Athletes prepare to prove their medal at Sochi


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GWEN IFILL: In a late development today on the security issue, Delta Air Lines says the Transportation Security Administration has now banned all liquids from carry-on luggage on flights bound for Russia.

This afternoon, I spoke with Steve Wilson of the Associated Press about what’s happening on the ground in Sochi. He’s covering his 14th Olympics.

Steve Wilson, thanks so much for joining us.

It seems that there’s a big question about readiness for the Games and for overall security. Let’s start with the security piece. What are you hearing about how secure people feel on the ground in Sochi?

STEVE WILSON, Associated Press: Well, I think people have heard all about the security measure, which seem to be the most stringent security measures we have ever had at any Olympic Games.

We have got maybe 40,000 Russian security forces in place. There’s warships in the Black Sea. There’s U.S. warships also nearby. So there’s a sense — there was a bit of a sense of foreboding coming to these Games. But now that it’s about to start, people are on the ground, they’re at work, and they’re ready for the Games to start tomorrow, still on edge, but hoping for the best.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the Games particularly. I’m curious about how the venues look and how the athletes seem.

STEVE WILSON: Well, these Games are particular in that it’s been — everything’s been built from scratch, literally, in the past seven years.

So these venues are brand-new. They’re sparkling. They’re gleaming. I think the athletes seem to like them. The competitions have already started a little bit today from qualifying. And it looked great on TV. The weather was good. So, for all the money they have spent on the venues, it seems to be well spent.

It’s perhaps some of the things around the venues, outside the venues which are a little bit worrying in terms of preparation. There’s certainly a sense of last-minute preparations still going on, hotels which aren’t quite ready, rooms which are — have things falling from the ceiling, stray dogs here and there, wet paint. So there’s a bit of a feel of, let’s get this thing together at the last minute.

GWEN IFILL: So let’s move on to the Games. Who are you watching for?  There are some familiar names. There are some unfamiliar names. I would like to start with Shaun White.

STEVE WILSON: Well, yes, Shaun White is maybe the biggest name of all in terms of rock star, celebrity status here.

And it was disappointment, of course, that he had to pull out of one of the events, which was slopestyle, which is a new event which he was hoping to medal in. He decided to withdraw from that. He is concentrating on his preferred event in the half-pipe, which he’s most famous for. Of course, he’s won two gold medals already in that. So he will be going for a third gold medal. So all eyes are definitely on Shaun White up there.

GWEN IFILL: In hockey, another game we watch closely during the Olympics, what do the U.S.’ chances look like?

STEVE WILSON: Well, hockey will be one of the featured sports here for sure, one reason being that it’s almost a national sport here in Russia.

And if there’s one competition, one gold medal that the host country wants the most, it’s in hockey. And they have had some disappointments in the sport. In Vancouver four years ago, they failed to even win a medal. But now that they’re playing at home, they have got their star players.

Alex Ovechkin from the Washington Capitals is going to be their top player. So look for Russia to make a big move. Then again, of course, you will always have the U.S., you will have Canada. It should be between those three teams.

GWEN IFILL: And some of the NHL players, like you mentioned, Alex Ovechkin, are in fact playing for other countries.

STEVE WILSON: Absolutely.

You know, NHL shuts down their season in order for their players to come to the Olympics. And there’s so many international players in the NHL that they’re spread out from Sweden, to Finland, to Russia, to U.S., to Canada. It’s really one of the most international events there is. And they are all professionals and household names in their countries.

GWEN IFILL: As we’re watching skiing, who are you looking at?  We know some of the names, like Bode Miller.

STEVE WILSON: Well, of course, the biggest name of all is Lindsey Vonn. She’s not here. She had to withdrawn. She didn’t recover from her knee injury, from her knee surgery. And that was a big blow to the U.S. team and also probably to the TV networks who are broadcasting here.

But there’s still some skiers to watch from the American side. You have got Bode Miller going in the downhill. Of course, he’s won five Olympic medals already in his career. He’s back here after missing all of last season after a knee surgery. And he’s showing strong signs that he’s back. So you have got give him a shot in the men’s downhill coming up.

Otherwise, on the men — on the women’s side, you have got an 18-year-old superstar, Mikaela Shiffrin, who’s already the best in the world in her events, which is the slalom. So look for a gold medal for her in the — on the U.S. side.

GWEN IFILL: There are new events in this Olympics that we haven’t seen before.

STEVE WILSON: Yes. In fact, there’s 12 new medal events this time, 98 medal events in total.

And I would say perhaps the event which might get the most attention is women’s ski jumping, because we have never had women’s ski jumping in the Olympics before. They had a long battle to get in. They were refused entry four years ago in Vancouver. They even went to court to try to get in the Games. It failed.

But they have since been admitted to the Olympics. And that will be one of the premier events. And the U.S. has a star at fleet that, Sarah Hendrickson. She’s the world champion in the event. She’s coming off, however, surgery, knee surgery she had in the last few months with knee ligaments. So there’s question marks about whether she’s in good shape or not.

But — and there’s a 17-year-old ski jumper, women’s ski jumper from Japan who’s a household name back in Japan, and it should be a good battle.

Other new sports to watch, we have got slopestyle, both in the snowboarding and in freestyle skiing. It’s a fantastic event to watch, huge jumps, tricks, rails. It’s an X Games event. It’s meant to draw in newer, younger viewers. And I think we will see a lot of excitement in the that.

GWEN IFILL: I know we can’t wait for the Olympic Games to begin.

Steve Wilson, European sports editor for the AP, in Sochi, thanks a lot.

STEVE WILSON: My pleasure.

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