Larry Probst steps down as USOC board chair

It’s not surprising that Larry Probst has announced his intent to step down as chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The only twist is the timing.

Many close observers believed Probst, 68, who has been in the post since 2008, might see through his third four-year term — that is, through the Tokyo 2020 Games. 

Instead, the USOC announced Monday that Probst will step down at the end of the year. Susanne Lyons, who served as acting chief executive from the end of February through mid-August, will succeed him. Her first four-year term starts Jan. 1. Sarah Hirshland has taken over as CEO.

To be honest, if I were Larry Probst, I would leave now, too. Any reasonable person would.

Mr. T and USOC board chair Larry Probst at the Team USA award show in April in Washington // Getty Images

Mr. T and USOC board chair Larry Probst at the Team USA award show in April in Washington // Getty Images

Probst is a really, really good guy, an honorable guy, who put in countless, thankless hours over these past 10 years, sacrifices of his time in the prime of his productive life. He could have joined five or 10 or 15 corporate boards and made millions of dollars. Instead, he volunteered his time on behalf of the USOC. 

You may think it’s awesome to fly overseas. It is not awesome to fly to, say, Kuwait when you don’t leave the hotel — you might as well be in Buffalo or Wichita or Dayton (I grew up in Dayton so don’t come at me) — and, jet lagged, sit through a weekend’s worth of meetings, and then fly back home to the West Coast. 

It is especially not that awesome when you are already a corporate executive and you for sure do not need more air miles. 

Remember, meanwhile: during every single minute of those meetings, you are representing the United States of America. Think back to high school for just a second here: do you remember when your social studies teacher explained the concept of American “exceptionalism”? When you are an American IOC member, you are by definition exceptional. There is no margin for screwing up. Every little mistake can become magnified, and in an instant. 

Try being jet lagged and being exceptionally nice to everyone you meet in meeting after meeting after meeting, and for 10 years in a row.

Try doing all this when you have a family-related health issue that is absolutely a pressing personal priority. When, in addition, over the course of your service to the USOC, your 88-year-old father passes away. 

Larry Probst is not just some two-dimensional, black-and-white, in-the-headlines public figure, there to be criticized in the wake of the news. He is a real person. 

And he cares, deeply, for America’s athletes. To know Larry Probst and to have seen him revel in Serena Williams’ victories at Wimbledon as part of the London 2012 Games, particularly her singles gold, is to have seen the best in all of us. 

Because of the emotional turmoil that has enveloped the USOC in the aftermath of Larry Nassar’s crimes, Probst has come in for — undeserved, it says here — condemnation from a great many quarters.

This, though, is not an either-or calculation. The USOC is not about, on the one hand, winning medals while making money or, on the other, ensuring athlete safety. That’s not what’s what.

In the current environment, emotions have often been running high. In the fullness of time, a calm, measured review of what happened and what can be done better — based on facts — will win out. It always does. 

And to reiterate: Probst is uncommonly decent. Just like Scott Blackmun, the former USOC chief executive. Both of them. 

When Probst said, as part of a conference call Monday,  “I think we’ve been very clear about this … we failed our athletes. I’m at the top of the food chain, so I take this very personally,” know this — he takes it very personally.

I say this as someone who has come to know and appreciate Larry Probst as an executive and a real person over these last 10 years.

Probst succeeded Peter Ueberroth as board chair, and as the story goes, it’s something by now of a legend in certain circles, Ueberroth purportedly told Probst that being board chair really didn’t involve that much work, you know, maybe, hmm, some hours a week or month, something Probst could easily handle.

Then came Chicago’s dramatic exit in October 2009 from the 2016 Summer Games, and suddenly Probst had a choice — he could graciously exit stage right, because after all he had been on board about a year, and no one could blame him all that much for Chicago’s trouncing, or he could stay and fight.

I’m a fighter, Probst said, and with the help of Blackmun, who became CEO in early 2010, the two of the set about repairing the USOC’s poor international standing. 

Their work culminated last year when, in a bid led by LA mayor Eric Garcetti and businessman Casey Wasserman, Los Angeles was awarded the 2028 Games in a joint allocation that saw Paris get 2024.

Probst has never been one for dramatic on-camera proclamations. 

But he is super-effective at what matters, and that is relationship building, and it’s obvious why. He is exceptionally intelligent. He is wry. He is funny. He is trustworthy. He is quietly 100 percent loyal to people in ways that never will see print and never need to do so.

Probst became an International Olympic Committee member in 2013, and been appointed since to various important commissions, and one of the significant challenges now facing the USOC — and the IOC — is that Probst’s IOC membership is tied to his USOC board spot.

Indeed, there is absolutely bound to be a perception among some with considerable influence in the IOC that — follow the logic here — while Probst’s departure has zero, absolutely zero, to do with President Trump or America First or anything of the sort, it’s of a piece with the notion that the United States is, at the moment, retreating behind barrier walls and sorting out its own problems.

Also this: nature abhors a vacuum, and a weakened United States in the IOC invites Russia and China in particular — don’t be naive to think otherwise — to exert their influence. 

The U.S. currently has two other IOC members: Anita DeFrantz, a member since 1986, seventh on the IOC seniority list, is serving the final three years of her last term as IOC vice president; Kikkan Randall, an athlete representative elected at the 2018 Winter Olympics to an eight-year slot, was shortly thereafter diagnosed with breast cancer. 

If I were IOC president Thomas Bach, mindful that there is a Summer Games in Los Angeles in 2028, I would be trying to find a way to keep Probst a member for as long as possible.

The problem is, if I were Probst, I’m not entirely sure I would want to stay. 

No disrespect to Bach or the IOC. But Probst turns 70 in 2020 — that’s standard IOC retirement age — and, as he said in a statement put out by the USOC, “I became chairman at a difficult time for the USOC and worked diligently with my colleagues here in the U.S., and around the world, to change the USOC for the better.

“It’s now time for a new generation of leaders to confront the challenges facing the organization and I have the utmost confidence in Susanne’s and Sarah’s ability to do just that.”