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It's been a tough start at the Olympics for some U.S. athletes in Beijing

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's been a tough start for U.S. athletes in Beijing. The U.S. has yet to win a gold medal and is running well behind Russia, Norway and other countries in the overall medal count. Today, top American alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin skidded off course in her first outing in the giant slalom and didn't finish the race. NPR's Brian Mann is with us from Beijing. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So Mikaela Shiffrin is looking to make history at these games as the alpine skier with the most Olympic gold medals. Is that still in the cards for her?

MANN: Yeah. She does have a good shot, but this was a blow. This was the first time in four years that Shiffrin failed to finish a giant slalom race, so it's bad timing. This is her very best event and was her best shot at claiming a gold medal here in Beijing. Afterwards, she said she felt good in the race but had what she called a small mistiming, and that caused her to fall. But Shiffrin is a remarkable athlete, widely considered one of the very best alpine skiers ever, and she's scheduled to compete in four more events here. So she still has a good shot at medaling and setting that new Olympic record.

FADEL: Now, these athletes obviously face incredibly tough competition, the best in the world. But you found they're also facing unfamiliar terrain in China. How is this Olympics different?

MANN: So most of these winter sports take place, year after year, at pretty traditional venues, most of them in Europe and North America. And Shiffrin and these other athletes travel a kind of circuit to World Cup races, and they get to know the ski courses and the sled tracks. And to compete at this level, at these speeds, that kind of familiarity is really important. But here in Beijing, it's different. These athletes have had very little time on these courses. They were built new for these Winter Games. Tucker West, an American luge racer, talked about this after arriving in Beijing.

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TUCKER WEST: We just have less training than a typical Olympic cycle. Normally, we would see this track a year or so beforehand. But obviously, due to the COVID situation, our training events were canceled. So we've only really seen this track for about two weeks in November.

MANN: Which is literally a game changer, right? I mean, luge is a sport where athletes rocket down an icy track at speeds topping 90 miles an hour. West says that's a lot harder to do when you just don't have all the twists and turns deep in your muscle memory.

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WEST: I think the potential for mistakes down the track is higher. You don't really know all the intricacies of the track. You don't really know what could pop up.

MANN: And this same learning curve is happening in a lot of these other sports here. The venue where speed skaters are racing in Beijing is using a different, more environmentally friendly technique for making ice. And some of the athletes say it feels really different. So they're having to adapt. And it's not just U.S. athletes facing this challenge.

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THERESE JOHAUG: Of course, it's not the best.

MANN: That's Norwegian cross-country skier Therese Johaug, who arrived here for her races with zero experience of the course.

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JOHAUG: We come yesterday evening, so we have not been to the stadium yet. So we didn't know how the snow is, how the condition is and how the track is.

MANN: So in a sense, all these athletes are kind of in the same boat, you know, trying to figure out how to lay down their best runs at these venues where they don't have the comfort of experience. For Johaug, it worked. She actually won the very first gold medal of these games. And one other bit of good news is that when athletes do get on these courses, they're often saying good things about the conditions. U.S. downhill skiers AJ Hurt and Katie Hensien talked about this.

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AJ HURT: I really like the snow here. I think it's awesome. I mean, coming into it, I think we were all a little bit, like, concerned. We were like, oh, it's never snowed here before. It doesn't snow here often. It's all man-made snow. But it's great.

KATIE HENSIEN: You know, like, I think coming in, we're like, oh, there might not be a lot of snow. There might be, like, you know, rocks and stuff. But I think it's definitely impressive.

MANN: And, Leila, the alpine ski courses here outside Beijing are really unique. The white tracks of artificial snow they've created for these Olympics wind through the brown, arid mountains. And the contrast is visually dramatic, kind of strange and beautiful - doesn't look anything like what we've seen at past Winter Olympics.

FADEL: Now, while the athletes are competing, the head of the International Olympic Committee met with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai over the weekend. Can you tell us what came of that?

MANN: Yeah. You know, last year, Peng Shuai accused a top Chinese official of sexual assault on social media. That post was quickly taken down. And she then disappeared from sight for a time. Her well-being has been a big concern ahead of these Olympic Games. And in a statement, the IOC said Thomas Bach met with her over dinner. Peng Shuai also went with an IOC official to an Olympic event, a curling match. And she also gave an interview to a French magazine where she downplayed the whole controversy, denied she ever accused the former Chinese vice premier of sexual assault. That reversal hasn't ended questions about her treatment and her safety. She also said she's retiring from professional tennis.

FADEL: Now, Brian, these Olympic Games have been framed by questions about human rights in China and by the pandemic. Now that the competition's underway, are Americans watching?

MANN: Well, briefly, Leila, it's a big drop from past years. They had about 16 million viewers for the opening ceremonies over the weekend, down by roughly 40% from the Winter Olympics just four years ago. But there is a lot of sports still to come, so we'll see if people start tuning in.

FADEL: NPR's Brian Mann in Beijing. Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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