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Stop The Bode Bashing!

Has anyone else had it with all these columns condemning Bode Miller and calling him "the biggest bust in Olympic history?" There hasn't been a media feeding frenzy like this since the "summer of the shark." And this one is all too ironic: Bode has gotten a bad rap from the press in large part because he "was very cooperative, open, and candid" with reporters, as Cathy Olian, who produced the "60 Minutes" "wasted" piece that started all the hand wringing, told me in January. The public flogging of Miller is a testament to how the media, against its own best interests, lauds athletes who hide their real personalities behind media savvy and public relations while punishing those willing to offer a legitimate glimpse into who they are. Want proof? Consider Michelle Kwan, the anti-Bode. And that's not meant as a compliment.

Kwan, like Miller, was not an Olympic success story. Despite being the best figure skater in the world, she was unable to win the gold in a sport in which reputation can go along way with the judges. But Kwan was never lambasted as a loser – she has been, in fact, one of the press' all time Olympic darlings. "Michelle Kwan is sports' ultimate class act," wrote Newsweek. "And when she withdrew from the U.S. Olympic team Sunday, there were plenty of tears to go around." Not from Slate's Seth Stevenson, who noticed a moment that to me represents all things Kwan: "Did you catch that moment during the opening ceremonies when she looked kind of bored … but then noticed the camera trained on her and suddenly flashed a look of awe and thrilled-to-be-here-ness?" Kwan has always seemed acutely aware of her public persona in a way that's made it difficult to get any real sense of the real person beneath the platitudes. And for that – for essentially presenting a portrait of the figure skater as noble, two-dimensional cartoon character – the press, which is ostensibly interested in reality, has lionized her.

Miller, on the other hand, has given people a warts and all portrait of who he is – a guy who sometimes drinks with his friends and doesn't put the pursuit of medals ahead of his happiness. He's not an automaton denying himself the pleasures of everyday life but a human being seemingly unwilling to apologize for that fact. Even his Nike ads are about how he doesn't think "inspiring" performances necessarily correspond to victory. There is a case to be made that someone with Miller's talents should care more than he does, and if you want to condemn him for not ascribing to the medals-above-all-else narrative that is relentlessly pushed on all of us, go ahead – though his perspective seems increasingly common among winter Olympics athletes. But it's unfair to attack Miller for not living up to your expectations, or the expectations of a media that decided to thrust him into a role that he never really bought into in the first place.

Yes, it would have been wise for Miller not to have done all those magazine covers, even if he always took pains to stress that, sure, he wanted to win, but that wasn't all he wanted. If he was more PR savvy, he might have better understood the downside to all the exposure, something he could only escape by winning, a feat that generally leads the press and public to forgive any perceived transgression. Of course, such an understanding would have made him, in essence, Michelle Kwan.

You might not like Miller personally. I don't know if I do, in all honesty. But at least I have some sense of who he is, and for that I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. The press should support athletes willing to give open up, not those who scrupulously maintain a public image that may or may not have much to do with reality. The attacks on Miller, coupled with the Kwan love fest, show that the media seems to want to embrace a manufactured reality over a real one. And while that's good news for public relations executives, it's not so good for the rest of us.