The USOC as “us” instead of “them”

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Scott Blackmun, the chief executive of the United States Olympic Committee, wrapped up his speech to the USOC’s annual general assembly here Friday morning with what may have been the one of the most remarkable comments put forth in the nearly 14 years I have closely covered America’s Olympic organization.

In the context of pretty much any other American entity, it might not have been so incredible. But by the standards of the formerly dysfunctional USOC, it was a chart-topper.

“I’m having a blast,” Blackmun, the USOC’s chief executive since January, 2010, said. He added a moment later, “We feel great about where we’re going, and I hope you do too. If you don’t, I hope you come talk to us about it.”

The USOC very much used to be an “us” versus “them” sort of institution. Petty politics, turf wars and worse used to pass for par for the course.

Now, with Blackmun and board chairman Larry Probst firmly in charge, the message that rang through loud and clear Friday was of a USOC with the emphasis on just those first two letters — “us.”

Board chairman Larry Probst delivering his state-of-the-USOC address // photo by Stratos Safioleas

Accessible, inclusive, publicly and avowedly committed Friday to diversity and to winning off the field of play as much as on — to being what Probst, in his speech, which immediately preceded Blackmun’s, called a “trusted partner” within the worldwide Olympic movement.

There will be other days in which the USOC doubtlessly will find itself criticized for something, and assuredly that criticism will be deserved. That’s the nature of being in the public interest. On the once-a-year occasion when the leaders of the USOC stand before their stakeholders, and the report is largely positive — it’s only fair, and right, that the good vibe ought to be noted, too.

Reality check: Is the USOC perfect? Hardly.

Does it face significant challenges? Of course.

Internationally, for instance, the USOC and the International Olympic Committee must yet, for instance, resolve a longstanding dispute over broadcast and marketing revenue shares.

It will have been at least 20 years since the Games were held in the United States  — in 2002 in Salt Lake City — and it’s far from clear when the Olympics will be held here next.

In another area, a USOC diversity working group reported that but 36 percent of the USOC’s manager level positions and above were women; 91 percent were white. Among the national governing bodies, only two of the 47 chief executives are women; 91 percent of the board of the directors are white; and just 15 percent of membership is non-white.

Saying the USOC was looking for “measurable progress” to “enhance diversity,” and soon, Blackmun declared, “We’re not doing this because we have to. We’re doing this because it’s going to make us better.”

It that sort of thing sounds treacly to those who don’t understand the way Probst and Blackmun operate — think back to October, 2009.

That was when Chicago got whacked in IOC voting for the 2016 Summer Games. That was the (most recent) low point. The president of the United States had made a personal appearance In Copenhagen on behalf of the bid and still Chicago got the boot in the very first round. A lot needed to be changed.

At the time, Stephanie Streeter was the acting chief executive. She fairly quickly opted to step down.

The obvious step thereafter was a new chief executive. Whoever would get the job — and, just as important, whether Probst would let whoever that would be actually run the place, the tone and tenor that would be set — would prove key.

Probst, in his address Friday, called Blackmun “one of the finest leaders–and finest individuals–on the international sports scene, and we are very fortunate to have him leading the USOC.”

The next step was fixing the USOC’s governance model, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s committee recommending a series of steps, including the appointment of new board members, five of whom were appointed last December, resulting in what has — so far — yielded a more-balanced board.

The result, Probst told the audience: a “great” CEO, an “engaged and committed” board, a “strong governance model, all “operating in complete alignment with your interests as never before.”

Add to that the $4.4 billion deal NBC struck with the IOC a couple months ago for the U.S. broadcast rights for the Games from 2014 through 2020 — that ensures not just the IOC’s financial base but the USOC’s, too.

Over the last year, meanwhile, Probst has been to 18 different international meetings and events in 13 different countries; Blackmun has been with him on most of those trips.

The two of them, for example, were the first national Olympic committee officials to travel to Tokyo after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in northeastern Japan this past March.

“The Olympic movement operates on relationships — on real friendships built over time,” Probst said, noting the example of Pyeongchang, South Korea’s winning bid for the 2018 Winter Games, a success after failed bids for the 2010 and 2014 Olympics.

“It’s making a difference because we can go into hotel lobbies … and know people,” Blackmun said of the travel he and Probst have undertaken.

In past years, USOC leaders have been blunt in saying they expected the U.S. team to top the medals count at the Summer Games. Looking toward London and 2012, some experts have said the United States might fall as far as third in the medals count, behind China and Russia. Mindful of the successes this past summer of U.S. teams, including the 32 medals the swim team won in Shanghai and the 25 the track team won in Daegu, Probst gently said from the lectern, knowing full well his comments would be reported around the world, “I’d be willing to bet we don’t finish third.”

You don’t have to smack talk to be confident in your team, you know.

It is, in fact, a new USOC — one that recognizes the United States has a distinct position in our world but doesn’t seek to impose an American way to the exclusion of all other ways. There are lots of ways.

“Our goal is to become off the field what we have always sought to be on the field — the best and most respected national Olympic committee in the world,” Probst said. “To do that, you have to be present, you have to be real and you have to connect.”

Blackmun put it slightly differently but no less elegantly. He said, “One thing I sometimes feel is that people in Washington are focused on one party or the other instead of the nation. Historically, we’ve had some of the same issues in this room. I don’t feel like that today. I feel unequivocally supported by everyone in this room.”

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