Golden Skate

Christine Brennan: Online Interview

Journalist Christine Brennan

Journalist Christine Brennan – USA Today sports columnist, author of the best-selling figure skating books Inside Edge and Edge of Glory and television sports analyst – is a leading voice on the Olympics, international sports, women’s sports and other sports issues.

Brennan, a staff writer at The Washington Post from 1984-96, was an on-air commentator for ABC News and ESPN television during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, breaking the news of the pairs figure skating scandal at the Games. She also worked for ABC News during the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano and the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.

Brennan has appeared on a variety of network and cable shows over the past decade, including ESPN’s SportsCenter, Nightline, Good Morning America, World News Tonight and NBC’s Today show. A commentator on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, Brennan appears regularly on ESPN Radio and WMAL Radio in Washington, D.C. Her sports commentaries appear on-line at usatoday.com.

Brennan, who joined USA Today as a columnist in 1997, became the first woman to cover the Washington Redskins in 1985 as a staff writer at The Washington Post. At the Post, she covered the Olympics and international sports, reporting from many nations, including Cuba and the former Soviet Union. Brennan has covered every Olympics since the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Prior to joining the Post, Brennan was the first woman sports writer at The Miami Herald, where she worked from 1981-84. The author of four books, Brennan has won the Women’s Sports Foundation’s journalism award four times, and her work has been featured in various sports anthologies. Her 1998 book Edge of Glory won an Ohioana Library Association book award. In 1993, she was named the Capital Press Women’s “Woman of Achievement.” She recently was named one of the top 10 sports columnists in the category of the nation’s largest newspapers by the Associated Press Sports Editors for 2001.

A native of Toledo, Ohio, Brennan was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1995. She graduated from Ottawa Hills High School in 1976. In 1988, Brennan was elected the first president of the Association for Women in Sports Media. As president of the nationwide organization, she initiated a scholarship-internship program for college-age women that now honors six students annually. Brennan received undergraduate and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University in 1980 and 1981, respectively. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Andrea: You have followed Michelle Kwan’s career since she was very young and I believe have been objective and fair when reporting on her successes and failures. Do you feel that she should turn professional or stay eligible? Do you think if she stays eligible, she will be treated fairly and objectively by the media and judges, or will she be viewed as sort of staying in it past “her time”?

CB: I think Michelle Kwan should stay eligible, and I am sure she will. Michelle loves to compete, and she knows she’ll receive the best competition in the Olympic side of the sport. She might take a year away from the Grand Prix, as Todd Eldredge did in 1999 and 2000, but I would assume she will be back, heading for the 2006 Games. If I had to guess right now, I’d say she will be at the Olympic trials in 2006, trying for a spot in the Games in Turin, Italy. I would love to see her do that. Some journalists might criticize her for sticking around, but we all have to realize that Olympians in many sports are professional now, and have careers that extend well past one or two Olympic Games.

Jenny: Do you think skating is in a crisis right now due to the “skategate” melodrama and the lack of viewership for worlds? Is there a general lack of interest?

CB: I think there are serious problems in the sport with the way some national federations influence the opinions of their judges. That must be addressed by the ISU. I do not think this impacts viewership in a bad way. On the contrary. The scandal brought viewers to the sport; NBC had a 26 rating for the women’s final at the Olympics. That will be the second-highest rated program of the year in sports, behind only the Super Bowl. The ratings for worlds were quite good, and extremely competitive with the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which enjoys far more promotion and media attention.

Margo: Ms. Brennan, I am an avid figure skating fan, and have read your first two books, Inside Edge and Edge of Glory. Since these books were written, I have noticed a decided difference in the way you have been writing about Michelle Kwan. Could you please explain why this change of view has occurred?

CB: I’m not sure I agree with you. First of all, though, are you saying the first two books were positive toward Michelle, then my reporting has been negative since 1998? If that’s what you’re asking, I’ll respond this way: I refer you to specific sections in both books that deal with events such as Michelle’s change of skate boots going into the 1996-97 season and Michelle’s lack of communication with Frank Carroll in some instances in her career. Again, assuming you’re saying I’ve become more negative toward Michelle after Edge of Glory was published in 1998, I’ll add this: I went to Lake Arrowhead and did a cover story for USA Today’s Olympic Glory section on the making of Michelle’s programs for the 1998-99 season, a piece that was viewed by many as quite complimentary toward Michelle and her team. I wrote some columns that were viewed as positive toward Michelle during this time, and throughout the 2000 and 2001 seasons. Clearly, Michelle went through some major changes in the 2001-02 year, and as a journalist, I of course reacted to those changes. I believe I offered a balanced view of Michelle the day after she fired Frank, the day after her short program at Nationals and the day after her short program at the Olympics. I hope I’ve interpreted your question correctly, and thanks for reading the books. I certainly appreciate your support of my work.

Barry: Why didn’t you follow the money and find out who had a real motive for the SLC judging scandal?

CB: I’d submit that my reporting – and the reporting of my colleagues at USA Today and at other papers – continues to uncover details important to this story. We’re still working on it. This is a story in progress.

Cathleen: Do you believe Sarah won the Olympic gold by a large margin although the ordinals were close to a certain extent?

CB: The result of the women’s competition in Salt Lake City came perilously close to becoming a bigger scandal than the pairs judging controversy. It was a 5-4 split, as you know. It should have been 9-0.

Cathleen: Was it shocking to you when Sarah came from behind to grab the gold medal and how do you feel about her skating in general?

CB: I was surprised because she had been in fourth after the short. I was not surprised that Sarah Hughes skated well in another long program. Sarah is a gamer, and has proven to be reliable in pressure situations time and time again. I expected her to win a medal coming from fourth place; I didn’t think it would be the gold. That would have required imagining that Sasha Cohen, Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya all would have made mistakes. Of course, they all did.

Cathleen: Do you feel Kwan was in the very best form to compete this season leading up to the games?

CB: No, I do not. It’s one thing to be 17, with a single mindset and a body that can practice all day. It’s another thing to be 21, with many wonderful distractions in life. Look at the ages of the past three Olympic gold medalists: 16, 15, 16. That’s no coincidence. I also think Michelle made a mistake firing Lori Nichol and Frank Carroll in the Olympic season. She has the right to do whatever she wishes, but I still don’t understand why she did it, and I do think she would have been better off working with them in the Olympic year.

Cathleen: What strategy should Michelle Kwan take should she seriously desire to compete at the 2006 Games? Do you believe she has any chances of winning or even medalling there?

CB: Michelle Kwan needs no advice from me, but since you’ve asked, I’ll give you my two cents worth. I think she should take next year off from the Grand Prix, go to college, have some fun, keep training, but take a bit of a break. Perhaps come back for the 2003 nationals, perhaps not. I would assume she would come back for the 2003-04 season and see how that goes, then keep gearing up for the push to 2006. A lot depends on the progress of Sarah Hughes, Sasha Cohen, Jennifer Kirk, et.al., but I’d imagine Michelle would have a fighting chance to make the 2006 team. If she really pushed herself physically and artistically, and stayed healthy, of course, I’d say her chances would be better than average of winning a medal. The gold? I’d say look at today’s 12-year-olds. But who knows? This is figure skating. Who can predict anything?

Cathleen: What’s your take on Sasha Cohen compared with the other top ladies?

CB: Sasha is a terrific talent and a most earnest competitor. As an artist, she has few peers. But she has to find a way to land all the jumps. She has never skated a completely clean long program in major competition. She has to be able to do that to win a national or world title.

Sara: I was wondering if you were planning on writing another book about the 2002 Olympic season (or any others for that matter)? If so, could you share any information with us?

CB: I am not writing a book on the 2002 Olympic season. If I did, I’d call it “Over the Edge.” 🙂 I am working on a coffee table book on the Champions on Ice tour, to come out this Christmas.

Kimberly: Regardless of the fact that Kwan would have won the silver medal if she had finished first or second in the free skate (at Worlds), who do you feel should have won the ladies free?

CB: I was not at worlds but instead watched on television. It’s difficult to tell from TV exactly how they skated. So I’m not comfortable saying without having witnessed it in person. I don’t mean to wimp out. Hope you understand.

Kimberly: Okay, so this political tag they call judging– if it were up to you, how would you handle it? It’s obviously a bigger mess than some of us thought it was, and it obviously involves all the disciplines, not just dance. Is revamping the system what needs to be done? What do you think of Cinquanta’s proposal? Or do we need to deal with the people (judges and federations, and ISU) as opposed to the actual judging system?

CB: I don’t like Cinquanta’s proposal; does he want only a jumping contest? Can he possibly be serious about that? I’d do two things right away: Pay the judges and take the selection of the judges out of the hands of national federations. It’s simple: Create an oversight panel for judging (some combination of ISU outsiders and insiders), give them 30 of the best judges to place in competitions, pay those judges a salary that means something and fire them if they cheat. It’s similar to the system used by the NFL for its referees.

Josh: Many feel that Sasha Cohen is the “future of women’s skating.” What do you think?

CB: I think Sasha could be the future, if she finds the nerve, or whatever you want to call it, to land all the jumps in her long program. I think Sarah Hughes also has a say in this. Sarah is one of the toughest competitors I’ve seen in this sport, so don’t forget about the Olympic gold medalist.

Betty: Why were you so down on Michelle after the Olympics? Aren’t you a true fan of hers or are you only a fair-weather fan?

CB: I haven’t written a word about Michelle after the Olympics. As for being a fan, I’m a journalist. I’m not a fan of any skater. You get to know people and you like them or you don’t like them, but as a reporter and
columnist, you should not be a fan.

Anonymous: I realize that you are a very renowned journalist, but have you ever thought that if you were a figure skater instead, trying to do what you’ve always loved doing, competing with the top skaters in the world, would you appreciate some journalist watching your every move and blowing everything you do out of proportion?

CB: I think I would realize that if I were a figure skater making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, I would be subject to scrutiny, some of which might be seen as good and some of which might be seen as bad. If I didn’t like the attention, I’d get out of skating. I’m not trying to be flip; I seriously analyze everything I write about teenage athletes in skating and every other sport I cover, but at the end of the day, they decided to go out and participate in a sport that can make them famous, and they have to realize that there are journalists who are going to report about them. Some of that reporting might be positive, some might be negative. I think their parents need to realize this too.

Peter: In your discussions with skaters and coaches in the figure skating community, is there any talk of a concerted effort on their part to bring change to the ISU, or do you suspect they are still too afraid to attempt to make waves? Do you think they would be willing at some point to form a skaters union if a prominent skater (past or present) would lead such an effort?

CB: I think skating is a long ways away from having a skaters’ union. You hear skaters or their agents complain all the time about the ISU and its rules or the national federations and their rules, but no one takes any action. Tennis, baseball, football – they’re all light years ahead of skating in this regard. I’m surprised in a way that skating hasn’t undergone these kinds of changes, but then I’m not surprised at all in that no one seems to want to take charge and lead the way in many skating issues. I’ve found skating people to be afraid of talking about anything controversial; this sport would be a lot better if it were more open. For instance, if the judges could explain their marks, they would blunt criticism before it hit the morning paper (or the web site). I know you’re talking about other issues, but it’s all part of the same problem. There’s quite a fear factor in figure skating.

Blandine: Who do you think will be the next American up and comer? After the ’94 games it was Michelle and Tara. After Nagano it was Sarah and Sasha. Who will be next in line?

CB: All I can say is look at the 12-year-olds.

Melissa: What advice would you give to an inspiring female journalist whose writing goal is to cover the sport of figure skating?

CB: I’d encourage her to get a strong education in journalism. I’d stress hard work and attention to detail. Practical experience at the college paper or in professional newspapers is important. Know the subject inside and out, but know it as more than a participant. You’re going to be explaining it to the masses; it’s just fine to come from the outside and ask a lot of questions. Also be prepared to cover many sports; I don’t know any newspaper in the United States that has one person cover skating all the time.

Anonymous: What do think of Dick Button’s comment at the World Championships that Michelle cannot win because of the judging panel? Does this mean that Michelle always won because of who was on the panel before?

CB: No, not at all. I’m sure he was referring to the very heavy weight of the Eastern Bloc and Europe on the panel, and I’m sure to what happened in Salt Lake City, where the Eastern Bloc lived up to its name, and its less-than-stellar past, with its lock-step voting for Irina Slutskaya over Sarah Hughes.

Frank: You have reported, both in your columns and books, how the controversies surrounding competitive figure skating have made it all the more popular with the general public in the United States. In some ways, those same controversies have drawn readers to your writings. As a journalist, you are reporting (and commenting) on what has happened. As a journalist, what do you think your focus on writing about figure skating would have been had there been fewer controversies to report on? As a spectator/fan, balancing the overall positive impact of recent and past controversies in the sport, what controversies would you rather not have taken place – and why?

CB: Is this Frank Carroll? Just teasing…To answer your question, as a journalist, I don’t really think about things that way. Tonya-Nancy happened, and it was an amazing story, and I very much enjoyed reporting on it. The Olympic judging scandal happened. Same thing there. I think interest in skating would be nowhere near what it is had Tonya-Nancy not happened; I wouldn’t have wished for anything like this (the attack on Nancy Kerrigan) to happen to a skater, but when it did happen, I did my job.

Debbie: Why did you create the story about Sasha Cohen intentionally crashing into Michelle Kwan at US Nationals when other skaters said no such thing happened? You seem to be on a quest to damage Cohen’s reputation. Why?

CB: Now, now, now, I didn’t create that story. It happened and I wrote about it. I wrote that Sasha was getting in Michelle’s way, and turned it into a funny (I hope), cynical (at times) and pointed (at other times)
column. Four or five other reporters wrote the same news for their newspapers. Michelle said the near-collisions distracted her. And on and on… It was news, pure and simple. People seem to forget that this was one column I wrote, one of – what? – about 25 this year alone on figure skating. It got a lot of attention, and I hear the internet went wild, but I don’t control that. I just did my job and wrote a column on something I thought was very interesting. And I was not the only journalist who felt that way.

Cianni: Who do you think is the best skater out there? Not who has a good
skate and wins, but for their quality of skating?

CB: Michelle Kwan when she pushes herself, as she certainly did in 1998. Alexei Yagudin is another one. Certainly the Canadian and Russian pairs. Those are a few.

Shaas: What do you think would happen if all eligible skaters in the senior ranks were to go on strike (as a protest to political judging at competitions) for a full year?

CB: It won’t happen in our lifetime. However, if it did happen, it would have a dramatic impact. It might just take a one-week strike, say during Skate America or Skate Canada, to get Cinquanta and the gang to listen and make significant changes. Any pressure that would impact TV dollars would make a significant statement.

Sarah: Do you think it will be possible in future competitions for Sarah Hughes to actually win when all the other top skaters (Irina, Michelle, Sasha, and the upcoming teenage American upstart) skate cleanly, or will she need help?

CB: Interesting question. Yes, I do think Sarah Hughes can win when the others skate well. Sarah can do more technically than they can, at least in the jumps, and I’m guessing she won’t be hammered as much as she has been in the past on the “flutz” issue because of that little thing called the Olympic gold medal.

Larry: Michelle or Janet Lynn? Michelle or Peggy Fleming? Michelle or Dorothy Hamill? Michelle or Kristi Yamaguchi? Who cares about the Olympics – which of the above do you fell is/was the best?

CB: I’d go with Janet Lynn first, followed by Dorothy Hamill, Peggy Fleming, Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi. It’s a tough call. They’re all great. Please don’t send hate mail over this one, okay?

Anonymous: What made you want to become a writer? What inspired you, and why figure skating?

CB: I’ve always loved sports (playing them and watching them) and always loved writing. I went to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and received my undergraduate and master’s degrees there. I’ve covered sports for 21 years, many different sports, mostly football, the Olympics, and lately, golf and tennis. Figure skating is something I started covering in 1990. I saw a sport full of intrigue and drama, and got interested. After the Tonya-Nancy scandal, I wrote Inside Edge, followed by Edge of Glory. I cover many sports now; figure skating certainly is one of my favorites.

Anonymous: What do you think figure skating would be without Michelle Kwan? What impact, if any, would it have had on the USFSA?

CB: I’m not sure if you mean had she never become a skater, or if/when she retires. Had she never skated, it would have been a huge loss because she is one of the greatest of all time. She has been the most dominant skater in the most turbulent time in the history of the sport. And when/if she leaves, it will leave a void, not only on the ice, but in terms of her class, grace and sportsmanship.

Anonymous: What was your first impression of Michelle Kwan as a skater? When was the first time you saw her and what struck you about her as a skater?

CB: I first saw Michelle at the 1993 nationals in Phoenix, her first trip to the seniors. She was gangly and very young, but so determined. You just knew she was going places, this kid. And she had the right coach to guide her in Frank Carroll.

Oy: What did you think the repercussions would be from your article about Sasha after U.S. Nationals? What outcome did you expect or hope for?

CB: I didn’t give any possible repercussions a second thought. I never do. Really. I just write and let the chips fall where they may. That’s what we journalists do. I had no expectations or hopes for any outcome. I wasn’t thinking about an outcome. There was no agenda or hidden plan. I was just reporting and writing.

Julie: If Michelle Kwan were to consider hiring another coach, who do you think it would be (or should be) and why? Do you feel she needs one?

CB: I believe Michelle could use a coach, like any athlete. I have no idea who it would be. Frank Carroll was the perfect coach for her, I thought.

Virginia: Do you think that presentation in both men’s and women’s figure skating is beginning to suffer due to a demand for increased technical difficulty, especially as far as jumping is concerned?

CB: I do. I think figure skating should be careful that it doesn’t dissolve into a jumping contest. Artistry and presentation are big parts of the sport, and even though they create controversy due to subjectivity, skating would lose much of its popularity without them. —Christine Brennan