JUDY WOODRUFF: For all of the concerns and problems leading into Rio, the first days of the Olympics generally went off well, with memorable moments, and the hope of a promising week to come for the USA.
After one weekend in Rio, American swimmers are living up to golden expectations so far. Powerhouse swimmer Katie Ledecky grabbed her first gold medal of these games Sunday night, breaking her own world record in the 400-meter freestyle, with competitors almost five seconds in her wake.
KATIE LEDECKY, Olympic Gold Medal Winner: It’s an amazing feeling, to sing the national anthem and see the flags raised. I got to go out there with a teammate and we sang our hearts out.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Veteran Michael Phelps, who’s now 31 years old, collected his 19th gold, as part of the men’s 4-by-100 relay team. Also Sunday, the U.S. women gymnastics team proved their dominance in qualifying for the all-around category, which permits only two per country. Favorite Simone Biles soared to the number one spot.
Teammate Aly Raisman will join her in the finals, edging out 2012 gold medalist Gabby Douglas for the second U.S. slot. And, today, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first American Olympian to compete wearing a Muslim hijab, or head scarf. She won her first round, before being defeated.
Meanwhile, uproars over doping are still swirling over Rio. Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova faced boos before a preliminary race on Sunday. She had been banned after failing drug tests, and then reinstated. American Lily King made clear her displeasure about Efimova’s presence in the pool.
And on Saturday, Australian swimmer Mack Horton accused his Chinese rival Sun Yang of being a — quote — “drug cheat” and then beat him in the 400-meter freestyle. Chinese officials have demanded an apology.
Now for an on-the-ground perspective from Rio, I spoke a short time ago to Christine Brennan, a sportswriter and columnist who’s covering the Games for USA Today. She’s also a contributor for ABC News.
Christine Brennan, hello.
It’s been quite a weekend for the United States in swimming. Tell us what it’s been like at the swimming venue.
CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today: I will tell you, Judy, it was really an electric evening and certainly for the United States last night, with both Katie Ledecky in the 400 freestyle, world record performance, breaking her on world record by almost two seconds.
And then within, what, maybe 20, 30 minutes, you had that relay, of course, Michael Phelps coming back to the pool for the first time, 31 years old now, his fifth Olympic Games. And what does he do? He’s in the second leg of that four-person relay and he stakes the U.S. out to a lead, and the U.S. — his two teammates just came in and won, beating the French.
The crowd, you would have thought it was a U.S. crowd, in the sense that here we are in Rio. But it was a really majestic moment, I think, but with the knowledge that the fans had that they were watching something special, watching Michael Phelps return, the greatest Olympian of all time, winning his 19th gold medal.
So, those two things back to back — and Katie Ledecky even said it after she won. She goes, “I think there’s going to be another gold medal.” She was the first for the U.S. in the pool. Usually, the U.S. dominates in the swimming pool. And I think we will see that over the next few days as well.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What is it about Katie Ledecky? What puts her far ahead of the competition?
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, I think all of her opponents would love to know that.
She’s competing really only against herself. The 800 freestyle is hers. She will be even farther ahead in that. People should get used to seeing that. She’s just one of these people who has a wonderful attitude about life, super smart, going to Stanford, and gets it, has a great perspective, wonderful family that loves sports, and also, for herself, just a sense that she just wants to better herself.
It sounds like a cliche, but she just goes out there, follows her coach’s orders, kind of the model student, the model athlete, and just puts it together, and is absolutely on top of her game at the most important moment of her life.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And Michael Phelps, as you said, he’s now 31 years old. He came into these Games with 18 gold medals. He just picked up another one last night. What is he looking to do in Rio?
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, he’s got a lot more. He’s just beginning.
And people are going to say, what, more Michael Phelps? Yes. He’s got the 100 butterfly, 200 butterfly, 200 individual medley and probably one more relay. So we’re just beginning to see Phelps.
And this is shocking. When you think about this in sports, swimming is a young person’s came. As I said, Katie Ledecky is 19 years old. Somebody of these people are — a lot of teenagers in the pool.
And here’s Michael Phelps, 31. Now, he has certainly had some difficulties in his life. He went to rehab after a second DUI. He has acknowledged his problems. But the fact that he could be so strong at 31 — in most sports, he would long since be retired, in terms of his age — and yet he’s just still as dominant as ever.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And then you have the doping allegations around the Russians and others. It’s already causing a backlash among a number of the athletes. How is that affecting things there?
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: I will tell you, it’s been really interesting.
And I think the metaphor for the entire conversation, Judy, about Russian doping, the diabolical Russian doping machine and the fact that they were allowed to compete in the Olympics, as opposed to being kicked out, as I thought they should be, the metaphor really is — the pool is a metaphor for that.
The booing for these athletes, Yulia Efimova especially, the breast stroker, loud boos for her, loud boos for the Russian men’s 4×100 freestyle relay team, you never hear that, ever.
And what is that? That’s the swimmers. That’s coming especially coming from the swimming section. The swimmers know. They know. They’re disgusted by this. And I know people will say, hey, Lance Armstrong cheated and Marion Jones. The U.S. has probably given the world the two worst cheaters ever in Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones.
The big difference is that for Russia it was government-sponsored, state-sponsored doping. The equivalent would be if a member of President Obama’s Cabinet ran a five-year doping plan in the United States involving the FBI, the CIA, U.S. Olympic Committee, and U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. That’s how diabolical the Russian plan was.
JUDY WOODRUFF: One other sport Gymnastics, this was the first Olympics appearance for Simone Biles of the United States, who she absolutely lived up to her billing in that qualifying event yesterday.
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Oh, she sure did.
Think Mary Lou Retton and Gabby Douglas and Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci into one. In many ways, we are seeing the culmination of an entire sport in one person. Simone Biles is that good. And the U.S. team is that good.
This is a sport the you can have a point, a tenth of a point deciding first, second, third. The U.S. was 10 points ahead as a team in the qualifying yesterday. And the team, the U.S. team, will certainly win the gold medal, barring some incredible unforeseen occurrence tomorrow.
So there’s that. That’s the team competition. Then Simone Biles in the individual all-around, she is expected to win the gold. And then she is expected to go on to the individual apparatuses and actually keep winning gold.
And Simone Biles, I believe by the time these Olympic Games are over, will be seen as the greatest U.S. gymnast ever. And I’ll tell you, that’s saying something, because there is certainly a lot of competition for that title.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, Christine, after all the hype and the negative stories about Brazil, about Rio running up to these Olympics, how do these first few days feel to you?
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Judy, I have to say that these Games have been a pleasant surprise.
There are issues with transportation and buses not coming and things like that, but it really feels like an Olympics to me. And when I say that, I mean everything about it. The opening ceremony, I thought, was actually terrific on a budget. They did more with less, far less budget than, say — far fewer dollars to spend than Beijing in ’08 with their grandiose ceremony or London in 2012.
And I thought they did a great job with a message, with a conscience. And I think that has carried over the last few days. You have seen good will in many places. Of course, I mentioned the booing, but good will in many places.
You have seen great upsets. You have seen athletes care so much about this. And the Games are moving on. Knock on wood. We will see how it goes over the next two weeks. But they really seem to be going on just fine.
When you consider the National Football League had to cancel its Hall of Fame game because of a problem on the field, they couldn’t put on one football game, and here Rio is seemingly them moving ahead with all of these venues, and so far, so good. I think that’s in many ways a big sports upset, but it’s also a nice thing to see as the Games have started.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Christine Brennan, thank you very much. And we look forward to talking to you in the days to come.
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: You bet, Judy. Thank you very much.
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