miller his fame and notoriety as “The Renegade Alpine Skier.” Arrogant to a point that some find off-putting, he’s softened a bit over time. No more skiing hung over. Mountains have a sobering effect on those who try to tame them.
Miller’s teammate Thomas Ganong echoed his frustration and explained the “fickle”nature of downhill skiing: “It’s a matter of hundredths and tenths of a second after skiing 2, 3 miles down a 3,000-vertical-foot hill. There are so many bumps, so many rolls, so many tough little sections. There are so many variables. You can’t have a perfect run.” Adding to the difficulty, the weather had changed the mountain and made it slower, which, said Miller, helped soothe the disappointment. Such resignation and recognition of events out of his control seems like a completely rational response that some might see as Miller making excuses for his loss but that makes me only more sympathetic to his disappointment. Battling Mother Nature on two fronts is a hefty task.
To have any success, skiers must be aggressive, violently so. They must carve into slopes, they must tear up the mountain. (Snowboarders, of course, use the even more potent verb, “shred.”) When Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch won the women’s Super-combined, she referred to it as a “big fight,” one which she ultimately won. This isn’t an overstatement. The mountain where Sochi’s skiers compete, Rosa Khutor, is a “hungry god,” waiting to gobble up skiers, like Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. A trip down the mountain from a skier’s perspective is horrifying even when watching from the friendly confines of a couch.
But only a few decades ago the rhetoric was not so modest. Perhaps these contemporary skiers are just acknowledging what the famed Alberto “La Bomba” Tomba refused to. At the Albertville Olympics in 1988, Tomba declared, “Sono una bestia!” (“I am a beast!”) and proclaimed himself the “new Messiah of skiing.” And he only pretended to modesty. He once spoke about the decline that comes with aging by saying, “I used to have a wild time with three women until 5 A.M., but now, I live it up with five women until 3 A.M.” (For a playboy, Tomba had a great sense of symmetry.) Such a fluctuation between the subhuman and the superhuman—the beast and the Messiah—must be what it takes to be the conquering hero, carving up the mountain and beating it into submission, if only for a little while.
After all, the lofty heights of the ski jumper, the unfathomable contortions of figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya inspire. The mountain humbles. Shelley knew this. Gazing up at Mont Blanc he could not fathom the cold, tranquil power of the mountain. This was not the symbol of divine grandeur Wordsworth had seen crossing the Alps some years before. As Shelley gazed upon the mountain he saw terror: “A city of death, distinct with many a tower/ And wall impregnable of beaming ice.” Shelley’s image doesn’t exactly inspire me to throw some planks on my feet and head down a mountain anytime soon. Like Maria Hoefl-Riesch said, the mountains are a site of conflict, one even more primal than she or any of us could fathom.
It’s a grueling ride down the mountain from Shelley to Hot Dog…The Movie, but I think I now understand why the ski slopes were the perfect setting for so many comically terrible films in the 1980s. It’s now apparent to me why these films featured so many scenes in hot tubs and so many exposed breasts. The confrontation with mortality—being made to prostrate oneself in front of an indifferent, icy colossus—will necessarily lead one to debauchery back at the chalet. We’re lead to believe the skiing competition that always serves as the climax to these films, in which our modest hero defeats the villainous preppy asshole or Cold Warrior come to conquer plucky American skiers from behind the Iron Curtain, will provide us with a glimpse of restored order. But all the hot tubs and all the breasts can’t hide that truth hidden in those walls “impregnable of beaming ice” that all victories on the mountain are at best temporary and at worst hollow.