SBJ/November 5 - 11, 2001/Olympics

New USOC chief wins praise as ‘inspirational’

While few expect a lengthy honeymoon for the U.S. Olympic Committee's newly hired chief executive officer, Lloyd Ward, initial reaction to his plan of action is generally as upbeat as the man himself.

"Coming right out of the blocks, I thought his comments have been visionary and inspirational," said Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming, one of the nation's largest Olympic sports governing bodies. "The key is whether he, unlike so many others before him, will be able to translate the vision into real philosophical shifts."

The average tenure of recent top USOC executives has been about two years, largely because many grow weary of or become frustrated by clashes with and between the organization's paid staff, its volunteer leaders and national governing bodies that run individual sports.

Ward, 52, the USOC's first African-American CEO, acknowledged that the yearlong search that led to his hiring only set the stage for more political turf battles. Many, including USOC volunteer President Sandra Baldwin and a majority of paid staff at the Colorado Springs, Colo., headquarters expressed general support for acting CEO Scott Blackmun, who replaced ousted chief Norman Black in October 2000.

Blackmun, an attorney hired by Blake, resigned when Ward, the ex-chairman of Maytag Corp., got the job. Blackmun, 43, evacuated his USOC office for destinations unknown within a week.

Yet when Ward was introduced to the USOC's board of directors and others at its recent meetings in Salt Lake City, he deliberately steered clear of the past, which, for him, includes zero contact with the U.S. or global Olympic movement.

Despite his outsider status, Ward's dynamic speaking manner seems suited to a wide screen, and it was his poise and preparation for this first "report" to the board that had many listening closely.

Former USOC President Robert Helmick, a Des Moines, Iowa, lawyer who sits on the board, could not recall a more stirring delivery of ideas or mission. "We have not seen this before," said Helmick, semi-exiled, until recently, from the Olympic world after resigning the USOC presidency and his IOC membership in 1991 amid conflict-of-interest allegations.

Ward outlined a "servant-leader" role for himself and the USOC, and emphasized a desire to expand public awareness of the Olympic movement so that it penetrates the hearts and minds of Americans everywhere.

"That resonated with me," said USA Swimming's Wielgus, whose organization operates on a four-year budget of between $60 million and $65 million. "The USOC needs to become service-oriented, with its core business the governing bodies and athletes. It is a philosophical attitude the USOC's board, committees and staff need to have that they have not. They've always had almost a paternal view."

Ward, however, seemed to play down the idea of overhauling the USOC. "I do not think I have to steer a new direction," he said.

Joe Ramondini, director of Olympic sponsorship, promotion and event marketing for AT&T, said it is "too early to tell" how Ward's arrival will change the USOC's relationship with its sponsor partners.

Like many U.S. Olympic team sponsors, AT&T is committed through the 2004 Athens Summer Games. It supports the AT&T Family Centers at the Games and a broad range of communications and data technologies. Part of Ward's challenge will be to sustain sponsor revenue streams to maintain the USOC's large quadrennial operating budget — currently $496 million through '04 — even though there is no prospect of another U.S.-hosted Olympics until at least 2012.

"We'll begin to look at possible [sponsorship] extensions in mid-2002," Ramondini said. "AT&T is a different company than it was when we came on board in 1998. That is one factor, and the Games not returning to the U.S. until 2012 could be another of the factors for us to consider."

Steve Woodward is a writer in Illinois.

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