GWEN IFILL: At the Olympic Games in Sochi, all eyes are on the ice, where skaters are taking center stage.
Jeffrey Brown catches up on the past 24 hours and previews what’s ahead.JEFFREY BROWN: And for that, we’re joined from Russia again by Christine Brennan, who’s covering the Olympics for USA Today and ABC News. I spoke with her earlier this afternoon.
Well, Christine, welcome.
I know the most exciting thing on your mind because the ice dancing victory last night by Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Tell us, why was that such a big deal?
CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today: It’s the first time it’s ever happened, so that alone I think, Jeff, makes it headline news, the sense that, for as long as there has been ice dancing in the Olympics, the United States has not won a gold medal until last night.
And this has been a long, slow slog for the United States. The teams were always 11 or 15th at the Olympics. It was basically bloc judging by the Eastern European countries, making sure the Russians, occasional Torvill and Dean, but, otherwise, the Russians would win.
And the Americans were innovative and interesting, and never had a chance. The judging changed. The new judging system came in, in 2004, and the Americans went from 11th to second at the Olympics. And there was much more of an opportunity, frankly, for the United States and Canada to get into the medals.
And then, of course, the magic of last evening with Davis and White, together for 15 — for 17 years — excuse me — 17 years, putting it together.
JEFFREY BROWN: As you say, they have been skating together since they were children, really.
It’s interesting, though, that, as you wrote today, these changes in the sport can be seen in the more recent context of the popularity of dance in this country, right, especially on television.
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Absolutely.
This is — we’re a dancing nation now. Who would have thought? But “Dancing with the Stars” and these other shows that we see, especially — Meryl Davis said this — that that actually contributed to the success of the sport. She said there is no doubt that her sport is more popular and dancing itself is more popular because of these TV shows.
And so really that — it might sound strange, but this is much more than just a figure skating victory, the first time ever a team, either a dance team or a pairs, has ever won a gold medal for the United States in the Olympics in figure skating, such a popular discipline, of course, but also it’s a cultural victory.
It’s about the United States as a nation and encouraging these young people to dance, and in this case it was dancing on the ice.
JEFFREY BROWN: And next on the ice, we have got women’s figure skating coming up.
You and I have talked about this in past years, so I know how much you love that competition.
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Oh, without a doubt.
I this mean, probably, you could say arguably, is the marquee event of the Olympic Games. The winner usually becomes the most famous or one of the most famous Olympians from any Olympics, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, Katarina Witt, actually the last woman to win it two times in a row in ’84 and ’88.
Yuna Kim of South Korea is trying to do that, trying to become the first since Katarina Witt to win two in a row from Vancouver in 2010 now here in Sochi in 2014. But it’s going to be a tough task, with Julia Lipnitskaia, the 15-year-old from Russia, who brought down the house for her in the teen competition. You have got Mao Asada with her triple axels, the American’s Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner. This is a packed field and it’s just going to be fantastic.
JEFFREY BROWN: I’m going to give a brief spoiler alert to our audience now, because I want to ask you about a couple of standout athletes.
There’s the overall incredible performances by the Dutch speed skaters, and then there’s skier Tina Maze, who won the giant slalom today.
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Yes, Tina Maze is having an incredible Olympics, winning the downhill in a tie, and then the giant slalom, the first woman to ever do this since 1972.
And she was the overall World Cup champion last year. She is definitely on top of her game at the exact right moment. And the Dutch, my goodness, they’re winning almost every medal in speed skating, and especially every medal that the United States is not winning. The U.S. is having a terrible Olympics in a venue that they usually dominate, from Bonnie Blair to Eric Heiden, Dan Jansen, all those names people know from the past.
Well, it’s the Dutch who are winning those medals now. No surprise. The arena is often served with orange and that is, of course, the Dutch national color and the orange is just dominant at these Olympics.
JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, Christine , off the ice and off the slopes, several members of the group Pussy Riot were reportedly detained in Sochi today, before being released. How much has that or any political activity really gotten through the bubble that you’re part of there?
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: You know, Jeff, I think that Olympic bubble burst just a little bit, maybe just sprung a leak just a little bit today, with the news of Pussy Riot.
Yesterday, you had a transgender protester who was in the park who was escorted out. The protest zones are there. It seems to be that in the second week of the Olympics, some of these protesters, some of these groups, especially the gay rights group, are saying, OK, enough is enough. We have been good, we have been away and we haven’t done much of anything the first week. Now we’re going to the fore in the second week.
And I would expect that would continue. The athletes know this. Ashley Wagner, the American figure skater who skates tomorrow, she’s been the one who has been outspoken about gay rights here when she got to Russia. She — we asked her about it and she says she’s going to keep talking about it.
A lot of people are aware of this. And I think it’s a significant development. Frankly, we have been talking sports for the first 10 days, now a little bit of news, and very expected news, at these Games.
JEFFREY BROWN: Christine Brennan of USA Today in Sochi, thanks again.
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Jeff, my pleasure. Thank you very much.