At the 2022 Winter Olympics, ‘a lot of pressure and high hopes’

Team USA had a big night in Beijing, but there have been upsets and disappointments this week, too. There's also controversy surrounding a top Russian figure skater who reportedly has tested positive for a banned drug after having already secured one gold medal during the Winter Olympics. USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported, Team USA Had a big night in Beijing, but there have been upsets and disappointments this week at the Olympics too.

    And there's controversy surrounding a top Russian figure skater who reportedly has tested positive for a banned drug. She's already secured one gold during these Games, but there are questions about all of that.

    Amna Nawaz spoke earlier today with USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Christine Brennan, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thank you so much for staying up late for us. We know it's very late there.

    The Olympics are — always have wonderful stories of redemption, right, as one of the key story lines.

    Nathan Chen, the American figure skater, four years ago came in fifth, determined to do better this year. And Lindsey Jacobellis is another big story, right, known as one of the sport's most dominant athletes as a snowboarder, but also known really well for this 2006 blunder that cost her the medal.

    How did both of them do this year?

  • Christine Brennan, USA Today:

    What's fascinating, Amna, about this is that it took — for Lindsey Jacobellis, it took 16 years to finally get a chance to come back and win the gold that was sitting there for her when she made this kind of crazy move, kind of hot-dogging, celebrating a little too soon.

    We have seen that throughout sports. And when she did that back in Torino in 2006, she lost the gold medal. And it was just kind of this classic blunder. And here she is, all these years later, winning that gold, finally. Talk about perseverance, and just hanging in there, and figuring it probably wasn't ever going to happen, until it did.

    That's the kind of story that, you hear that, and even if you don't really care about snowboarding or whatever, you just kind of go, that is really great to see an athlete to hang in there that long and finally have the moment that she really deserved.

    Nathan Chen, it wasn't 16 years — he's only 22 years old, but it was four years, four big years. And you mentioned his fifth-place finish in PyeongChang in 2018. But he was 17, yes, 17 in the short program at those Olympic Games. And he went into those Games as a medal hopeful as well, but as a teenager.

    And from that moment four years ago, he has been on a mission. He's won three world titles. He's won four more national titles, six overall. He's only lost one competition between South Korea in 2018 and these Olympic Games. And that was earlier this year, just almost perfection.

    And yet the pressure was on him. And you could just feel the tension. He — when he finished his short program — he was not yet done yet with the competition — but he just punched the air, just a fist pump, which he said is so unlike him, but it was just are the relief of the tension and the nervousness and all that energy, and then just went on to skate a majestic long program.

    And about three-quarters of the way in, about a minute left, you knew he had it. The gold medal was his. He had done it. He had risen to the occasion and had the most — the greatest performance at the most important moment of his life, which not many athletes can say that, but, certainly, Nathan Chen can say that today.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, speaking of a lot of pressure and high hopes, Chloe Kim knows what that feels like. She was just 17 four years ago, when she won her first gold on the halfpipe. She established herself as one of the best in the world.

    The big picture — big question, rather, coming into this Games was, can she do it again? Can she continue to dominate?

  • Christine Brennan:

    Yes. The answer is yes.

    One of the most magnetic personalities, just someone that you hear the name, and you smile. Fans, again, even if you're not tuning in, you have heard that name, you know it. She did win the gold again.

    For the U.S., it's been difficult. You know, there has been some heartbreak. And now the gold medals are coming for the United States. But this is never easy. And these Games, the Winter Olympics, obviously, on ice and snow, they're slippery. There are mistakes. But she nailed it. She was able to overcome, obviously, not only competitors, but also just that sense, can you pull it off, the pressure of being the defending champ and doing it again.

    And she did do that, so another happy for story for the United States, obviously, as the Games are nearing the midpoint.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Another name a lot of us are coming to know now has been known for a few years in China, and that is American-born freeskier Eileen Gu.

    She's competing for China, her mother's country of origin. She's a superstar there, right? She's got billboards and magazine covers and sponsorships.

    How did she do her first Games?

  • Christine Brennan:

    She's doing great. She won the gold.

    And she's an interesting story line, because she is from San Francisco. She's 18 years old. And she chose, as a U.S. citizen, to actually compete for China. And now she's starting to get questions that she will probably get for the rest of her career. And that is, why China?

    Obviously, these Olympics are so inextricably linked with politics, the issues of human rights abuses, the Uyghur people, and the genocide that has been reported, very, very serious issues.

    Well, when you join and you decide to go with China, as she did, you get those questions. Why now?

    So, yes, of course, it makes sense in a marketing way, right, 1.4 billion Chinese, and you could sell a lot of products to 1.4 billion people, an untapped market in many ways. And so she's reaping that benefit. But she's also dealing with some very significant questions.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There's also a lot of questions surrounding the performance of Mikaela Shiffrin so far, right, 26 years old. She's had a sterling career as an alpine skier. She's won Olympic medals before.

    But, this year, in both the giant slalom and the slalom, she skidded out. And so we're hearing a lot of comparisons being made between her performance so far and that of gymnast Simone Biles at the Tokyo Games.

    I'm curious how you are looking at this. Do you think the comparisons are fair?

  • Christine Brennan:

    It's the first thing I thought of when I saw that she had skied out the second straight time.

    I mean, she was a teenager the last time she failed to finish two races. And when we say skied out, that means she didn't even get through — there's like five gates and then she's — something happens and she just kind of goes off the course. That means she's done. There's no chance, a takeover, a redo, a second chance.

    So I think many people probably saw that picture after the second one, after the slalom, where she just was kind of sitting on the snow and just kind of bent over in absolute despair. Heartbreaking.

    And it does bring to mind Simone Biles, because, let's face it, the pressure on these athletes, it's always there, but especially if you're a little bit older. You know what's at stake. There may well be other comparisons, and there may well be differences between them.

    But I do think it is, again, that conversation that I think we should have about just how much pressure is on these athletes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Christine, meanwhile, in team figure skating, we should note the Russians won gold, the Americans won silver, Japan took the bronze.

    But we haven't had a medal ceremony yet. Why not?

  • Christine Brennan:

    Because of a positive doping test, a positive drug test among one of the Russian athletes. And it was a minor. And there's only one minor among the six athletes, and that is Kamila Valieva, who is also the gold medal favorite in the women's event.

    So, because of that, there's an investigation going on, Amna. It's very confusing. There's multiple groups looking at this. Because she's a minor, that throws questions, new questions, into the mix. But the key point is, if Russia is disqualified, U.S. would move up to the gold medal, Japan, and then Canada would move up for the bronze.

    So we shall see, but this is a story that, right now, is consuming these Olympic Games.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    No shortage of news, on top of all the usual highs and lows of any Olympic Games.

    Christine Brennan, I don't know how you keep up with it all, but I'm so grateful that you do. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Amna, thank you very much.

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