Later this week, outgoing U.S. Olympic Committee Chairman Larry Probst will dine with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach while he’s in New York City for the UN General Assembly. Two weeks later in Argentina, he’ll meet with Olympic world powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah of Kuwait.
The topic at both meetings: How Probst might “continue to serve the Olympic movement,” in his words, after he steps down in December.
Meanwhile, Probst’s successor, Susanne Lyons, will accompany him to the IOC session in Argentina and then to Tokyo for the Association of National Olympic Committees’ meeting in November for introductions.
All of these efforts are designed to ensure that when Probst leaves, he doesn’t take with him the single biggest asset he’s developed in his decade as chairman: The USOC’s insider clout in the global Olympic industry, which barely existed at the start of his tenure in 2008.
As chairman of Team USA, the former Electronic Arts CEO kept a limited personal portfolio. But his primary role, as the USOC’s chief diplomat, was crucial to winning the 2028 Los Angeles Games and counterbalancing the surging sports political powers of Russia and China. Also, he’s a leading voice in the IOC’s efforts to modernize its approach to media through the Olympic Channel.
Probst will lose his IOC seat when he drops the domestic chairman title, and Lyons won’t necessarily be appointed in his absence. (Probst himself served five years before getting that plumb position.) That means the USOC likely will fall back to just two voting IOC members, Anita DeFrantz and newcomer Kikkan Randall, for the first time since early 2010.
Probst wants to stay involved, and that could include being named to the IOC as an individual member — a situation that would give the U.S. a full-time senior diplomat, freeing Lyons and new CEO Sarah Hirshland to focus on the challenges facing the USOC at home. Short of that, Probst could remain influential through the Olympic Channel, the Pan American Sports Organization or other IOC commissions.
“I’m not moving to Mars,” he said. “I care deeply about this organization and I will try to contribute in some other way going forward.”
In the media conference announcing the transition, most of the questions for Lyons were about the domestic situation facing the USOC. That includes lawsuits from athletes who accuse the USOC of not doing enough to stop sex abuse; Congressional investigations and the USOC’s own commissioned investigation; possible amendments to the Amateur Sports Act; and big changes to the governance of individual sports.
Lyons drew parallels to when Probst joined the USOC in 2008.
“When Larry first took this job 10 years ago, it was not dissimilar to where we are now, in the sense that many people were not very happy with the USOC,” Lyons said. The difference, she said, is that Probst had to mend fences with international partners and the national sports governing bodies.
“Sarah and I are entering a similar phase right now,” she said, “and I think the relationship that really needs to be rebuilt is with our athletes, who are the core of the movement.”
Lyons will be focused domestically for now, but she will need to develop a role in the international movement, especially as LA28 approaches and a possible Winter Games bid emerges.
Lyons is well-suited for the diplomacy part of the job, said Michael O’Hara Lynch, Nielsen’s global head of consulting who reported to her when she was CMO of Visa from 2004 to 2007.
“She’s certainly an expert in human relations and organizational behavior,” Lynch said. “I don’t think we could ask for a better individual than Susanne Lyons to guide us into the future from an organizational efficiency and effectiveness standpoint. That holds true also at the IOC level.”
Lyons’ professional history as Visa’s CMO, Lynch continued, is especially useful because she knows firsthand how crucial it is to protect the Olympic brand, and the important role sponsors play in the privately funded U.S. Olympic team.
There could be conflict between Lyons’ desire to please athletes and her efforts to fill Probst’s shoes internationally. Probst was criticized by some athletes for not speaking out more against doping, or the IOC’s response to the Russian doping scandal. Lynch predicted Lyons will “listen to the athletes, and very much be proactive in terms of evangelizing the athletes’ voice, especially the American athletes.”