By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Though U.S. and international Olympic officials say they are under no overt pressure, their corporate and financial backers say the athletes' image and behavior also are paramount among their concerns.
"If we do have athletes we are working with in any given country, we certainly wish them the best, but we choose athletes based on what they stand for, not whether they are going to win a gold medal or not," said Susan Stribling, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola. "We support when the USOC and IOC take action to do things that preserve the sanctity of the Olympics and principles it stands for."
Not that athletes still don't feel pressured to succeed. The USOC continues to reward athletes who earn medals with financial bonuses, while many athletes have their own sponsorship arrangements, some of which have built-in performance bonuses.
Even so, officials can't ignore the commercial and political success of Michelle Kwan, a five-time world champion figure skater who produced some dramatic failures in her quest to win a gold medal at the 1998 and 2002 Olympics. Kwan parlayed her Olympic disappointment into opportunity in part because she showed what is now considered an almost historic graciousness in defeat. She became one of the wealthiest and most popular Winter Olympians.
Now retired from figure skating, Kwan is working as a public diplomacy envoy for the State Department.
"Michelle Kwan means more to the United States Olympic Committee than maybe any athlete that's ever performed for the United States Olympic Committee," Ueberroth said in 2006 on the day Kwan withdrew from the Turin Games because of an injury.
Before heading to China, athletes are required to attend one of four seminars in Washington, San Diego, Chicago or San Francisco involving 26 hours of instruction and discussion on such topics as making ethical choices, Olympic ideals and Chinese customs. Former Olympians, ethics experts, former lawmakers and Chinese cultural experts are among the speakers.
"They were really preaching clean competition and basically teaching us how to be well behaved," said weightlifter Casey Burgener, who attended a session in San Francisco in January. "That message was very clearly put across."
The USOC is so concerned about projecting a respectable image that the organization's top officials even labored over the athletes' uniforms. Concerned that outfits similar to the hip sweat suits and "poor-boy" caps worn at the Athens Opening Ceremonies might seem too informal, the officials signed a new contract with Polo Ralph Lauren and requested a classic slacks-and-jacket ensemble for men and women.
Performance-enhancing drug use has provided the most vexing problem for U.S. officials. They cringe at the thought of another drug scandal, such as the one that enveloped the U.S. track and field team leading to the 2004 Olympics and eventually led to Jones's admission last fall that she used drugs while winning at the 2000 Summer Games.
At a gathering of U.S. athletes in Chicago this week, U.S. track and field stars Allyson Felix and Brian Clay announced that they and other U.S. competitors had signed on to a burgeoning anti-doping program called Project Believe, which requires that they submit to nearly constant drug-testing in the hope of erasing doubts about whether they truly are drug-free.
"Anytime someone tests positive in track and field, it is a major blow. . . . It is even more of a blow to the athletes trying to do it the right way, because there are definitely things like sponsorship opportunities that [it] does take away," Clay said. "Our job is to compete to our best ability and to put our best foot forward and to try to represent U.S. track and field to the best of our ability . . . [and] to let people know this is the real U.S. team here."