Published on February 7th, 2011 | by Alan Abrahamson3
Norm Bellingham on his USOC big push
If you know the story of the 1500 meters at the 1936 Berlin Games, you know how it was one of those races that carried with it great expectations. If most such events never live up to such expectations, this was one for all time.
Among the starters were six of the top seven finishers from the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, including the defending champion, Luigi Beccali of Italy. Also in the field: the American Glenn Cunningham, whose leg had been badly burned when he was a boy, and Jack Lovelock of New Zealand, a former Rhodes Scholar who was now a medical student.
Lovelock had meticulously trained for a killer final sprint and that, ultimately, is what won him the race, in world-record time, after a race marked by fantastic strategy and tactics, one that pushed the standards of human excellence of all who were in it to a higher level, four minutes in time to celebrate then and forever after.
Hanging now outside the fifth-floor executive offices of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s new headquarters building is an oversize black-and-white photo from that race.
That’s Norm’s doing.
Around the USOC offices in Colorado Springs, Colo, in fact, there are hundreds of photos from the last 100 years of the modern Olympic Games. There’s a fascinating quality to the pictures. They show winning, of course. But not in any of those moments of triumph can you find anyone else’s despair.
Not even in the photo depicting the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team famous semifinal-round victory. Here, instead, the shot is of the Americans shaking hands with the Soviets.
That’s Norm’s doing, too.
“To have a chance to have been part of something that has a big impact and that brings the world together — it has been great,” Norm Bellingham was saying the other day on the phone.
Norm’s last day as the USOC’s chief operating officer is this coming Friday. They announced his resignation last Friday — the USOC playing it smart, announcing it essentially right before Super Bowl Sunday, knowing it would essentially get little play in the mainstream media.
And that’s pretty much what happened.
The USOC played it that way for three reasons:
One, Norm made a lot of money. It’s all public information, right there in the Form 990s the USOC puts out every summer.
Two, Norm was at the center of the aborted launch in the summer of 2009 of the USOC television network.
Three, Norm was a candidate to be the USOC boss and didn’t get the job.
As for the money, Norm never negotiated his salary. Former USOC chairman Peter Ueberroth told him, here’s your package.
The aborted network launch remains, in many regards, a mystery. But this much is certain: There will, at some point, be an Olympic channel. It’s inevitable.
And though Norm didn’t get the CEO job — the fact that he stayed on for more than a year, and helped Scott Blackmun, who did get the job, speaks to Norm’s character.
Norm came to the USOC in the first instance because he wanted to give back to a movement that has made a difference in his own life.
Norm is an Olympic gold medalist, in kayaking in 1988. “Chariots of Fire” is without a doubt his favorite movie; he has an original poster from the movie in his office.
Norm has a remarkable background. He grew up in India and Nepal. His personal hero is Sir Edmund Hillary, who climbed Mt. Everest. Norm has an MBA from Harvard. And on and on.
A big part of Norm’s job over the past four-plus years was to make business decisions. Some of those decisions didn’t sit well with certain constituents within the so-called U.S. Olympic “family” (these decisions came in the ordinary course of USOC business and for purposes of this point stand apart from the 2009 drama over the TV network).
So what? None of that has anything to do with the big picture: Doesn’t any entity want its senior officers to get it? To understand the mission?
In Norm’s case, it can be said that he not only understood the mission — he has a genuine soulfulness for it.
That’s why that picture of the 1936 1500 hangs outside the executive offices.
It’s why Norm was rapt when Lou Zamperini came through Colorado Springs recently, the World War II hero telling Norm what it was like to compete at those 1936 Games. Norm, meanwhile, played Zamperini an audio tape of the race and when the call to the line went out over the loudspeaker went out — in German, of course — Zamperini, all these years later, froze for a brief moment.
Like being there all over again, he whispered to Norm. (Among Zamperini’s incredible accomplishments: eighth place in the 1936 5000 meters.)
“You can look in their eyes,” Norm said, referring to that black-and-white photo of those great runners from that classic 1500 from Berlin, “and it transports you back to a different time. And yet the striving for excellence in 1936 is the same as now; the young people pursuing excellence now is the same; we’re all the same.
“That, I think is one of the ultimate lessons of the Olympic Games. They reveal the fact that were all the same, and they celebrate our humanity.”