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USOC seeks answers

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009; D01

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."

USOC trouble is nothing new

In the 1970s, a commission appointed by President Gerald Ford made recommendations that provided the foundation for the 1978 Amateur Sports Act, the piece of legislation that gave the USOC power over Olympic sports in the United States. Once the Amateur Sports Act was passed, the commission got out of the way, wanting to ensure that the USOC gathered control of the nation's Olympic movement without excessive government interference.

In dire financial straights after the 1980 boycott, the USOC's economic future -- and that of the IOC -- turned around on the heels of the enormous financial success of the Summer Games in Los Angeles under organizing committee leader Peter Ueberroth. Those Olympics ushered in a new era of wealth for the movement at large as the IOC adopted the sponsorship model Ueberroth's team employed in Los Angeles.

But while the arrival of big money brought opportunity, it also seemed to present a need for more sophisticated leadership and a smoother-running operation. In 1999, then-USOC President Bill Hybl ordered first an internal study and then an organizational review from the consulting company McKinsey and Co., which took six months, carried a $550,000 price tag, and determined the USOC should conduct itself more like a big business, with a chief executive officer and a chairman rather than an executive director and a president.

But the first formal attempts to lure prominent executives from the corporate world failed spectacularly. Norm Blake, a so-called corporate turnaround artist, received a $700,000 compensation package in February 2000, laid off 40 USOC employees, bought $27,000 worth of leather furniture for his office and resigned after conflicts with the USOC volunteers and staff after just over nine months.

The next, Maytag executive Lloyd Ward, was forced to leave in 2003 after he was charged with trying to steer business to his brother's company.

Those were hardly the only problems. USOC Chair Marty Mankamyer also was forced out for trying to engineer Ward's departure. And Chairwoman Sandy Baldwin had to go when it was revealed she falsified her résumé.

The tide of bedlam led to the congressional hearings that brought about the most recent set of changes. Urged on by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other members of Congress, the USOC slashed its volunteer board from more than 120 members to nine. The change was intended to make the organization more efficient.

However, many constituents allege that the downsizing went too far.

Adding the wrong experience

Once considered so overloaded with voices and interests it could do little other than have extremely expensive meetings, the current board has been accused of being too visionary, operating in virtual secrecy, being steered largely by former chairman Ueberroth (who held the post from 2004-2008) and showing a lack of understanding of its responsibility to the international Olympic movement.

The board upset USOC constituents when it nudged out respected chief executive Jim Scherr after six years at the helm last spring and replaced him with then-board member Streeter, the former chief executive of the technology company Banta Corporation. Scherr, a former USA Wrestling executive director and Olympian, was considered short on marketing savvy, but many officials give him credit for bringing better conduct and a better image to the U.S. Olympic team, as well as a sense of continuity and stability.

"When the board made the change, all of the things that were wrong came to the surface," said Skip Gilbert, the chief executive of USA Triathlon and head of association of 46 national governing bodies that called for the resignations of Streeter and Probst.

Streeter and Probst, the former head of EA Sports who took over after the 2008 Summer Games, once again brought heady corporate backgrounds but virtually no international sport experience to the top ranks of the USOC. Their critics said they rankled U.S. sports leaders while failing to play politics effectively around the world, and unwittingly hurt Chicago's chances of winning the Olympic Games through a series of ill-advised management decisions that failed to anticipate the global impact.

"Internationally, it was kind of a self-destruction situation," Porter said. "Their leadership failed."

Credibility 'at an all-time low'

Fixing the organization, some say, might be easier than undoing the damage the past decade has wrought. The U.S. Olympic movement not only has fallen in international stature, some say, but it also dropped a few notches in public perception with the infiltration of professional athletes, the scourge of doping scandals and the near-constant swirl of corporate mayhem.

"In the more than three decades of my involvement with the United States Olympic Committee," said Mike Moran, the organization's chief communications officer from 1979-2003, "it appears that the organization's overall credibility could be at an all-time low in critical areas."

The instability and public infighting, most agree, are no longer tolerable as the USOC enters arguably its most challenging era since it emerged from the boycotted 1980 Summer Games in Moscow on the brink of bankruptcy.

Though Probst says the organization is in "good shape financially" through 2012, it is largely living off of what had been a record U.S. broadcast contract signed by NBC more than six years ago. The IOC, meantime, has demanded that the USOC essentially give back certain monies it gets from decades-old sponsorship and broadcast deals that make up more than 50 percent of its revenue. And as international issues swirl, the U.S. Olympic national governing bodies whose leaders sought the resignations of Probst and Streeter are still clamoring to be heard.

"Right now, a lot of people will probably struggle to tell you the end game for the USOC," Gilbert said. "Its feet are going in so many different directions. Is that a structural problem, or a people problem? If the organizations doesn't know what it's supposed to be doing, chances are you don't have the right people making those decisions."

Several officials say the USOC needs new faces and an approach guided by the desire to partner with the important members of the national and international Olympic community, but not another major facelift. There were no fewer than four studies between 1999 and 2003 designed to make recommendations for a restructured USOC.

"You just have an organization that seems to have overreacted to the reform process," Tagliabue said. "It got some things wrong, it got some things right, but it needs a further look."

Gilbert said the national governing bodies want a larger voice on the board, but few seem to want to return to the days when just about everyone had a vote and board meetings felt like a free-for-all.

A number of officials have said in recent months that the most critical element going forward is for the USOC to find -- and quickly -- a chief executive who has worked directly in the world of Olympic or international sport rather than a corporate dynamo.

Clearly that message made its way to the USOC's search committee, which narrowed a field of more than 100 candidates for the job to six finalists, five of whom have international sports experience.

"There isn't a need for a restructuring again; we did that," said Mike Plant, a member of the USOC board who is on the CEO search team and in the past was openly critical of Probst and some board decisions. "At the end of the day, what most people will tell you is, we put the wrong people in place."

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