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Olympics Give Rise to Unexpected Stars

February 17, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPOKESPERSON: What’s going to happen here?

JEFFREY BROWN: For many viewers, it was the first look at a new Olympic sport, snowboard cross, a mad downhill dash on a curving obstacle course.

SPOKESPERSON: And she’s in third.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a race filled with bumps and spills…

SPOKESPERSON: Right there, Wescott! That’s the essence of snowboard cross right here!

JEFFREY BROWN:…And the first gold medal ever was won by a whisker by American Seth Wescott.

SPOKESPERSON: Westcott wins the gold!

JEFFREY BROWN: Also yesterday, the more traditional Olympic sport of figure skating was on display. And, sticking to tradition, it was a Russian, Evgeni Plushenko, who dominated.

SPOKESPERSON: Triple toe, triple toe, double loop!

JEFFREY BROWN: Plushenko beat out all comers, including American Johnny Weir, who stumbled from second to fifth place.

SPOKESPERSON: Triple axel, a little two-foot step out.

JEFFREY BROWN: New and old have mixed all week in Turin, with some major twists. Monday, young women were doing amazing feats in an event called the snowboarding half-pipe in which American Hannah Teter took the gold. On the ski slopes, there were some surprises: Ted Ligety, the youngest man on the U.S. ski team, captured gold in the alpine combined, a mix of downhill and slalom skiing. And there were some disasters, including a dramatic crash during a practice run by American skier Lindsey Lildow, who managed to come back two days later to place eighth in the women’s downhill.

These games have also been marked by disappointments among some of the biggest American stars. The much-hyped American skier Bode Miller finished fifth in one race and was disqualified from another.

And women’s figure skating star Michelle Kwan had to pass on her fourth and probably final attempt to win a gold medal, pulling out of the games after an injury.

MICHELLE KWAN: It’s one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make, but I know it is the right one.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those losses, though, left room for some new stars. None perhaps more literally brighter than the young man known as the “Flying Tomato,” the red-haired, snowboard flipping and soaring Californian Shaun White.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for more, I’m joined from Turin by Christine Brennan, USA Today columnist and analyst for ABC News and ESPN.

Christine, my son said this new sport of snowboard cross looks like a video game come to life, which you know is a high compliment from a 12-year-old. Tell us more about this sport and its new stars.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, that’s exactly what the International Olympic Committee wants to hear because they’re looking for that next generation of viewer, Jeff, to be able to try to get them, latch them into the Olympic Games and have them watch for several generations. So that’s great news and that’s the x-game factor of the Olympic Games, the new sports.

The United States, by the way, has invented most of these sports, puts them into the Olympic Games and then wins them. So it’s actually a very nice setup for the United States and at some of the more traditional sports the U.S. is having trouble with at these games.

Maybe the United States should come up with more sports to invent to try to win more medals. But it’s kind of that joy de vive, that freshness of those kids that whiz by you on the slopes when you’re skiing as a recreational skier, now they’re in the Olympic Games and so far six medals for the United States out of that. So I think it’s certainly reaping dividends for the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: It looked to me like some of the young women in that snowboard half pipe were listening to their iPods as they were soaring through the air.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, trying to interview them is really tough because they kind of walk buy and, you know, they have got the headsets in and it’s hard to know, hey, by the way, could you stop and talk for a few minutes, so they’re having a great time. I think visually it’s a terrific thing for the games because it’s not just the old stuff and you bring in a different breed of athlete, you know, the online skating type people,

Chad Hedrick, a speed skater, long track speed skating, who watched the Olympics in 2002 and said “I’d like to win a medal someday.” And so he switched from in-line skating, like rollerblading, now he’s switched to long track speed skating. So there’s some of these crossover athletes from other sports that are now coming into the winter games.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now you mentioned the old stuff. Tell us about Evgeni Plushenko and how do the Russians do it year after year?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: It’s incredible. As you know, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and there were very dire warnings at that point that very soon the pipeline would run dry for figure skating in the old Soviet Union, mostly Russia but occasionally Ukraine as well. Well, that hasn’t happened yet. Although these skaters, Evgeni Plushenko, Irena Slutskaya, the pairs who won the other night and some of the ice dancers, this may be that last generation of figure skaters from the old Soviet Union.

Plushenko says he barely remembers the Soviet Union — 23 years old — has won three world titles, Jeff, and this was his Olympic gold medal to lose. He did not lose it. He was — he dominated. This was a 55-14 Super Bowl route by Plushenko. Everyone was fighting for second place.

A well deserved performance, even though he was a little flat last night. He didn’t look great but he landed a quad in his short program, quad in his long program, industrial strength jumping by Plushenko and he certainly deserved the gold medal.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the new stars that you’ve seen there this week? Tell us about them.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, one of the countries that I think we’re going to be watching a lot Jeff in the next few Olympics is China and they’re hosting the summer games in Beijing and certainly there are pairs skaters going two, three, and four – Zhao and Shen, the big fall and the restart. That’s the story we’ll watch develop as the Chinese athletes start to dominate in international competition. But the figure skaters from China was a big deal. I’ll pick an older one.

Michaela Dorfmeister winning the downhill, he’s retiring, so not a new star but a great story in the sense of one of the older people in the competition, all of 32 years old, winning the downhill, Austria, that’s as it should be. All is right in the world when an alpine nation wins the women’s downhill. So those are two things that have hit me in the first week.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what about some of these stars we mentioned who have not shown so brightly there in Turin, what impact has that had on the games?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, it was Black Sunday here. You know, the caldron was barely lighted and 48 hours later a triple whammy for the United States and probably for the network televising the Olympic Games. When you have Michelle Kwan, arguably the biggest name for the United States, withdrawing from the games after 25 minutes of practice and then you have Bode Miller not doing well on the downhill.

Of course the man who was known for flapping his gums and making all sorts of controversy off the mountain and the cover boy of many magazines, so Bode Miller does not win a medal in the downhill that same Sunday, and then followed in the evening by Apolo Anton Ohno, one of the stars from the 2002 Salt Lake Games, he falls and doesn’t even qualify for the finals of one his big events.

So that was a devastating turn of events in terms of television ratings, in terms of interest in the U.S. We are such a cult of personality sports viewing public. We know everyone by their first name. Coby, Shaq, and to think you have three big names that a lot of people knew and all three of them had a terrible day. Michelle Kwan was leaving. The other two had other events, but Kwan was gone, and that was a tough day for the Olympic Games for the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you mentioned the ratings which have been down. Have you been able to talk to any of the network executives over there or Olympic officials for what they think might have caused it beyond, perhaps, these stars not performing up to expectations?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Jeff, I haven’t talked to any network executives from NBC but I think it’s pretty plain that in this age of Internet and instant information where everyone can with the click of a finger can find out what’s happening in the world and certainly can find out what’s happening between what, six and nine times zones away in Turin, Italy, from the United States, that waiting for 8 o’clock to come around to watch these events as if they’re live when everyone knows they’ve been over for six or seven hours, that’s not working anymore.

And the old days of gathering around the TV for that incredible Olympic telecast 8:00 to 11:00 in the 70s, even in the 80s, now our viewing habits have changed.

And if you know the result, why would you get excited to find out what’s going to happen? You already know what’s going to happen. I think NBC is going to have to deal with that in the next few Olympic Games in order to keep the viewers interested; somehow marry the Internet with its coverage in the evening.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask you finally, what is it like being over there — because we, you know, in the past recent Olympic Games we hear about, oh, financial overruns and traffic jams and security concerns and some drug problems — what’s — what has this been like?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: It’s been a different Olympics. As you know, Jeff, the largest city, almost a million people, ever to host a winter Olympic Games — I haven’t seen a snowflake and I’ve been here two weeks. That’s kind of strange. I also think it’s really getting tough for some of these cities.

In this case, Turin bid for the Olympics and won the Olympic Games before Sept. 11 — not having any idea of the kind of budget constraints it would have for security costs. So this is an extra burden being put on cities.

Therefore, it’s stretched to the limits. You don’t see as much bunting and as many colors and all of the wonderful things that you normally associate with an Olympics because the budget is being spent on security.

So it’s a different feel and many places in Turin you can go and you have no idea the Olympics are going on. That’s unfortunate. But having said, that once you get into the venues and see the competition it’s first rate and I think that will certainly continue over the next week.

JEFFREY BROWN: Christine Brennan, thanks a lot.