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U.S. Leads Medal Count in Waning Days of Olympics

February 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As the Winter Olympics in Vancouver wind down this weekend, USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan takes a look back at the highs and lows of the games.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: U.S. television ratings have been high for these Games, the highest for Winter Games held on foreign soil since 1994, as American athletes have done very well. In fact, as the closing weekend approaches, the U.S. is leading in the medals count.

But, last night, one of the main highlights came from a South Korean teenager, who made history for her country. In women’s figure skating, Kim Yu-Na won the gold medal in a graceful performance that set records for individual scoring.

And, in women’s ice hockey, the Canadian team beat the U.S. to win the gold medal. The American men’s hockey team, after winning today, will be competing in the gold medal game on Sunday.

But there have been some disappointments this week, too, the latest one for U.S. women skier Lindsey Vonn, who won two medals earlier, despite injury. Since then, she has failed to finish three races. And, today, she skied out of her final competition in slalom.

Well, we have been checking with Christine Brennan of ABC News and USA Today throughout the competition. She’s back with us one more time. I spoke with her a short time ago.

Christine Brennan, hi.

Let’s talk first about women’s figure skating. That was quite a performance last night by the South Korean, Kim Yu-Na.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today: That is correct, Judy. It was fantastic, a coronation, as much as a competition.

That has been about a year in the making. And I think all of South Korea has finally exhaled at the notion that their Kim Yu-Na is now the queen of the ice. And she won by a landslide. Twenty-three points is almost unheard of in this sport.

And, yet, right behind her, the Japanese woman, Mao Asada, skated fantastically, with three triple-axels, the toughest jump women do, two in the long program, one in the short. So, that was amazing.

And then Joannie Rochette, the Canadian who lost her mom to a heart attack just a few days ago, winning the bronze with an emotional performance. I think she was — was in the embrace of the entire — an entire nation. And that was terrific to see her skate well, also.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was something to watch.

Now, women’s ice hockey, the Canadians have been disappointed overall, but they pulled off a gold.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: They did. They beat the United States, their archrival. In fact, in women’s hockey, Judy, it is really these two nations, Canada and the U.S. Canada has won the last three golds, including this one. The U.S. won the first won. But they are really the rivals.

And — and there is a bit of a controversy, because the IOC president, Jacques Rogge, has said that he wants to see improvement. He wants to see other nations doing well, or he might consider getting women’s hockey out of the Olympics.

I find that a stunning thing for this man to say. Maybe what he should be do is talking to the federation presidents, all of them men, who are not paying attention to women’s hockey, and encouraging some of these other nations to start ponying up to give some money and some attention to the women’s side of their sport.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, women’s sports in some jeopardy?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, they have been. As you know, softball was taken out of the Olympics. That’s a women’s-only sport. That was a final decision just a few months ago, a devastating blow for softball.

Now, you would say, OK, that is a U.S. sport or Asian. Well, they were actually growing the game in Africa and encouraging young girls to learn softball. And now that has been nipped in the bud by the International Olympic Committee and Jacques Rogge, who made this decision to get rid of softball.

We saw the same thing. Women’s ski jumping was supposed to be in these Games, but then Jacques Rogge said, no, you cannot be in it. There is men’s ski jumping, of course.

So, as he talks about getting the 50/50 participation, male and female, at the Olympics, he is nowhere near that. It is about 40 percent women here, 60 percent men. And what he is doing is going the other direction by getting rid of women’s sports. And I can’t believe that I am even saying those sentences in 2010.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we have to get to men’s hockey, the U.S. team winning today. They’re going into the finals this weekend. What do — what do we expect?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, Canada, of course, plays later.

And speaking of holding their breath as a nation, that’s where this story is with men’s hockey in Canada, the biggest gold medal by far. And, if Canada and the U.S., Judy, play again — they played the other day. The U.S. upset Canada, and I think sent a nation into total depression up here. So, it will be very hard for the U.S. to win again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Christine, these — these Games started out with a tragedy, the death of that young Georgian luger. What do you think? I mean, the Games are not over. They have a couple of days to go.

But what do you think these Vancouver Games are going to be remembered for?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, Judy, I think that — you make a great point — that that — we will never get away from that, the fact that, just a few hours before the opening ceremony, that tragedy occurred. An athlete preparing for the Games is killed on a venue, on a track at luge. So, that will always be the black mark, I think, of these Games.

However, with the — the, you know, pure spirit of the Canadians, with all of the great competition, with the fantastic performances of the United States Olympic team, potentially the greatest Winter Olympics ever for the U.S., if things go right the next couple days, then I think there will be a lot of other high points to remember.

So, maybe that offsets it a little. But it — it will be remembered, I think, for the good and the bad. And — but, all in all, Canada has done, I think, a very good job of hosting an Olympics, at a time when it’s not easy to host the Olympic Games anymore.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At this point, I read the U.S. athletes are on track to maybe win their most medals ever at a Winter Olympics. Any particular reason to pull together why they are doing as well as they are?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Yes, there are, Judy, a couple big reasons.

First of all, you remember the Games in Salt Lake City in 2002. The United States made a big push then, just like Canada has made coming into these Games, in sports the U.S. didn’t do well in, Nordic combined, other things that most people are probably saying, what is that? You know, I don’t even know what that is now.

Well, the United States didn’t win gold or any medals in Nordic combined in 2002, but what it did was, it pushed everything along to now the benefits are being reaped in 2010. And four medals for the U.S. in Nordic combined, that is just extraordinary.

I think, also, we saw a very veteran U.S. team. So, Lindsey Vonn, and the women’s hockey team, and Apolo Anton Ohno, all of these people have been to multiple Olympic Games. They know what to expect.

And the last thing, for me, is just, as we would say in real estate, location, location, location. These Games being just across the border in Vancouver meant that they were a home game for the United States, a home game without the home pressure.

So, these athletes could come up here, easy flights for a lot of people from the West Coast. They could go back and forth. The figure skaters went home for a few days, then came back. And they could also have these great performances on familiar terrain, but without all the pressure of a home country cheering you on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we always expect great reporting from Christine Brennan.

Thank you very much. Good to see you.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Thank you, Judy.