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2018 Olympic stars, newcomers and comebacks to watch for

The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, come at a particularly tense moment in the region. But there's also a lot of excitement around the Games themselves. John Yang talks to Christine Brennan of USA Today about what and who to watch, the Russian doping scandal and how one athlete has spoken out against Vice President Mike Pence leading the American delegation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Winter Olympics are set to begin in South Korea.

    It comes at a particularly tense moment in the region. The United States and North Korea have rattled other countries with threatening language in the months leading up to these Games. But there’s also a lot of excitement around the Olympics themselves.

    And John Yang is here with a preview.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, the opening ceremonies are less than 12 hours away, and competition has already begun.

    For a look ahead at the next two weeks, we spoke earlier with Christine Brennan, sports columnist for USA Today. She was at the Olympic venue in PyeongChang, South Korea.

    We began by asking her what it was like there.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Right now, we’re talking more about the cold weather than we are about North Korea being just 50 miles away.

    And I know that might sound strange, but I have been here almost a week, and it really is a sense here they’re going to have the Olympics. It’s sport. It’s games. The athletes are here.

    And maybe, maybe we can focus just on sports and not on the politics. We will see. We know most Olympic Games, we tend to have a little bit of both.

    But I really think, because of what is going on with South Korea, the way they’re running these Games, the efficiency we’re seeing here — everything has been finished for a while — by first appearances, it’s running well.

  • John Yang:

    Christine, there is going to be live coverage of figure skating on U.S. television tonight. Who are some of the U.S. men to keep an eye on?

  • Christine Brennan:

    Nathan Chen is really one of the great stories of these Games.

    He’s the 18 years old, but he’s the only undefeated male skater in the world this year. Think about that. They have had all these competitions, and he’s the only one who hasn’t lost. And so he goes into these Games with a real sense that he could maybe win the Olympic gold medal.

    Then again, that is a slippery sheet of ice and it’s a quarter-inch blade of steel. And to land all those quads — he’s the quad king. He’s the first man ever to land five quadruple jumps in a long program. He did that last year at the U.S. nationals, 2017. He did it again at the U.S. nationals in 2018.

    And there’s going to be a lot of pressure on Nathan Chen. And he’s a really smart young man. We have had several conversations. And he even talks about the pressure. He talks about the intensity of this. And he understands the moment. And he’s going to try to take it all in, while he’s also, of course, trying to stay on his feet.

    The fascinating thing about figure skating, as we know, that it is art and it is sport. You have got both marks. You have got the judges looking at the artistry, as well as, of course, all the jumping and everything else that they’re doing athletically.

    And Nathan Chen was built for both.

  • John Yang:

    You have been reporting on a controversy involving another of the U.S. men’s figure skaters, Adam Rippon, and Vice President Mike Pence. Tell us about that.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Back in mid-January, I actually interviewed Adam Rippon, who is one of the first openly guy athletes to compete in the Winter Olympic Games for the United States.

    And I talked to him about many things, including Mike Pence being the delegation leader for the U.S. at the opening ceremonies. And Adam Rippon said that — he goes, Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence who funded gay conversion therapy? He said, I’m not buying it, and was very critical of Pence and President Trump.

    And he has already said, as Lindsey Vonn has said as well, the skier, that they will not go to the White House after the Olympics to celebrate to the U.S. Olympic team. Pence’s office actually denied that Pence ever did want to fund gay conversion therapy, although there is interesting wording on his Web site from the year 2000 during a congressional campaign.

    Anyway, we put that in there. Within an hour, heard from the vice president’s office that he wanted to rebut and reply to Adam Rippon.

    Anyway, I have continued to report this story in the last couple of weeks. And my reporting from various sources includes the fact that Pence went so far as to want to have a conversation with Adam Rippon and work through U.S. Olympic Committee channels to try to have that happen.

    And Adam Rippon declined the request from the vice president.

  • John Yang:

    Christine, what about the U.S. women figure skaters?

  • Christine Brennan:

    As for the women, the big names that we know from the last few years, Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner, they’re not here. And it’s a new crop, except for one big name.

    And that’s Mirai Nagasu, Mirai, 24 years old. Eight years ago, she made the Olympic team and finished fourth in Vancouver, then didn’t make it in 2014. And now she’s back. What a great story.

    There’s a woman in women’s figure skating. Think about that. It’s usually the sport of the teenagers. But Mirai Nagasu is a wonderful story about perseverance and coming back from disappointment over and over again.

    Otherwise, Bradie Tennell and Karen Chen are the other two Americans. Bradie Tennell is the reigning U.S. champion. She barely misses a jump in practice and almost never misses a jump in competition. That is her strong suit. It’s not the artistry of, say, someone like Ashley Wagner or Gracie Gold or even Mirai Nagasu. So we will see how she does.

    But at the top, it’s the Russians, Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova, Med and Zag. And they will either one, two, or two, one. I’m pretty sure we can say that. The Russians control women’s figure skating right now.

  • John Yang:

    Now, in December, the International Olympic Committee banned Russia from taking a team to the Games because of the doping scandal, but will some Russian athletes still be competing?

  • Christine Brennan:

    It looks like about 169 Russians will be here.

    And that is not a complete ban, but it’s far less than the 232 that were in Sochi. So there is that. But there are battles and there are hearings and court of arbitration court hearings that are going to go right up basically to the time they’re lighting the cauldron at the opening ceremonies here.

    The end result, it’s probably not satisfying to a lot of people, including myself, who thought that they should just ban the Russians outright, no Russians here, state-sponsored doping, the worst doping we have seen since the East Germans of a generation or two ago.

    But I think if you want to look at any positives, a couple of things. One is there is no Russian flag going to be raised for any medal ceremonies, no Russian anthem at all. It will be the Olympic hymn, as well as the Olympic flag, and then also no Russian flag coming into the opening ceremony.

    And maybe the best of all — again, if you’re looking to punish the Russians, which I think many people are — maybe the best of all is that when people 20, 30 years from now look back in the history books of how many medals Russia won at the 2018 Winter Olympics, the answer — we already know the answer. It’s zero.

  • John Yang:

    And for those of us who are going to be camped out in front of our television sets for next two weeks, who are some of the other Americans to watch?

  • Christine Brennan:

    When you’re thinking about who to look at over the next couple of weeks, certainly Lindsey Vonn coming back, going to be barreling down the mountain once again, and now in her mid-30s, to try win another downhill gold medal.

    And her compatriot on the slopes, Mikaela Shiffrin, who was one of the newcomers and stars of the Sochi Games four years ago, well, she’s back, and she is going to be in several races and could win several gold medals.

    Watch those two, kind of the old guard, and then the passing of the torch to the new guard, Shiffrin.

    I think, also, when you look at sports like ice hockey, the men’s hockey is going to be interesting and kind of jarring for people to watch, because you won’t have the NHL players for the first time in quite a while. But that makes it kind of interesting too. I’m not going to go all the way to the miracle on ice in 1980, but it is a young American team with minor leaguers and college players.

    Refreshing. And I think fans and viewers might find that interesting.

    And on the women’s side, two big stories, one, the U.S. women’s ice hockey team. As we talk about equality for women and equal pay for women, they were really ahead of the game. Back in the spring of last year, they were boycotting the world championships for better pay and more equal opportunities for them compared to the men’s ice hockey team for the United States.

    And they did get a better contract. So, the U.S. women are going to be facing the Canadians. I am as sure as I can be that they will be playing for the gold medal. Canada, U.S., it’s going to be must-see TV. The U.S. has lost the last couple, and they so want to beat the Canadians to win that gold medal in women’s ice hockey.

    And one other story, a footnote for women’s ice hockey, of course, the Korean team, unified, as we watch the Koreans come into the opening ceremony as a unified team, the two dozen or so North Koreans with the South Koreans.

    You will also see that the women’s ice hockey team actually has three or four North Korean players, who the coach, Sarah Murray from Canada, has to integrate. It’s going to be fascinating to see how that works.

  • John Yang:

    Christine Brennan of USA Today, thanks for joining us.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Thanks very much.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And one postscript,

    Since we spoke with Christine, a White House official traveling with the vice president said Mr. Pence offered to meet with athlete Adam Rippon, but didn’t ask to meet with him.

    The vice president told Rippon in a tweet, “I want you to know we are for you.”

    Christine Brennan stands by her story.

Editor’s Note: Photo and video courtesy U.S. Figure Skating

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