Olympic great Apolo Ohno on this year’s ‘unprecedented’ Winter Games

We are near the midpoint of the Winter Olympics, one of the stranger and more controversial Games, given the advent of COVID and China's record on human rights. Even so, athletes are trying to compete under enormous pressure at the highest levels. Amna Nawaz gets the perspective of former speed skater and Olympic great Apolo Ohno, the most decorated Winter Olympian in U.S. history.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We are just about at the midpoint of the Winter Olympics, and they have been one of the most unusual and more controversial Games, given COVID and China's record on human rights.

    Even so, athletes are trying to compete under enormous pressure at the highest levels.

    Amna Nawaz gets the perspective of an Olympic great.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, this first week has seen its share of disappointments for the Americans, but there have been electric moments as well, featuring Chloe Kim, Nathan Chen, and Lindsey Jacobellis, to name just a few.

    And there's also a lot of attention Eileen Gu, who was born in the U.S., but is competing for China, her mother's home country.

    For more on the games from an athlete's perspective, I'm joined by former speedskater Apolo Ohno. He is the most decorated Winter Olympian in U.S. history with eight medals, including two goals.

    Apolo Ohno, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks so much for making the time.

  • Apolo Anton Ohno, Olympic Gold Medalist:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, how does the most decorated American Winter Olympian of all time watch the Olympics? Can you just kick back and kind of watch? Or are you screaming at the TV the whole time?

  • Apolo Anton Ohno:

    I watch them the same way that everyone else watches them, on the road, like when I'm in transit, when I'm flying, when I have access to just consume this as much as possible. I wake up in the middle of night sometimes to watch the events live.

    And I cheer and scream and cry and smile and shout at the screen like I think everyone else does. I think the difference now is that I'm no longer, obviously, on the field of play. I'm on the opposite side. So I know what it feels like pre-competition, when they're about to go down a slope or do something. It's pretty spectacular.

    So — but I get involved just like anyone else. And, by the way, a lot of this happens when I'm just alone. And I find myself screaming at the television, which is really fun.


  • Amna Nawaz:

    Apolo Ohno is just like the rest of us.

    So, who have you been watching? What have been some of the standout moments to you so far?

  • Apolo Anton Ohno:

    Well, I have watched everything so far.

    I have watched all the speedskating. I have watched the snowboarding. I have watched the skiing. I have watched — obviously, because of my bias with short track speedskating and long track, in its essence, is something that I love to see, because, I mean, to me, these Games are unprecedented.

    They're unlike anything that these athletes have ever experienced before. And the past two years have been unprecedented, unlike anything else all of us have ever experienced before. And so this is a dramatically different Olympics.

    Obviously, you know as well as I do the geopolitical tension that exists there, a lot of different conversations that are happening around what can and cannot be said when on the podium or even there inside a foreign country.

    But make no mistake, these athletes still want to perform their best. And they're having more open conversations around how they feel, how they're performing, the stress and the pressures associated, and how the athletes can really rise to be their best versions of themselves.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to unpack some of those points you just made, but also to ask you about kind of another unprecedented moment, which is just this Asian American excellence we are witnessing.

    You heard me list some of those names there, Nathan Chen and Chloe Kim and Eileen Gu.

    Why do you think it took until this moment to have that kind of representation in these Games?

  • Apolo Anton Ohno:

    That's a great question.

    I think that — and, hopefully, maybe I had some semblance of a fraction of a percent to do with that, when other athletes were looking and seeing someone who was biracial, who looked like them, maybe had a similar background of growing up in a single-parent household.

    I think, at the end of the day, this is something that is a long time coming, right? I mean, representation, no matter where you're from, what you look like, who you identify as, is a really important aspect of making sure these athletes are going there to be their best.

    And it does take a few cycles of the Olympic Games. For example, when I competed in my first Games in 2002, eight years later, in 2010, there were kids who were on my Olympic team who started skating because they watched the 2002 Olympic Games.

    And so this phenomena and dream is very real, where we identify with someone that looks similar to us, they have some kind of background and story that resonates with us, and/or they just understand that the Olympic movement is pretty spectacular.

    So I think it's important to recognize what's happening in terms of the Asian American representation, but make no mistake, these athletes are going they're representing as athletes to be the best versions of themself.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We're hearing a lot about athletes' backgrounds, which kind of gives us much more of a complete picture of them.

    But we're also having a conversation about mental health. And credit where it's due. After the Tokyo Games and what Simone Biles went through and talked about openly and bravely, it's very much a part of these Beijing Games as well.

    I'm curious if you can tell us, what do you think most people don't understand about the unique pressure faced by Olympians?

  • Apolo Anton Ohno:

    Well, I think it's challenging to see or understand why someone would dedicate five years, 10 years, 15 years of their life for a race that lasts 40 seconds' long.

    And in that race, at a particular Olympic Games, the difference between first place, being on the cover of Wheaties, getting the commercial attributes associated, being celebrated and recognized and, effectively, your recognition being changed overnight, to being in fourth place, just off of the podium, no one knows or watched, no one remembers even a few days after Olympic Games are finished.

    And that difference between gold and off the podium…


  • Apolo Anton Ohno:

    … is two claps.

    So, this entire pressure around these athletes who are going to the Games, everything is riding on this one moment, and being so married to the outcome and the result, is challenging.

    I think it is a different time. We're talking about mental health. The associated challenges with microtrauma and trauma that exists throughout the experience of a human, whether it's sport and/or not, is important. And it's good. And we should be having these open conversations.

    More importantly to me, how we identify with the word strength and champion, and what that means to us. And when I grew up, the conditioning that I had was, doesn't matter how you feel, doesn't matter your emotion, your job is to churn medals and perform under the highest amount of pressure possible.

    And that is what you have to do, you have to do at all costs, even if it comes down to your own internal unhappiness. And so now we're moving towards a society that says, hey, I can be strong, I can be extremely performant, I can win medals, and I can also be vulnerable, show empathy, and show that I'm actually human, and I have the same type of insecurities and self-doubts and maybe missteps that everyone else does who's watching.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you ever look back and say, man, I wish I had that kind of support, that kind of ability to talk about all this stuff when I was coming up?

  • Apolo Anton Ohno:

    I mean, it's easy to say yes to that type of a question.

    I think that life has been a gift to me in every essence. And good, bad, right or wrong, a fight, I always stand back up. I do my best to dust myself off and recalibrate. And life is hard.

    One of my favorite quotes of all time with these poems is, good timber does not grow with ease, the stronger wind, the stronger trees. And everyone carries their own pain, their experiences with them throughout life. But those are just mere chapters. And the way that you respond and react to them are really important.

    Do I wish I had an outlet to speak about? I don't know if I even would have. I don't know if I was comfortable in my own skin to be able to even actually let people into my mind. So it's easy to say yes, but I take everything that I have had with immense gratitude.

    And I'm grateful for the challenges that I have been able to shoulder. And as I grow and I hopefully become a more wholesome human, maybe we can deliver these types of insights to the next generation, so they can be better, they can show up for the communities, find purpose, and ultimately show up fully on a daily basis.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I can't think of a more inspiring message to end this week on, whether you're an Olympian or not.

    Apolo Ohno, I can't thank you enough. Thank you so much for your time.

  • Apolo Anton Ohno:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Inspiring, for sure. Thank you.

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