Mettle, Not Medals, Is Goal of U.S. Team
Saturday, April 19, 2008
Nearly a year before the 2004 Summer Games, U.S. Olympic Committee officials proclaimed a target of 100 medals for Team USA in Athens. The goal became a guiding slogan, and it led to a public countdown as the United States claimed its 100th medal on the 15th day of the 16-day Olympics, with USOC officials racing between venues for the crowning achievement.
There will be no such sprints at the Summer Games in Beijing this August. As part of a broad-based effort to improve the U.S. Olympic team's image, which has been tarnished in recent years by performance-enhancing drug scandals and misbehaving athletes, U.S. officials decided to do away with a public medal target -- and the chest-thumping that accompanied it in Athens -- for Beijing.
"We don't think it serves a useful purpose politically . . . or for us," USOC Chief Executive Jim Scherr said. "If we just tell athletes the entire goal of the whole system is to win medals at all costs, that would not be the ideal way in the Olympic movement."
Besides abandoning the medal target, U.S. Olympic officials have instituted mandatory two-day seminars for U.S. athletes that address conduct, manners and ethics. They also have paid particular attention to the uniforms that more than 500 U.S. Olympians and team officials will wear at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies in Beijing to ensure they do not come across as too casually attired. U.S. anti-doping officials, meantime, recruited a dozen top athletes to sign on to a voluntary program in which they are subjected to extensive blood and urine testing to demonstrate that the U.S. Olympic team is committed to competing drug-free in Beijing.
The changes flowed in part from recognition that any controversy, cultural misstep or jingoistic display will be magnified during the first Olympics in China, considered a landmark Games that will be viewed by an estimated 4 billion people, which would be a record global television audience.
But they also reflect the USOC's determination to distinguish the 2008 U.S. Olympic team from previous U.S. squads that came to be defined by cheating athletes, surly behavior and arrogance. Making such a distinction will be no small task, officials realize, given the continuing repercussions from the drug scandals of this decade.
Marion Jones, who won five medals at the 2000 Olympics, is serving a six-month sentence in federal prison after admitting last fall that she lied to federal investigators about her drug use during those Games. Her former coach, Trevor Graham, goes on trial in May on federal charges of lying about his relationship with an admitted drug dealer. And a number of other U.S. medal winners from previous Olympic Games will be fighting drug allegations or full-blown drug charges as the Aug. 8 Opening Ceremonies in Beijing draw closer.
The No. 1 priority "is send a clean team to Beijing," said Steve Roush, the USOC's chief of sport performance. "Number two is behave in a manner that is exemplary. Number three is performance. Why is it number three? Because if you fail in any of the first two, I don't think anyone cares what you did in number three. I certainly want number three to matter."
That point was hammered home at the Winter Games in Turin, Italy, in 2006, as the United States finished second to Germany in the medal count but watched its surliest or most recalcitrant stars often garner the biggest headlines. U.S. speedskaters Chad Hedrick and Shani Davis feuded, Alpine skier Bode Miller snubbed reporters and claimed to have skied drunk, and freestyle skier Jeret "Speedy" Peterson was sent home early after being involved in a late-night scuffle to which the police were called.
In the aftermath of the Turin Games, USOC Chairman Peter Ueberroth and Scherr agreed: They needed a behavior target, not a medal target, in Beijing. Having weathered a host of crises that led to political and economic pressure for reform, Ueberroth, Scherr and other USOC officials seem driven almost to obsession over issues of comportment and proper conduct.
USOC officials have been summoned to Capitol Hill more than a dozen times over the last decade. They have been questioned by lawmakers about a performance-enhancing drug scandal before the 2004 Summer Games; a USOC management and ethics crisis a couple of years before that; and an international Olympic bribery scandal in 1999, which led at least one major U.S. corporation to threaten to drop its Olympic sponsorship.