For decades, the Amateur Athletic Union was synonymous with the U.S. Olympic movement. Medal-winning and record-breaking American athletes were produced by its programs. The AAU, for all pratical purposes, ran the U.S. Olympic Committee and wielded substantial power in amateur sports.

But over the past several years, the AAU as a national organization has declined to the point where it is no longer the sovereign power it once was and what power it retains will be further diminished over the next two years.

Mention the AAU to members of the amateur sports community today and the comments are more likely to focus on harassment and exploitation of athletes or on 11th-hour power plays at both the local and national levels.

As might be expected from an organization that is structured like, and functions as smoothly, as the federal government, the AAU is factionalized and lacks strong, consistent full-time leadership. It is a business organization being run by volunteers.

The volunteers are the foundation of the AAU and their commitment to their respective sports will undoubttedly continue to flourish as the organization changes course.

By November 1980, the AAU will have to divest itself of its current eight franchises in the Olympic and Pan American sports since the national governing bodies for those sports are mandated by law to become autonomous, self-incorporated units.

It is a course the AAU embarked upon a few years back when deciding to give its sports committees more autonomy from the national organization.

In theory, the AAU sports committees are autonomous now. In practice, as events of the past year have shown, many are not.

As the AAU sports committees continue to become independent, many will undoubtedly seek to retain their current frahcnises while others may lose theirs to challengers.

The AAU's board of governors several years ago directed the organization to embark on a service-agency course instead of pursuing the possiblilty of attaining a franchise in one of the sports its sports committees now holds.

It was a controversial decision pitting factions of the AAU against each other, but a decision reaffirmed earlier this month by the geneal membership.

Bob Helmick, the AAU's newly elected president, said last week, "We decided the AAU wuld continue to reorganize itself as a complete service agency with no national governing body (NGB). The AAU has a lot more corporate confidence now and we thought being just an NGB would limit us too much."

A Des Monies lawyer who had a pivotal role in strengthening the AUU's leadership in the past year, Helmick said the AAU's service-agency decision embraces four objectives:

Conduction athletic programs at the local level other than those sponsored by interscholastic or intercollegiate groups and those offering "closed" competition, such as the YMCA. This category would emphasize the AAU's Junio Olympic and Masters programs.

Supplementing and assisting the USOC on the local level, such as having AAU volunteers conduct fund-raising drives in each state.

Providing services to the NGBs as they desire. Some NGBs might want AAU local officers to supervise registrations, contract a uniform insurance program or computer service compile rule books or assist in public relations.

Programming national events in the Junior Olympic and Masters programs.

Because the AAU is such a diffuse organization, both its members and outsiders repeatedly ask: Who speaks for the AAU? Whom does the AAU speak for?

This dilemma was underscored during the final days of the last congressional session as some AAU officials urged the defeat of a bill to reform the U.S. Olympic movement while still other officials and AAU athletes urged its passage.

When referring to the AAU, it is necessary to distinguish among its various organizational tiers-the 7,000 clubs, 56 associations, 15 regions and the national level.

Its five elected, national officers, considered by the sports community to be the progressive arm of the AAU, do not always agree with the executive director and the headquarters staff based in Indianapolis.

Executive Director Ollan Cassell is a controversial person whom many blame for the AAU's current woes. An Olympic gold medalist in the 1,600-meter relays, Cassell is also unpopular-if not outright disliked- among a large nubmer of athletes.

In late November, for example, a specially appointed AAU review board censured Cassell, the national office and a local association for failing to take responsive action in an athlete's rights case that had dragged on since last spring. In court action on the ame case, the AAU was ordered to pay the athlete $6,000.

Besides the officers, who serve voluntarily, and the paied executive staff, the AAU is broken down into bards of trustees, directors, and executive committee, sports supervising committees, and on and on.

It is top-heavy in committees and boards and the organization's attempts to be "democratic" with its members from the grass-roots level on up have sometimes backfired.

There was a point not long ago, for example, when baton twirlers and tae kwon do representatives could vote on-and collectively control, with others-matters tha applied only to boxing or track.

But the days are gone when 2,500 people could jam a convention hall and run roughshod over sports they knew nothing about or were not active in. The AAU has been instituting its own reforms. Attempts by the outside world to reform the AAU in the past were hampered by the fact that it is the only national governing body (NGB) in the world that it is recognized as such by more than one Olympic international governing body.

It is the international sports federations that award franchises in their sports to an NGB with the recommendation of the national Olympic committee (USOC), and the AAU is currently recognized as the franchise-holder by eight international sports federations.

The AAU, though its sports committees, is the governming body for the Olympic sports of aquatics (swimming, diving, water polo and, in the Pan Am games, synchronized swimming), track and field, bobsledding, boxing, judo, luge, weightlifting and-under question-wrestling.

Besides these sports, the AAU has programs in 10 other sports (in many, for both men and women): basketball, baton twirling, gymnastics, handball, horseshoe pitching, karate, synchronized swimming, tae kwon do, trampoline and tumbling, and volleyball.

Because of its recognition by the international federations as being the only American organization allowed to arange international competition in the eight sports, the AAU's power was immense.

That power was also, at times, counterproductive to the AAU's goals of promoting sports and fielding the best U.S. teams in international competition because of its repeated power struggles with the NCAA.

NCAA and AAU events were often scheduled for the same time, sometimes by coincidence and sometimes apparently deliberately. The result was that athletes were forced to choose sides, sit out meets or risk suspensions.

About six years ago, the AAU came under increasing pressure to reform, pressure that intensified as gymnastics and basketball successfully battled to become autonomous units with their own NGBs.

After losing those two Olympic franchises and staving off a similar threat from swimming, it's biggest money-raiser, the AAU acceded to the sports committees' demand for more autonomy.

Under the reorganization plan adopted by the USOC, a national governing body cannot be a member of more than one international sports federation that governs a Pan American or Olympic sport.

It was this provision that spelled an end to the AAU's control of eight sports, altohough some members lobbied in favor of the organization's seeking at least one franchise.

In formal hearings and in formal sessions with the Senate Commerce Committee, the AAU raised no strong objections to the bill.Its members also voted for the reorganization of the USOC.

The AAU did object to the deletion of an athlete's bill of rights from the legislation but officers said the AAU would not oppose the legislation because of it.

The deletion of the athlete's bill of rights from the legislation was the carrot to bring self-exiled NCAA back into the USOC. The NCAA objected to the board language of the bill of rights, but did not object to its being incorporated into the USOC's constitution. In a selfless gesture, the athletes agreed to the arrangement.

The AAU's officers and chairman of the AAU sports committees were at the USOC meeting and, in varying numbers, at preceding sessions when the deletion of the athlete's bill from the law was discussed.

No dissent was expressed by any AAU rpresentatives at any of the sessions and the change went through on a unanimous vote.

A few weeks after the USOC meeting, the AAU's executive committee met and threatened to oppose the bill if the athletes' rights section were not restored. The move was widely viewed as an attempt to kill the bill by marshaling NCAA opposition.

Suspicions were strong that Cassell, who stands to lose considerable power under the reorganization, was largely responsible for the committee's action.

The threat infuriated other members of the amateur sports comunity. For months they had met with Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who patiently extracted a consensus on the bill and steered it through the Senate. There were dozens of exchanges with the Commerce Committee staff.

Then there were sessions with USOC Executive Dirctor F. Don Miller, who guided the leaderless AAU in the initial stages. Michael Harrigan and John McCahill, executive director and general counsel, respectively, of the now-defunct President's Commission on Olympic Sports, which conceived the reorganization plan, also helped on concessions.

Finally, and for the frist time in histroy, the amateur sports community had agreed on a bill to refor the U.S. Olympic movement and the AAU was threatening to blow it to smithereens.

The athletes, who perhaps made the biggest concession, were miffed that the AAU had mounted its threat on the rights bill since the AAU, several said, violated athletes' rights left and right.

But the threat dissolved as Joel Ferrell, immediate past AAU president and Bob Helmick assured the rest of the amateur sports community that the AAU would not oppose the bill simply because it lacked a rights section.

During the various hearings and meetings, Helmick emerged in a leadership role for the AAU although he was never an official AAU represntative.

A former water polo player, he testified before the Senate and House as a representative of the national governing body of swimming (which includes polo) and as secretary of the International Swimming Federation.

Helmick soon became recognized in the amateur sports community as an effective and knowlegeable representative for the AAU and his opinion was sought on the bill's effect on the AAU.

HELMICK AND NCAA attorney Michael Scott of Washington acted as peacemakers, hammering out compromises and agreements for the best interests of their organizations and the amateur sports community.

The AAU's personnel committee recommended last April that Ollan Cassell be reelected executive director for two more years, but that a nationwide search for an overall administrator continue.

The AAU's treasurer, Ray Weakley, also wants a new executive director.

"It is common knowledge that I am dissatisfied with the leadership we've had," Weakley said. "If we (the AAU) are going to survive, we're going to need strong leadership.

"He's (Cassel6) an expert in track and field. But I think we need a business manager-a strong public relations-business manager as executive director rather than a sports director.

"This is a business organization and is going to be more and more a business organization."

The $16 million that Congress authorized for the USOC reorganization will be used, in part, as "seed money" to help the sports become established as self-incorporated NGBs with a full-time director. (Approximately $10 million will be used for this over a four year period beginning in 1980. Thre remainder would go to national training centers and sports medicine programs.)

Some in the AAU were opposed to the funds since the money could enable the USOC to compete withe the AAU as a service agency. Still others think the money would give the AAU impetus to make its package more attractive.

The objections to Cassell often focus on the many hats he wears. Cassell is executive director of the AAU, an ex officio member of the AAU trak and field committee and a U.S. delegate to the International Track and Field Federation (IAAF). He also has served as the national headquarters sports administrator for track and field.

The roles make him vulnerable to conflcit-of-interest charges. They also raise doubts about Cassell's commitment to the complete-autonomy course he says the AAU is following.

Cassell may be out of the AAU's executive director slot in two years, but could still remain a powerful figure in track and field through membership in the new NGB for the sport and as a delegate to the IAAF.

The national AAU's budget for the present fiscal year is $1.5 million, roughly the same as the last two fiscal years. Weakley said the AAU hopes to operate in the black for the third consecutive year. Infiscal years '76 and '75, the national office operated at a defict.

The national organization's income derives from registrations, television, donations and commercial marketing and advertising. The national office gets $1.50 of every registration fee.

In 1976, according to the PCOS report, the national office spent $534,872 on Olympic sports, of which the AAU is the NGB. It spent an additional $86,767 on Olympic sports governed by other organizations.

The largest appropriations from the national office went to the traditional money-makers: swimming, ($141,602), track and field ($136,327), wrestling ($92,564) and boxing ($57,687). The smallest sums were for water polo ($6,280) and diving ($8,464).

In the Olympic sports governed by other organizations, the national AAU spent high of $79,847 on men's basketball (women's $1,680) to a low of $12 on women's karate.

A breakdown for the AAU's non-Olympic or Pan Am sports was not available.

Many AAU officials who have "paid their dues" to their sports and the organization wil undoubtedly find leadership roles or niches in the new national governing bodies-bringing despair to some who wanted them ousted and pleasure to others who seek their guidance.

The effects of the AAU's new organizational approach and its impact on the U.S. Olympic movement, however, will probably not fully realized until the 1984 Olympics.