Blackmun tenure rebuilt USOC amid highs, lows
On July 25, 2015, U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun reportedly first learned that a USA Gymnastics team doctor stood accused of sexual assault. Just two days later, the USOC took the dramatic step of killing Boston’s floundering bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics, eventually allowing Los Angeles to step into the fore.
That fateful summer week, 5 1/2 years into his tenure, eventually led to Blackmun’s greatest triumph as leader of the U.S. Olympic movement and a scandal that contributed to his abrupt resignation on Feb. 28, just three days after the end of the Pyeongchang Winter Games.
Citing his battle against prostate cancer, Blackmun and Chair Larry Probst agreed the committee would be best served by a “full-time” CEO who could lead the response to the Larry Nassar sex abuse case, which included calls from senators and former Olympians for Blackmun’s job.
As news spread of Blackmun’s resignation, luminaries from across the Olympic industry spoke out in his defense, vouching for his character, leadership skills and track record. Most were careful to express their sympathy for the victims of Nassar’s crimes but said the core responsibility lies with USA Gymnastics, not the USOC, given its indirect control over national governing bodies.
Those weeks in 2015, when the USOC pivoted from the unpopular Boston bid to Los Angeles, keeping the hopes of a domestic Games afloat, was an example of Blackmun’s flexibility, empathy and passion coming together to deliver an unlikely result, said Duke Athletic Director and USOC board member Kevin White.
“Scott did a brilliant job of taking an entity that wasn’t chosen immediately, and perhaps should have been, but it wasn’t, and giving them the reins,” White said. “At the end of the day, when you have to pivot to another key player and you win the contest, that’s a pretty good level of work in my opinion.”
Olympic insiders praise Blackmun for many parts of his tenure, but most agree Los Angeles 2028 is a crowning achievement. Before he arrived in January 2010, the USOC’s last two Olympic bids, New York and Chicago, suffered humiliating defeats, symbols of the Americans’ isolation from the International Olympic Committee and its own internal turmoil.
“As CEO, Scott led the charge to basically make amends to all those various organizations and earn the trust the U.S. needed to win the Games back in ’28,” said Michael Lynch, former head of Visa’s sponsorship business and global head of consulting at Nielsen Sports & Entertainment.
Blackmun’s efforts to repair ties with the IOC membership is his “lasting legacy,” said Scott McCune, who led Coca-Cola’s Olympics work for 16 years. That was crucial to the company’s investment in the Games. A statement from the IOC on Thursday also credited Blackmun for repairing the relationship.
“While the Coca-Cola Co. is in 200-plus countries around the world, our flagship country and still the largest part of our business is in the U.S.,” McCune said. “And maybe even more so because of our global footprint, it’s incredibly important for the U.S. to be seen and represented well in any of our business ventures.”
Domestically, the U.S. Olympic movement bounced from rough patch to rough patch in the 15 years or so before Blackmun arrived for good. From Blackmun’s brief stint as interim chief executive in 2001 to his hiring in 2010, the body had three CEOs, a major congressionally ordered restructuring, two failed Olympic host bids and infighting in 2009 after the board forced out then-CEO Jim Scherr and replaced him with board member Stephanie Streeter.
“I think before Scott came in there was just a tremendous amount of distrust between the NGBs and the USOC,” said Max Cobb, president of the NGB Council and CEO of U.S. Biathlon. “The relationship was broken, pure and simple. I think Scott, through just the strength of his character and leadership style, was able to cut through that to rebuild trust, remarkably quickly, and he deserves an immense amount of credit for that.”
Blackmun helped shift the mission at the USOC headquarters toward one of supporting the governing bodies, said U.S. Speedskating President Mike Plant, which makes every dollar go further at the sport level. “I think Scott did a lot to make sure the staff understood they were here to help those guys get better,” Plant said.
Since Blackmun took over, his executive team has been remarkably stable. CMO Lisa Baird, Chief of Sport Performance Alan Ashley, Chief of Paralympic Sport and NGB Development Rick Adams and Chief of External Affairs Patrick Sandusky all date to 2009 and 2010.
Olympic insiders praise Blackmun for many parts of his tenure, but most agree Los Angeles 2028 is a crowning achievement
Canadian IOC member Dick Pound said, “I would say he brought a much-needed period of stability to the USOC.”
Two days before Blackmun resigned, 22 people signed a letter to lawmakers in D.C. defending him.
“In recent days, some have called for USOC CEO Scott Blackmun to resign,” the letter reads. “While we understand that may seem like a convenient way to enforce accountability, we believe that Mr. Blackmun’s resignation would hinder our efforts to move forward, rather than quicken them.”
Dan Jansen, the 1994 gold-medal speedskater, was one of the signers of the letter.
“Personally I know the guy quite well, and he’s an amazing guy, a family person, you know, with high morals,” Jansen said. “I think that it’s really important to point out, if there’s anybody being quoted here, that every one of us is sickened by what’s happened [in the USA Gymnastics scandal and other sex abuse cases], and we certainly don’t by any means condone it. But I don’t think anybody believes Scott was at fault. I think if you look at what happened, or what he did, he’s not to blame for this.”
Plant, who organized the letter, said Blackmun should get credit for pushing the committee to create the Center for SafeSport, an independent agency that is now charged with handling all complaints of abuse in U.S. Olympic sports.
The center finally launched in 2017 after being promised to start in 2015, a delay caused by fundraising challenges. Some NGBs were slow to embrace the concept.
“SafeSport was [Blackmun]’s initiative,” Plant said, “and he saw it through until the end, and it’s not easy.”
In a prepared statement, NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel also praised Blackmun. “Scott has been a great partner during his tenure as USOC CEO,” Zenkel said. “He led the effort to bring the Olympic and Paralympic Games back to the United States, vastly improved the standing of the USOC within the global Olympic movement, and solidified the USOC’s financial future through long-term agreements with NBC Universal and the IOC.”
USA Wrestling Executive Director Rich Bender said Blackmun deserves credit for the American success on the field of play in addition to the board room. “To me most importantly, I see him as a good friend, a great father, model husband and a man of big integrity with a passion to see athletes and others around him succeed,” Bender said.
Pound, the Canadian IOC member, called it a “shame” Blackmun resigned, saying it was at least in part due to “the demands of the righteous, to have somebody’s head regardless of whether there was a linear connection between what was going on in [USA] Gymnastics, which should be bearing the full responsibility for this, and the USOC.”