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At Sochi Olympics, ‘no big news’ has been good news

February 14, 2014 at 6:34 PM EST
Halfway through Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the spotlight is shining on the athletes and the games rather than disruptions or security problems. Judy Woodruff talks to Christine Brennan of USA Today and ABC News about some surprising disappointments and hopeful prospects for the American team, as well as the way Russia’s Soviet history has sometimes surfaced thus far.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We have reached the halfway point of the Winter Games in Sochi, a week that has seen its share of spectacular victories and some surprising disappointments for the American team and others.

Christine Brennan has been covering the action in Russia for USA Today and ABC News. I caught up with her earlier today.

Christine Brennan, it’s great to have you join us again.

Once again, a spoiler alert for our viewers: We’re going to talk about some results.

So, Christine, here we are at the end of the first week. The Americans have had a tough day on the ski slopes.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today: Well, that’s right, Judy.

And the U.S. ski team, the alpine ski team, is one of the highest profile-events at the Games, the name Bode Miller, Ted Ligety, Julia Mancuso, these are names that Americans know. Of course, Lindsey Vonn is not here. She would have been the biggest name of all.

But Miller and Ligety didn’t have a good day on the mountain. Bode has not had a good Olympics, kind of reminiscent more of Torino, where he went zero for the Olympics, coming up with the term to Bode, which meant being shut out. He had a very good Olympics in Vancouver. So, maybe it’s one of those things. He’s 35, 36 years old. You know, it’s — at this point in his life, this is towards the end.

But I think the disappointment is that there were no medals. Julia Mancuso now is the only one who has won a medal so far in alpine skiing for the U.S. There’s more to go. Mikaela Shiffrin, the teenager, is coming up. And I think she may well be able to do it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We watched figure skating yesterday, where the big news last night were some big falls and the surprising exit of a Russian favorite.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Judy, it was 30 minutes that seemed like it was the Bermuda Triangle had entered the figure skating arena.

First off, you had Evgeni Plushenko, the 31-year-old Russian, two Olympic gold medals, two Olympic silver medals, just won the other night in the team competition. He comes out and he looks — he looks like he’s injured. He’s hurting, goes over to the referee, reminiscent, frankly, of what Tonya Harding did with her skates 20 years ago, and withdraws, taps his heart, waves to the crowd, and he is gone. He retires immediately, on Russian ice, one of the Russians to ever skate

That drama 30 minutes later was followed by Jeremy Abbott, the four-time U.S. national champ, who fell hard on his quadruple jump, and instead of just getting right up, popping up, the way most skaters do, he just lay there. And it seemed like forever, an eternity, probably 10 seconds. But that’s a long, long time in figure skating.

His coach was about to rush out on to the ice to try to help him. And then he popped right back up and he kept going and the crowd spurred him on, so incredible drama, and only in figure skating. It never, ever disappoints.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to talk about snowboarding and how well the American women have been doing.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, yes, the American women.

We also — of course, with X Games sports, we kind of look at it from Shaun White to the slopestyles of skiing. The U.S. women, of course, are going to be stars of these Olympic Games, in large part because, of course, this is — these are our best female athletes, and they get a chance to shine at the Olympics.

But, I think if you look at it in total, and, again, say these edgy extreme X Games sports, the U.S. is doing great. All four gold medal medals are from X Games, relatively new sports in the Olympics for the U.S.

And the International Olympic Committee brought these sports in to try to attract a newer audience, newer, younger viewers to watch the coverage on the networks. And the reality is, I think if the IOC hadn’t done it, the U.S. Olympic Committee would have, because the U.S. just cleans up in these medals, U.S., Canada, North American sports.

And you can pretty much rely on the fact that they’re doing something that, it wasn’t done 20 years ago in the Olympics, the U.S. is going to do well in it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One thing you wrote about today, Christine, is the sort of overhang or shadow of the old spirit of the Soviet Union, the fact that you’re there in Russia and you really can’t get away from the history of this place. How are you seeing that while you’re there?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: You know, it comes, Judy, in little ways and snippets.

For examine, in Irina Rodnina lighting of the cauldron with Tretyak, the former Soviet goalie who got benched during the miracle on ice game, Rodnina had that racist tweet, that terrible tweet against President Obama five months ago, a member of Parliament. She’s lighting the cauldron with Tretyak. So, they’re not former Russian athletes. They’re former Soviet athletes.

And those of us of a certain age can’t help but remember that. Obviously, for the U.S. and sports fans in the United States, of course, it is the miracle on ice, and Tretyak was benched. So, you see these people and it kind of brings back that time.

Of course, they’re using — as you know, they’re using — their anthem, of course, is the old Soviet anthem. I personally love that anthem, but it has haunting tones that take us back to another time, when we were not friends with them. We were — obviously, it was the Cold War.

So the Russian figure skating, occasionally you see judging, the Eastern Bloc — the Cold War can be alive and well in figure skating judging, I can tell you that. But in general, it’s just little moments. But for the first time ever, a full Olympics, a complete Olympics is now in Russia.

Of course, Moscow in 1980 was boycotted. So, the fact that we’re here and the fact that the U.S. is the big cheese, always, the fact that Russia and the United States are kind of at it a little bit in a friendly rivalry — and I do stress friendly — but it does — there are moments when you do remember back to the old days, and they were not quite so friendly, obviously.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, as you sum up the week, what’s been the highlight for you?  What are you taking away at the halfway point of the Games?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: You know, Judy, I think I have to say just the fact that there has been no — knock on wood — huge news.

Thinking of the Sochi, all the run-up, all the conversations all of us had, the terrible concerns about terrorism, about security, protests involving the anti-gay law. There were a couple earlier. Of course, I’m in the — talking to you right now from the press center inside the secure zone, the ring of seal, so to speak, so we wouldn’t see that.

But the bottom line is, there has been almost no news. The big news is no big news. And we’re talking about athletes. We’re talking about sports. We’re talking about the things we should be talking about at the Olympic Games. I’m not saying those other issues might not rise up. Again, let’s hope everything goes well with security, but, so far, a week into the Olympics, not a big news story to be had in terms of security. And that is a huge, huge upset.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Christine Brennan, we’re so glad to have you talk to us. Thank you.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Judy, thank you very much.