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As Tokyo Olympics come to a close, a look back at the highs and lows

The Tokyo Olympics have come to a close and Team U.S.A. came away the big winner with 113 medals, 39 of them gold. USA Today's Christine Brennan joins William Brangham to review some of the highlights and discuss how these Olympics went amid the global pandemic.

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  • William Brangham:

    The Tokyo Olympics have now come to a close and Team USA came away the big winner with a total of 113 medals, 39 of them gold.

    Earlier today, I spoke with sports columnist Christine Brennan who joined me from Tokyo to discuss the highlights.

  • William Brangham:

    Christine Brennan, so good to have you back on the NewsHour.

    We all watched the closing ceremonies last night and from here, I think by most measures, this was a very unusual Olympics. You have been there the entire time. What was it like for you being there?

  • Christine Brennan:

    It was the strangest one I've covered. And as you know, William, I've covered a lot of them every once — since L.A. in '84 and nothing quite like this.

    Obviously, no crowds, no fans, empty arenas, empty stadiums. You're looking at whether it's beach volleyball or skateboarding or swimming, just sections of arenas, entire sides of arenas, all, of course, empty. And that is jarring. No matter how many times you saw it, it really was strange.

    And yet, these athletes out there doing what they do, the best in the world, and still performing beautifully. So, you know, anyone can save these games. It was the athletes. And I think in many ways they did.

  • William Brangham:

    With regards to the U.S. Olympic team, the U.S. really surged at the end and racked up a lot of medals, and particularly the U.S. women did phenomenally well. And you wrote a column recently where you credited a lot of that to Title IX back here in the U.S.

    Can you explain that?

  • Christine Brennan:

    Absolutely. That's the law, William, that Richard Nixon signed almost 50 years ago, June of 1972, basically mandating that women and girls would have the same opportunities as boys and men to play sports in high schools and colleges. And it opened the floodgates for those girls and women to be able to play like their brothers in sports the way that they, boys, have done for generations.

    And it is the evidence is clear. For the fourth consecutive Summer Olympic Games, women in the United States won more medals than men and this time close to 60 percent of the U.S. medals won were won by women.

    For example, April Ross, the women's beach volleyball player, won the gold medal. She said if there if there wasn't Title IX, I wouldn't be here. She said it's just a fact that her college experience, getting a chance to get a scholarship and play in college led to her years later winning this gold medal here in Tokyo.

    Katie Ledecky, the same thing, saying the opportunities that she was given because of Billie Jean King and Donna de Varona and other pioneers fighting for Title X all those years ago, that that has made her the athlete she is. If U.S. women, William, were actually a country, they would have finished fourth in the medal count ahead of almost 200 other countries, including Australia and Japan and Great Britain. That's how remarkable the U.S. women were at these Olympic Games.

  • William Brangham:

    It is such a tremendous legacy and there are obviously some standout performers among those women, too, as well. Allyson Felix certainly being one of them.

    Tell us a little bit about her remarkable run.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Thirty-five years old, her last Olympics she has with her 11th medal, which she won in the women's 4×400, relays a scintillating race of past, present and future American women stars and running when they won the gold. That's her 11th medal, making her the most decorated American Olympian ever in track and field.

    Also as a mother, she is — this is her first Olympics as a mom with having had her daughter in 2018. And she had to fight for equal pay and for maternity pay and paternity leave from Nike, one of her major sponsors. And she's one of the biggest names in the Nike stable. And they did not want to pay her while she was pregnant.

    And she fought that battle and she won. So she's not only excelling on the track, but she is taking and as a veteran in her 30s, she is now taking on issues for not only women her age, but women who are going to be coming along, professional Olympians who want to also be moms, continuing to compete because of Title IX. And they will have rights and they won't be able to make money that they otherwise would not have made because of Allyson Felix.

  • William Brangham:

    And lastly, you recently wrote that the — this Tokyo Olympics, even though the face of protests and the pandemic and no audience that it did go on, but the future of the Olympics as a real cultural touchstone is changing.

    And it is not as clear that that's going to be going forward the same way. Can you explain?

  • Christine Brennan:

    Certainly TV ratings have plummeted just in the U.S. and I'm sure around the world as well. It's just — it's just not the must-see TV that it once was when you raced home and without DVRs and videotaping, if you got home a few minutes late and that was on from 8:00 to 11:00 in the East, the Olympic Games that got home at eight, 15, those 15 minutes were gone forever. You could never get those Olympic minutes back. So you did it was appointment viewing and you had to be there.

    And now you, frankly, can follow the Olympics without ever turning on the broadcast. There's certainly — the Olympics are going to be here for a long, long time. But they're changing. They're basically just not as special as they once were. And that's okay.

    It's just the reality of our sports landscape and all the options people have for watching and viewing sports.

  • William Brangham:

    All right. Christine Brennan from "USA Today," joining us from Tokyo, Japan. Thank you for all of your great coverage of these Olympic Games. Great to see you.

  • Christine Brennan:

    You, too, William. Thanks so much.

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