USOC’s smart play: staying out of 2020

DAEGU, South Korea — The president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, said here Friday, “Obviously we would love to have had a bid emanating from the United States for 2020,” and, sure, no doubt about that.

At the same time, the United States Olympic Committee unequivocally did the right thing by announcing earlier this week it would not be bidding. An American bid could not have won. If no one else is willing to be so blunt in saying so — it says so here. Not now, no way, no how. Moreover, it’s not clear when. Maybe 2022. Or maybe not. It’s too soon to know.

You can believe there were a variety of interests urging the Americans to jump in to the 2020 campaign. Larry Probst, the USOC chairman, and Scott Blackmun, the USOC chief executive, deserve credit for having resolve enough to just say no. That’s leadership.

Right now the IOC, and for that matter international sport, is in the midst of what the South Koreans, prompted by the first-rate American strategist Terrence Burns, cleverly termed the “new horizons” era. That slogan encapsulated Pyeongchang’s winning bid for the 2018 Winter Games. That same sort of expansionist thinking won Sochi the 2014 Winter Games and Rio de Janeiro the 2016 Summer Games — and, as well, brought Russia and Qatar the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Friday brought yet another “new horizons” twist — one that makes Probst and Blackmun look even smarter.

Left to right: IAAF spokesman Nick Davies, IAAF president Lamine Diack and IOC president Jacques Rogge at news conference in Daegu, South Korea

After meeting all afternoon here at the Inter Burgo hotel behind closed doors, the IOC’s policy-making executive board gave Doha the green light to launch an autumn bid for the 2020 Games, when it would be cooler in Qatar.

Later Friday, the Qatar Olympic Committee announced they were in the race. The formal entry deadline is Sept. 1.

Istanbul, Madrid, Tokyo and Rome have announced they’re in, too.

There’s no question, of course, that the United States has the facilities and resources to stage an Olympic Games. As Seb Coe, the leader of the London 2012 bid and now its organizing committee, has famously put it, that’s the “how.” What’s now missing is the “why” — the story of why the IOC would vote to send the Games back to the United States.

Until that “why” comes along, there’s an incredibly strong argument to be made that it’s best for the United States to remain a loyal, faithful and devoted Olympic partner but graciously permit others to shoulder the burden of staging the Games.  It currently costs $100 million, or more, to bid successfully, and in the United States, where all that money has to be privately raised, there has to be a return on that investment.

See New York 2012 and Chicago 2016.

Let’s be perfectly clear. At least 20 years will have gone by from the last time the United States had the privilege of staging the Games until the next time, whenever that is; the last time was of course in Salt Lake City, in 2002. But it’s not that the USOC, and the United States of America, haven’t sought the Games. To the contrary.

Indeed, the next time a bid committee goes to the White House to ask the president of the United States for his (or her) personal involvement in the campaign — again, it gets back to return on investment.

It is indisputably true that the IOC and USOC find themselves locked in a complex dispute over revenue-sharing over broadcasting and marketing shares. Solving that is a prerequisite for the launch of any American bid. It wasn’t going to be solved by Sept. 1, and that’s why the USOC was for sure out for 2020.

The two sides are currently negotiating; eventually, the matter will be solved. It’s a contract dispute. Such disputes inevitably get solved.

That just sets the stage, though, for the real work.

Far too many people seem to have a grossly unrealistic expectation about the bid process, particularly in the United States, fueled perhaps by Atlanta’s win for the 1996 Games.

That win, though, happened at a very different time in both American and Olympic history, when the United States was riding the boom of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Those days are long gone.

What Probst and Blackmun understand is that the USOC now is in the relationship business.

That is the real work.

The two most intriguing U.S.-centric bid-related news bits this week were not so much that the USOC opted out of 2020 — the signals had been there for a long while — but that Probst and Blackmun last week traveled to Peru, Brazil, Argentina and Chile, and that here this week Bob Hersh, the American delegate, was not only re-elected to one of the four IAAF vice-presidential positions but received the most votes among all the candidates.

First, the South American swing:

It is vital that the USOC play a key role in the western hemisphere. If you can’t help lead in your own neighborhood, how can you lead anywhere else?

It’s why Probst, in a statement released by the USOC, said it had placed a “high priority on being a trusted partner” in the Americas. Blackmun — who, by the way, is also due into Daegu next week — called the South American trip an “opportunity to learn from some of the smartest people in the Olympic movement and continue to build genuine relationships.”

Hersh, meanwhile, offers a solid example of how Americans ought to — no, must — go about re-building their international relations effort.

Hersh has been active in track and field circles throughout his life. He was manager of his high school (Midwood High, Brooklyn) and college (Columbia) track teams; after law school (Harvard), he became an official at track meets; then he got involved with the body that pre-dated USA Track & Field. For chronological purposes, that takes us to the 1970s. He was elected to his first IAAF post, a technical position, in 1984.

That was 27 years ago.

Hersh has steadily worked his way up since, saying in an interview Friday, a couple days after receiving 175 votes for vice-president, “Work is the key word,” adding a moment later, “The way you progress in most organizations is by doing work that is recognized. And it is work. No question about it. A lot of work. I am pleased, as anyone would be, when things come of it.”

Dale Neuberger is a key figure in swimming. Svein Romstad is secretary-general of the luge federation. Max Cobb is a rising figure in biathlon.

Here, in addition to Hersh, three other Americans were also elected to IAAF posts, including David Katz, who led the voting to remain on the federation’s technical committee in balloting that saw 12 elected from a field of 28.

The United States needs more such worker bees, and in considerably more federations. That’s how networks get built. Over time, such networks build influence.

Again, give Probst and Blackmun credit. Rather than being rushed into a decision for 2020, they took their time.

“We respect and we understand the position of the United States Olympic Committee,” Rogge also said here Friday, “and we hope there will be good bids in the future beyond 2020.”

There’s no rush.

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