Donna de Varona

USOC: 'an exciting new time'

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- After Larry Probst and Scott Blackmun had given first-rate speeches to the hundreds gathered here at the Antlers Hilton hotel for the U.S. Olympic Committee's annual assembly, the two senior USOC officials, with a gaggle of reporters in tow, found a small room just off the big ballroom for an impromptu news conference. This was the Jackson Room, named not for the seventh president but for a 19th-century Colorado photographer. A big wooden table dominated Mr. William Jackson's room. Blackmun took one of the blue chairs on one side of the table, Probst the chair right next to him.

Probst, in his shirt and tie, jacket off, leaned back in the chair, waiting for the first question. The two of them hadn't yet said a word in this little clutch but their body language said everything: relaxed, calm, comfortable, confident, in charge.

What a difference a year makes.

And what buzz around what traditionally has been a lackluster, even dreary, event.

This year, the scene at the assembly and its related programs was marked with energy, enthusiasm and a distinct sense of inclusion, from the opening reception Wednesday (a packed house swarming the bruschetta and the fried shrimp, and how about the support of that Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau!) through the wrap-up meetings Saturday.

The catch phrase that appeared on the literature the USOC distributed here read "one team," and that sentiment seemed to strike home.

One example from among many: Dick Ebersol, the NBC Universal Sports & Olympics chairman who last autumn was a vocal USOC critic, delivered the keynote address Friday night. Probst introduced him as "our good friend and partner."

Another example: Mark Emmert, the incoming NCAA president, made a joint appearance Thursday morning with Blackmun and while they didn't announce any major initiatives, it didn't matter; the point was that the guys in charge of the USOC and NCAA were on stage together.

"I have said this repeatedly: I am more enthusiastic about this organization and this movement today than I have been at any point in the last 10 years," Dave Ogrean, the executive director of USA Hockey, said at a cocktail party Friday night.

"The best presentation I have heard in my 32 years of association with the USOC by its leaders," a former USOC spokesman, Mike Moran, posted on his Facebook page, referring to the Probst and Blackmun speeches to the assembly. "Candid, on the money and substantial."

Donna de Varona, the Olympic swim gold medalist turned sportscaster and women's- and athletes'-rights activist, called the meeting the "most inclusive, visionary and inspirational gathering in the history of the U.S. movement."

A pause: the USOC's history is filled with much-documented starts, stops, missteps and missed opportunities.

One also must note that the success of the moment hardly guarantees anything in the future. See above: USOC starts, stops, missteps, etc.

Even so, this assembly made for a great convention, and it would thus be irresponsible for the reasonable observer not to relate the obvious: There is a renewed sense of optimism and can-do within and around the USOC, and it's primarily because of leadership. That means Probst, the USOC chairman, and Blackmun, the chief executive.

"Larry has not only found his role but his voice," Doug Logan, the outgoing USA Track & Field executive, said in an interview. "And Scott is not only doing the right things and saying the right things but saying them with the right inflection."

From the daïs Friday evening, Ebersol, referring to Probst and Blackmun, said, "Let me say very clearly: congratulations for the start of this incredible turnaround. We are very lucky we have your leadership. And we hope we have it for a very long time."

It was last Oct. 2 that the International Olympic Committee delivered its humiliating verdict on Chicago's 2016 chances -- out, despite the personal lobbying in Copenhagen by President Obama himself, in the first round, with only 18 votes. Later that day, Rio de Janeiro would win going away.

A lot of things that had bubbling for a lot of time led to that vote, which Probst in his speech here Friday called, among other terms, "devastating." Some of it involved the USOC's complex relationship with the IOC. Some of it revolved around the USOC itself.

The criticism and turmoil that ensued afterward produced weeks, indeed months, of reflection and re-engineering -- institutional and, for Probst in particular, personal.

Stephanie Streeter, the USOC's acting chief executive, stepped down; Blackmun, who had been a candidate for the CEO job nearly 10 years ago, got the job this time and said Friday that "in retrospect I am grateful to be standing here now instead of then."

Why? Because then the USOC "wasn't structured to succeed." Now, Blackmun said in his assembly speech, "I am filled with optimism about the future of our American Olympic family, and in particular about the future of the USOC."

In part that's because of Blackmun himself. He is modest and speaks softly. The staff loves him.

In part that's because of Probst. He weathered furious criticism after Copenhagen, then -- as Blackmun put it -- "stepped forward to listen" and learn. As the senior USOC official, and thus its key protocol figure, he has since been traveling the world, meeting with IOC members, with plans in the coming weeks to go to Mexico, Japan, China and Serbia, among others.

"It's a relationship business," Blackmun, who is also a frequent flier, said. "We have to start by being present."

Finally, there's the way Probst and Blackmun work together. To simplify something that by its nature is more complex, indeed laden with nuance: Probst hired Blackmun to be in charge, and Probst lets Blackmun run the USOC.

The two get together by phone every Tuesday morning. Of course they trade emails and make other calls as warranted. "There is a high level of communication between us," Probst said in Mr. Jackson's room, adding, "Having said that, he is the CEO and I have no intention of being the CEO of the USOC."

In his speech, Probst said, "We are being honest and open and present and I believe we are on the right track," and while he was referring specifically to the USOC's international outreach, he could have been speaking of so much more.

Ebersol said, "I knew I was coming here for what is really an exciting new time for the United States Olympic Committee and for the Olympic movement in the United States. Just think: a year ago that would have been unthinkable, absolutely unthinkable."