The U.S. Olympic Committee’s press release Thursday out of Redwood City, Calif., and the board of directors meeting there, started out with the news that Larry Probst had been confirmed for a second four-year term as board chairman.
It immediately switched — same paragraph — to note that Bill Marolt, president and chief executive since 1996 of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn., and Whitney Ping, a 2004 Athens Games table tennis athlete, had been added as new directors. The entirety of that same first paragraph was devoted not to Probst but to Marolt and Ping and who they were replacing on the board.
So typically understated.
To be clear, there is nothing — nothing at all — wrong with being so low-key. Indeed, there is a lot right, and it explains a lot of the USOC’s success under Probst’s direction. He gets things done. People in the Olympic movement have come to trust him. The USOC is taken seriously. And he isn’t the sort of person who needs a lot of attention, or public validation, for any or all of it.
The issue now: when does Probst become a member of the International Olympic Committee?
Mind you, Probst is not — repeat, not — lobbying for IOC membership. But it only makes sense, and not only for the USOC. It makes sense for the IOC, and for the Olympic movement worldwide.
To be clear once more, there are always any number of candidates for IOC membership. But, as things stand now, two are not only incredibly obvious and deserving but would actually bring a demonstrated business and political track record as well as proven leadership skills — Probst and South Korea’s Yang Ho Cho, who directed the winning Pyeongchang 2018 bid.
The tricky part would seem to be how to get this done.
The way the system is now set up, both would seem to be eligible to come in through the national Olympic committee door — Probst as the chairman of the USOC, Cho as a vice-president of the Korean Olympic Committee.
There are, of course, two IOC sessions — as the IOC conventions are called — within the next 14 months, the first in Buenos Aires in September, 2013, the next in Sochi, in connection with the Winter Games, in February, 2014.
It’s not entirely clear, given the way these things shift, how many NOC openings there might be. But the thinking in some circles is that initially there might only be one.
If that’s the case, who is more deserving? The chairman and chief executive of Korean Air? Or the chairman of Electronic Arts?
Or is that in any way a fair way to frame the issue?
Can the IOC finesse the matter to make one or the other a member in his individual right? Or somehow?
In Cho’s case, Pyeongchang ran away with perhaps the most impressive bid victory ever — winning in the first round in July, 2011, with 63 votes over Munich, with 25, and Annecy, France, with seven. Those 63 votes were the most-ever in an IOC first-round ballot; Salt Lake City took 54 in winning for 2002.
Cho came to the 2018 campaign — the third in a row for Pyeongchang — after others, led by formidable personalities such as Jin Sun Kim, governor of the province in which Pyeongchang is located, had not quite pushed the bid past the finish line. Pyeongchang lost for 2014 by four votes, for 2010 by three.
The 2018 campaign proved a high-wire balancing act. Out front, all seemed seamless. Behind the scenes, Cho had to balance a multiplicity of interests: government (national, regional and local), business (Samsung and others), the KOC, all the while taking the dramatic step of moving the bid toward its “new horizons” theme in first-rate English, hardly the preferred language of many of those he was directing.
Kim is now the Pyeongchang 2018 organizing committee chairman. Cho is back at Korean Air.
Intriguingly, like Probst, Cho is not much of a publicity-seeker. He, too, just gets stuff done.
Probst, after a rocky start as USOC chairman that saw Chicago’s 2016 bid booted in first-round IOC voting in October, 2009, has since been nothing short of — at the risk of losing one’s journalistic skeptic card — sensational.
The way he has done it has been entirely, thoroughly appropriate but at the same time fascinating: he has ceded day-to-day control to the chief executive he hired, Scott Blackmun.
That has led, genuinely, to trust and teamwork.
On the field of play, the U.S. team won the medals count at both Vancouver 2010 and London 2012.
Behind the scenes, the USOC and NBC repaired a relationship that by the time of the Chicago vote in 2009 had shown some signs of fraying; in 2011, NBC agreed to pay $4.38 billion for the rights to the 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020 Games.
Most important, perhaps, the USOC and IOC this year finalized a new revenue-sharing deal.
Blackmun and Probst have made international relationship-building a priority, perhaps with an eye toward a bid for the Games, probably in 2024 for the Summer Games; it was said Thursday that the call will go out in the first few weeks of 2013 to cities interested in bidding.
Under Probst and Blackmun, the USOC has genuinely put into practice the unique duality that is its reality.
Because of its resource, history and geography, it is at once a stand-out Olympic committee among the 204 on Planet Earth. At the same time, it is simply one among 204 — a humble member of the so-called “Olympic family,” a point Probst and Blackmun stress repeatedly, and in that spirit the USOC played host in 2012 to an IOC “women and sport” conference in Los Angeles, an IOC athlete jobs conference in Lake Placid, N.Y., and a Pan American sports meeting in Miami.
It might have been better for his own personal life if Probst had not gotten that second term. But, like Cho, Probst gets it. He understands the power of the Olympic movement to effect change in people’s lives, especially young people.
And the USOC rules are such now that, absent something dramatic or untoward, you’d expect a third. That kind of continuity would be a good thing, indeed.
Even better if he — and Cho — both — were IOC members.