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U.S. medal haul falls short of expectations, but there’s plenty to celebrate

At the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, some of the bigger American names have not won as many medals as hoped, but the games are still providing many memorable moments. William Brangham talks with Christine Brennan of USA Today about the figure skating competitions, Norway’s many wins and allegations of doping against a Russian athlete.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The past few days have been rougher for the American team at the Winter Games in PyeongChang. Some of the bigger names heading into these Olympics have not won as many medals as hoped.

    But as William Brangham checks in with an update from South Korea, the Olympics are still providing their share of memorable moments in skill, drama and grace.

  • William Brangham:

    I spoke earlier with Christine Brennan of USA Today, who’s also a sports commentator for CNN. She’s in PyeongChang.

    And I began by asking about some of the standout performances in figure skating over the last week, including the ice dance competition last night.

  • Christine Brennan:

    When you think of figure skating, of course, it’s always one of the most dramatic locations for any Winter Olympics Games.

    And this one has been no different. Certainly, ice dance had all kinds of thrills and chills and falls and spills. The Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir actually won their fifth Olympic medal. And that’s the most Olympic medals ever won in figure skating. They have had team competitions. They have had individual ice dance as well.

    And they go all the way back to Vancouver, winning the gold in 2010 in their home country. And now they came back again. It’s a terrific story, staying together in a sport that often is split up, where people fire coaches and change partners. And these two have been together since they were little kids, and so a great victory for Canada.

    The U.S., the bronze for the Shibutani, the Shib Sibs, as we know them, Alex and Maia Shibutani, which was a great result for them and their perseverance.

    But the other U.S. ice dancers both fell. And you really rarely see falling in ice dance. And just like you almost can’t believe this, that this is happening in ice dance, especially with the country that’s the deepest and strongest in ice dance, which is the United States.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, let’s talk about tonight. It’s a big night for women’s figure skating.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Yes.

    Women’s figure skating really is the crown jewel of the Olympic Games. Don’t expect a U.S. medal. The three Americans, potentially Mirai Nagasu with that triple axel, that historic triple axel in the team competition, she’s in the conversation for the bronze medal.

    But this is looking like Russia at the top. The Russians have not won an individual medal yet at these Games in figure skating, which they usually own. They had a team silver medal, but, otherwise, no individual medals in the other three events so far.

    It’s going to be, I think, some young names and young faces, especially with the Russians, 15-year-old Zagitova, 18-year-old Medvedeva. This is — they’re really the class of the field at this point. So don’t expect a U.S. medal.

    And I think that’s kind of the story of these Games in many ways, not just in figure skating, about the U.S. performance here.

  • William Brangham:

    In fact, speaking of that, there have been a number of competitions where the U.S. has come up short. What do you think is going on there? Is this just a function of these other countries just being a lot stronger than we anticipated?

  • Christine Brennan:

    I know the U.S. Olympic Committee would love to have the answer to that question, although there have been Olympics in the past where the U.S. has not done well at all.

    You have to go back in the history books. It’s kind of interesting, because, in 1968, the U.S. won one gold medal at those Games in Grenoble, France, one the most amazing gold medals the U.S. has ever won, Peggy Fleming, of course, with her figure skating gold in ’68, 50 years ago.

    And even going back the Lake Placid, a home Olympics in 1980 for the United States, only six gold medals, five of them by Eric Heiden and his tremendous speedskating performance. And then the most famous Olympic gold medal of all for the United States in the Winter Games. And, of course, that’s the Miracle on Ice in 1980.

    So there certainly have been other Olympics where the U.S. has not been — just had this incredible medal haul. But then going back the Vancouver just a few years ago, well over 30 medals.

    This one is different. You’re seeing some athletes who are well-known, people like Lindsey Vonn, people like Mikaela Shiffrin, not having the performances that we expected throughout the Games, although Shiffrin does have a gold. And Lindsey Vonn is going for a big one in the downhill.

    But I think that’s part of the problem. I also think it’s just the reality of the winter sports scene and the world. And that is, the United States is good, but often not great.

    And that’s certainly not satisfying to a lot of Americans, who are used to winning, sports fans who want to only see victories. But I also think there is something enticing about seeing it in this platform, seeing the world come together, the greatest and largest peacetime gathering, regularly scheduled gathering, of the world.

    And I think that that can be something in and of itself, that you don’t have to say, OK, hey, the U.S. is not going to win — if the U.S. isn’t winning gold, silver or bronze, I don’t want to watch.

    I don’t know that Americans feel that way.

  • William Brangham:

    And, as we speak, Norway is leading every other country when it comes to medals.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Well, Norway is having the Games of its life.

    And I hearken back all the way back to 1994 and the Lillehammer Olympics. And Norway put on such a push there to have a great Games. And it’s ski jumping and it’s, of course, all the cross-country skiing and so many other things that they are just so good at. And they were great then.

    And they had this incredible push. And then they had a little bit of a dip. And I think you can see now how much that they have put the nation’s effort back into winning.

    And this is no surprise. Canada had a great Games in Vancouver. Russia had a great Games in Sochi just four years ago, although we found out about the massive state-sponsored doping there that certainly changes our picture and our image of what those Games were for Russia.

    And so Norway, the fact that they — it kind of ebbs and flow, and now they’re back again. It’s terrific to see. And the exuberance of the Norwegians here, you run into them and they are just so proud and so happy. And it makes you just smile.

  • William Brangham:

    Finally, there have been three different allegations of doping in the current Olympics, one most notably against a Russian curler who, because of that nation’s prior doping scandal, was having to compete under a neutral flag.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Yes, absolutely.

    It’s almost hard to believe that Russia, known as OAR here, Olympic Athletes from Russia, that here we are, there’s allegations of doping, and, lo and behold, it’s an Olympic athlete from Russia, in curling, no less. You almost can’t make this stuff up.

    They’re on basically double secret probation here. They barely got into the Olympic Games. It’s individual athletes. Of course, as many know, of course, no flag, no Russian flag. No Russian anthem.

    And then the doping allegation we hear about is a Russian athlete? It’s just incredible. There has been a lot of talk. And the International Olympic Committee actually did say that they might allow the Russian flag into the closing ceremony, the idea being Russia behaved, Russia played by the IOC’s rules. And so now, as a reward, you will get to have your flag come into the closing ceremony.

    And I think there’s great doubt now about whether Russia will be allowed, OAR will be allowed to have their flag, because the IOC almost cannot — frankly, cannot do that after these allegations.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Christine Brennan of USA Today, thank you very much.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Thanks very much.

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