SBJ/April 7 - 13, 2003/USOC In Crisis

America’s Olympic leaders musn’t pass up chance to remake system

The U.S. Olympic Committee as it exists today might thrive in a compact, socialist nation in which identifying, training and supporting world-class athletes was a wholly centralized process.

But under the largely decentralized American system, the current USOC is not only increasingly unwieldy — it is entirely unnecessary. The 21st century USOC must evolve into a professionally run "league" that generates trickle-down revenue; creates innovative events to showcase athletes, sponsors and television partners, thus keeping Olympians relevant; represents and advances American sports interests globally; and allocates performance-based "venture capital funds" to build meaningful business partnerships with the national governing bodies of sports in which U.S. athletes most often excel.

High-level turnover has left the USOC skating in circles, but it’s the organization’s unwieldy structure that threatens to keep it from getting back on track.

"The future of the organization is in jeopardy if they try to pull back [from change]," said controversial former USOC chief executive Norman Blake in December 2000, two months after he quit when board members revolted against his agenda. "The key element long term is the development of the Olympic brand."

Even some of Blake's critics, furious that he tried to circumvent their so-called authority to decide what was best for the USOC, might now secretly wonder what might have been had Blake been allowed to complete a shakeup.

In coming months, USOC interim President William Martin, the University of Michigan's athletic director, faces an unprecedented opportunity to work with members of both houses of Congress, awakened to the need for reform. Rather than retooling a USOC that becomes a benign, quasi-governmental appendage, why not aggressively promote the rebirth of a quasi-privatized USOC?

Martin's choice as he works with an independent panel appointed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is clear: He can be the Games' version of U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, teetering on the brink of diplomatic irrelevance, or British Prime Minister Tony Blair, risking everything to pursue drastic remedies.

Assuming that Congress does not suddenly decide to channel several hundred million dollars into the USOC budget every four years — and nothing indicates that is likely — the organization must seize more control of its economic destiny, while remaining transparent when lawmakers and sponsors deem necessary an inspection of the books.

"I think it has to go the way of some of the existing professional sports organizations, a professional league," said John Lewicki, senior director of alliance marketing at McDonald's, a global Olympic sponsor and, as such, USOC underwriter. "If it's government-run, I'd find it difficult to want to be a sponsor."

The Amateur Sports Act that gave birth to the modern-day USOC in 1978 was well-intended if only because one of the world's superpower nations desperately needed an Olympic committee that was more than a travel agency run by retired military officers from a few offices in Manhattan. But the law planted seeds of unintended consequences.

It spawned a framework that has grown in size and complexity, plagued by the impossible challenge of catering to multiple interests, while flying well below the radar of American lawmakers. The federal government should share blame for ignoring the brewing storm all these years rather than taking credit for alerting corporate decision-makers and average citizens to the dysfunctional USOC of 2003, as if noting the onset of a new illness.

In fact, the USOC once upon a time was required to submit an annual financial report. Now it is required only once every Olympic quadrennium, the result of a federal law revision approved in 1998 by some of the same members of Congress now expressing despair that athletes are being denied proper funding.

The U.S. "system" of identifying, nurturing and ultimately preparing world-class athletes for competition in the Olympic Games is not only about the USOC. It relies on a fluid Olympic network of communities, schools and universities (the NCAA), and sports federations, not to mention dads and moms who pay for lessons, equipment and travel. The USOC must focus on supporting athletes after they've joined the elite.

A USOC executive committee member, Jim McCarthy of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, cut to the core problem in last month's U.S. House of Representatives hearing. He pointed to the absurdity of the USOC being legally responsible both for reducing obesity in the population at large and winning medals at the Olympic Games.

In reality, the USOC has an obesity problem of its own. One step should be a dramatic trimming of its board of directors, which today has 123 members.

The new board will need primarily independent directors and fewer Olympic sports "lifers" who clamor for opportunities to travel to meetings. (Let them attend all the meetings they want as long as they are meetings called by their respective sport's national governing body.) From this new group of 15 to 20, the USOC could identify its even more compact audit and governance panel, or executive council, to narrowly define the qualities and skills it will demand from the paid administrative staff, beginning with a CEO empowered to operate outside traditional boundaries.

Two initiatives advocated by recently deposed CEOs Blake and Lloyd Ward should not have been cast aside as quickly as they were.

Ward, who resigned last month on the heels of an ethics scandal, embraced plans in place when he arrived in late 2001 to create events showcasing low-profile Olympic sports. The result was last February's Titan Games in San Jose, featuring fencing, judo, tae kwon do, wrestling and other combat sports. It lost money for the USOC, but Visa senior vice president Michael Lynch said the event was "an extremely positive start toward building high-level competition for our athletes and [national governing bodies]." Visa was among the Titan Games sponsors.

An allocation of money to build excitement around Olympic athletes through new TV events is a smarter approach than the old habit of random grants to these sports individually. In fact, Blake wanted to heap funding on national governing bodies that operated like mini-leagues and produced Olympic medals and restrict or eliminate money for those that demonstrated little more than a desire to muddle through. Blake believed it was his job to demand performance and diminish entitlement.

"We know that works in the real world," said Josh Davis, 30, a two-time Olympian who owns three swimming gold medals. "The good [national governing bodies] need to be rewarded and the bad NGBs somehow need to be weeded out."

To balance budgetary pressures with the reality that revenue streams can't grow indefinitely, the USOC should review funding levels among sports that underperform in the Olympics, just as leagues such as Major League Soccer and the WNBA fold weak franchises.

Generous USOC funding sometimes flows to sports with limited talent pools from which to develop Olympians. In the four years leading to the 2000 Sydney Games, the USOC made cash grants totaling nearly $20 million to the national governing bodies for archery, badminton, canoe/kayak, equestrian, fencing, field hockey, judo, table tennis, tae kwon do, team handball and water polo.

Those sports delivered a total of seven of the USA's 97 medals in Sydney.

Steve Woodward is a writer in Chicago.

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Related Topics:

NCAA, Olympics, USOC

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