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Olympic Highs and Lows: A ‘Breakthrough’ Win and a Badminton Scandal

August 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeffrey Brown continues his Olympics conversations with Christine Brennan of USA Today, with commentary on the 'breakthrough' win by Gabby Douglas, more results in men's swimming, including a match-up between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, and the badminton scandal that brought down the Chinese women's team.
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JEFFREY BROWN: More on this day’s events now with Christine Brennan. She’s covering the Games for USA Today and ABC and joins us once again from London.

So, Christine, a big moment, a historic moment for Gabby Douglas. Tell us what you saw there today.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today: Jeff, it really was something.

For the first time ever, the women’s all-around competition in gymnastics at the Olympics, you can argue the most lucrative, the most famous of all Olympic gold medals, and the winner is the most famous Olympic gold medalist of them, potentially — that for the first time ever goes to a woman of color, an African-American, Gabby Douglas, with a stellar performance.

She just didn’t flinch. She took the lead right off the bat on the vault, never gave it up. The Russians kept trying to get close. And Gabby Douglas was just dominating, just like the U.S. team two days earlier. Gabby Douglas performed individually just like that team did, without a mistake.

And to think about this for a moment, this is the gold medal that Mary Lou Retton won. It’s the gold medal of Nastia Liukin four years ago. And now it belongs to Gabby Douglas, who, one year ago, most of us had never heard of. She has had a meteoric rise through the sport, tough-as-nails competitor.

She told me a few months ago, she said: Bring it on. I love the pressure.

And we have seen a terrific athlete, very small in stature, but huge in heart and confidence. And I think it’s a great breakthrough win, not only for her, but for those who look at the sport and kind of see this Eastern European or lily-white dominance of gymnastics. No more. Gabby Douglas is going to be a very different and very popular champion.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, great story there in gymnastics.

And then now to swimming where the storyline up to today had been, well, a somewhat more mortal Michael Phelps, but there he was today at the finish line.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Yes, I think Michael Phelps had said enough is enough. And he decided he was going to do something about it, and he won one of his signature events, the 200 individual medley, beating Ryan Lochte, who, since winning the 400 I.M. on the first night of swimming, Jeff, Ryan Lochte has kind of gone downhill a little bit, and whereas Phelps has had an uneven Olympics as well.

Lochte had a tough day. And about a half-hour at the swimming pool, he was trying to win two gold medals. Instead, he won a bronze and a silver. The 200 backstroke, one of his bread-and-butter events, Lochte finished a disappointing third, was caught at the end by an American, Tyler Clary.

And then a half-hour later — so not a lot of time to breathe and rest and kind of gear back up — Michael Phelps took him on in the pool and beat him. And I think, for Phelps, we saw the competitive spirit there. This is a guy who has got the most medals in history, and everyone is saying he’s the greatest ever, but he hadn’t won an individual event here.

And Michael Phelps is a very proud man. And he got that individual gold, and couldn’t have been happier to beat Lochte at an event where they are both excellent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, let me move to a less excellent story, I guess, this — I’m very curious about this badminton story. It is, of course, a sport that rarely gets much attention. How much of a stir has it caused there?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Oh, it’s been a huge story. I wrote about it yesterday.

First of all, whoever would have thought that badminton would give us one of the great controversies of the Olympics?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: But, having said that, it’s — we can laugh and smile, but it’s really not a joking matter.

I mean, here, were eight athletes, eight women, as it turns out, who came to the Olympics to try to win gold, and instead found themselves trying to lose because of the format of the competition, that they would be better off in the next round facing a weaker opponent if they lost, which, of course, is a real problem for the Badminton Federation. I think they should clear that up in the next four years.

Nonetheless, just hitting — serving right into the net like a 5-year-old in the backyard picnic. And it really — when you think about the Olympics, we hold Olympians to a higher standard, Jeff. The drug testing is much harder, much tougher than Major League Baseball or the NFL.

These athletes drop into our lives for a couple weeks every four years and then disappear. They never overstay their welcome. And I think we should demand more of them. And if an NBA team tries to lose to get the top draft pick, if an NFL team rests its starters, we’re kind of used to that.

But this is different. This is the Olympics. And for them to really kind of desecrate the spirit of the Olympic Games, I think it was absolutely the right thing to do for them to be kicked out of the games. All eight of them, they are gone. But that story, there is still a bit of buzz about it now a good 24 hours later.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and, finally, let’s end on a happier note, which is the host country had a very good couple of days.

Tell us about that. And what has it done for — it must have raised the excitement level there?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: You know, I think we were all getting a little worried about the Brits, to be honest with you. They had not won a gold medal in the first several days of competition.

And you watch the BBC here, of course, and it’s excellent coverage. But they’re homers, just like a U.S. network is a homer. They’re cheering for their own, and that makes perfect sense, a bit jingoistic in their own way, the way that we have accused other U.S. networks of being jingoistic in the past.

So here are the Brits and they are talking about their silver, their bronze. And, finally, they got the gold in the women’s rowing yesterday. And they were thrilled. And then Bradley Wiggins, of course, the Tour de France winner, came through big-time for them in cycling yesterday, and then three more golds today.

And Britain is not going to win the medal race. That will be the U.S. or China. I’m not a big fan of the medal race personally. I think it is one of the most overrated things in sports. But, nonetheless, it is here to stay and everyone counts it all up. And the U.S. is doing quite well, as is China.

Britain is going to be down there at about 10th or so. But the fact that they have got now several gold medals they can cheer, oh, the BBC is breathing easier.

(LAUGHTER)

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: And shouldn’t we all breathe easier if the BBC is happy?

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Christine Brennan in London, once again, thanks so much.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, online, we have more Olympic stories from our conversation with Christine Brennan. She talks about the long road for Kayla Harrison, who won the first American gold ever in judo, and a reporter’s notebook moment from her coverage today.