USOC seeks answers

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009

Six years ago, ethical crises, accusations of mismanagement and internal turmoil had become commonplace at the U.S. Olympic Committee, the organization charged with overseeing the Olympic movement in the United States. Congressional leaders angrily summoned the USOC to Capitol Hill, publicly admonished the organization and set in motion a dramatic restructuring designed to cure the body's considerable ills.

Yet after a few years of relative peace, unrest flared again after Chicago's crushing fourth-place finish in the international race for the 2016 Summer Games in October. Many placed the blame for Chicago's poor showing squarely on the USOC, saying a host of management blunders had inflamed tensions in the international sports world.

Soon after the vote, several dozen U.S. Olympic sport executives called for the immediate resignations of Chairman Larry Probst and Acting Chief Executive Officer Stephanie Streeter. An executive search committee was appointed to find a new CEO, and another 13-member committee led by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was handed the task of determining whether another restructuring was needed.

The USOC's seemingly cyclical boardroom battles and institutional havoc have not sidetracked U.S. Olympic athletes to date -- the U.S. team won a nation-leading 110 medals at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Many say, however, the constant unrest has cost the organization millions of dollars, weakened international esteem and, most recently, severely damaged Chicago's hopes of winning the 2016 Games.

Others say an organization already bracing for the aftershock of a historic recession and enmeshed in an emotional feud with the International Olympic Committee over the divvying up of Olympic monies, cannot also continue to weather petty internal problems and hope to properly support the athletes that are supposed to be its highest priority -- and who are heading to Vancouver for the Winter Games in February.

"It concerns me deeply . . . ," said U.S. International Olympic Committee member Anita DeFrantz. Once "again we are moving into an Olympic Games, and we're not focused on the athletes."

Probst, the organization's fifth chairman since 2000, declined to step down amid the intense criticism but said he would redouble his efforts to do the job. Streeter, the fifth chief executive in that time frame, announced she would not seek the permanent CEO post, a position expected to be filled in the coming days. Meantime, a final report from Tagliabue and his committee is expected in March.

"There is a history of instability," Tagliabue said, " to put it mildly."

There have been four other formal, blue-ribbon-panel attempts in the last decade to figure out just what the USOC, which employs more than 400 staff and oversees more than three dozen national sport governing bodies, should look like and who should be at its helm, but the government-chartered, non-profit organization expected to field high-caliber Olympic teams every two years has proved difficult to tame, harness and steer.

"The problems that exist are solvable," Probst said. But "they can't be solved overnight."

Don Porter, the president of the U.S. based International Softball Federation, said the national governing bodies that most directly support the U.S. athletes that compete in the Olympic Games, "are not very happy."

"It got to the point in the last 10-12 years," Porter said recently, "that it just fell apart."

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