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Sports Journalist Discusses Swimming, Gymnastics Feats at Beijing Games

August 13, 2008 at 6:45 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Christine, in the last 24 hours, Michael Phelps has become the most decorated champion in Olympic history. Is he the sensation of the games that we see him being on this end in the United States?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, ABC/USA Today: I think there is an element of that, certainly. I think that, because he’s won five gold medals and to this point he has as many gold medals as South Korea does, if he were a nation, he’d be tied for third in the medal count.

Yes, the Chinese know who Michael Phelps is. There are some billboards, some pictures, some promotions with him in town, as well as some of the great Chinese heroes, of course, of these games and yet to be in these games.

So, yes, I think Michael Phelps is transcending the nation, the United States. He’s transcending his sport, definitely. And it’s becoming quite a fascination for the Chinese people, as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there a way for non-swimmers to understand why Michael Phelps is so much better than everyone else this time around?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Non-swimmers understanding? Well, I think certainly it helps that he has this incredible wingspan. He’s six-foot-four. He’s built in many ways like a boat. I mean, if you look at that incredible long torso that he has, it’s almost like the hull of a boat.

His feet are flippers, you know, the motor, and his arms are kind of like oars. And I think the analogy works. I mean, this guy was made to swim, and he even said this. He tried team sports as a boy. He tried baseball, tried other sports, basketball, couldn’t dunk. He said that was embarrassing for a guy who’s six-foot-four.

And he decided to go to swimming. And, of course, that’s clearly the place for him.

Swimsuits, pool may help records

Christine Brennan
ABC/USA Today
I think swimming may have an issue, eventually, with its record book because of the swimsuits. The suits that the men and the women are wearing, they look a little bit like your great-grandfather at Coney Island 100 years ago.

RAY SUAREZ: The swim competition hasn't just trimmed records, but in many cases smashed them by unheard-of margins. This speculation on whether it's the swimsuits or the pool, which differs from competitive pools around the world, is this dimming some of the luster of these standout performances?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Yes, you'd start to wonder, OK, what's going on here? I think swimming may have an issue, eventually, with its record book because of the swimsuits. The suits that the men and the women are wearing, they look a little bit like your great-grandfather at Coney Island 100 years ago.

You know, those suits, of course, are so fast. And Michael Phelps has even said that's a couple hundredths of a second, that wearing that suit is a laser swimsuit.

And so, you know, that is an issue. Is that cheapening the record book a little bit? There also is the question of the pool. You mentioned that. And it's fascinating. In the days of Mark Spitz, in the '70s and then in the '80s, those pools were eight lanes wide. And now they're 10 lanes wide.

And the 10 lanes, the first and tenth lane are not being used. There's no swimmer in those lanes. There are still only eight swimmers in the finals.

But those two lanes are letting the water dissipate and letting the waves and the ripple effect get away from the swimmers. So there's far less turbulence, Ray, for the swimmers to be dealing with at these Olympics than there was in the day of Mark Spitz. And that's just a factor.

RAY SUAREZ: And what is it about the swimsuits? What are the physical properties that make them different from other suits and actually make you faster in the water?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: What they do is they're seamless. They're actually -- there's no seams. There's no sewing at all. So any little split-second here that a swimmer can get in the water is meaningful, so nothing is going to be catching any water. The suit is just so slick and smooth in that way.

It's also buoyant. Now, that's a key point of contention. Is it too buoyant? Does it lift the swimmer in the water? And, of course, being able to do that is a huge advantage.

There's another factor here that it actually tightens the swimmer's core. It makes the swimmer almost thinner, maybe like a girdle for women in the '40s or '50s or '60s. It has that kind of effect, as well, which, again, can help someone gain that slightest of advantages in the water.

RAY SUAREZ: And you don't jump into this suit, do you? Doesn't it take a half-an-hour to put it on?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: It does take a half-hour to put on. The swimmers are unanimous in absolutely despising this, that it takes them so long to put the thing on. And then it also -- they want to get out of it as fast as possible.

The other day in the relay, when Michael Phelps actually stripped down to his waist while he was watching his countrymen swim in the 4x100 relay, the reason he did that is because that suit is so uncomfortable. He just wanted to get out of half of it as quickly as he could.

China gymnastics gold

Christine Brennan
ABC/USA Today
And with that in mind, China really took it to the United States and beat the U.S. by more than two points, which is a huge -- that would be a pool length for Michael Phelps. And that was a very stunning, shocking defeat for the U.S.

RAY SUAREZ: Also in the past day, there was the confrontation between the women's gymnastics teams of China and the United States. It ended up with the Americans taking the silver medal, but wasn't it a very dramatic competition, as well?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Oh, it was. And you can make a very strong case that, for China, for the host nation here, that this was the most important gold medal of all, because this was the best of China in women's gymnastics against the best in the United States.

Number one, the last two years, the last two world championships, they were world champs, respectively, one year, then the next, the United States and China. So the U.S. and China were competing on even footing in a sport they care very, very much -- that the countries care very, very much about.

And with that in mind, China really took it to the United States and beat the U.S. by more than two points, which is a huge -- that would be a pool length for Michael Phelps. And that was a very stunning, shocking defeat for the U.S.

The U.S. women, veterans, strong, they're all battle-tested, making four mistakes in the last two events, the last two rotations, the balance beam and then the floor exercise. And it really was a stunning collapse by the U.S. team in the last half of that competition, giving China an easy pass to a gold medal that this nation wanted more than anything else.

So I think, when China looks back on these games, they will probably put as number one, in terms of beating the U.S., with maybe a newfound rivalry, Ray, with the United States, they'll look back at the women's gymnastics as number one on their list, in terms of beating the United States in any event that was so sweet. This would be the sweetest victory for China against the U.S.

Big win comes amid age allegations

Christine Brennan
ABC/USA Today
Three of those six on the Chinese team, according to reports, very reputable reporting by the New York Times, Associated Press, and others, three of the six are underage.

RAY SUAREZ: Do questions remain about the ages of many of the women on the Chinese team?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: That's right. It's a big story. And it's kind of amazing that it's been brushed aside by the International Olympic Committee and the International Federation for Gymnastics. It is a dead issue, as far as they're concerned.

But it's not a dead issue in the U.S. media and other media around the world. Basically, the issue is this, that there are six, of course, women on the Chinese team -- six on any team -- and three of those six on the Chinese team, according to reports, very reputable reporting by the New York Times, Associated Press, and others, three of the six are underage.

You have to be 16. You have to turn 16 in the Olympic year. So, in other words, for all the gymnasts in this competition, they had to be born in 1992 or earlier.

But in the records -- and it's Web sites, and it's very strong evidence that, again, reputable news organizations have found, that, in the case of three of them, two of the Chinese athletes were born in 1993, and one in 1994.

And all three of those women competed in the team competition. And, in fact, all three of them were on the uneven parallel bars. That's where they go flying through the air. I think it's significant that that's where China made its move.

China was a half-point down from the U.S. when they went into that event, the uneven parallel bars, and China emerged from that after just three routines for each nation, emerged from that with a one-point lead. That was a 1.5-point swing. That's huge in gymnastics, and that occurred with the three underage gymnasts.

You might ask, you know, wouldn't it be better to be a veteran, to be a little older? Not in gymnastics. Not in figure skating. This is all about these tiny bodes that can move through the air, that can twist and turn and do all these amazing things.

Interesting fact, Ray, that the U.S. team, the average weight of the United States team is over 100 pounds, about 106 pounds. The average weight of the Chinese team, 77 pounds.

That is a huge difference when they're competing in these kind of artistic maneuvers, and I think it's certainly contributed to China's winning the gold medal.

RAY SUAREZ: Christine Brennan, thanks so much for joining us. Good to talk to you.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Thank you, Ray. Take care.