Mike Moran

Bob Paul - thanks for the memories

Bob Paul's years as press chief at the U.S. Olympic Committee came well before my time covering the movement. Even so, when I started on the beat in 1998, he made a point of introducing himself. If I ever needed to know anything about the early years of the USOC, he said, be sure to call. If he didn't know the answer, he said, maybe he could help point me in the right direction.

Bob died last Friday. He was 93.

Over the last several months, the American Olympic scene has lost the likes of George Steinbrenner, Bud Greenspan, Dorothy Franey Langkop and, now, C. Robert Paul.

It's worth taking a moment or two, here at what is still the start of this new century, to think back on the incredible span of Olympic history that got us to where we are now, and to some of the people who delivered the USOC to where it is today -- indeed, got it to Colorado Springs from New York, from Olympic House on Park Avenue.

Bob Paul is one them, one of the few who was there at the beginning of the modern USOC.

When I was a (much) younger writer, it was not uncommon for editors to be at their desks smoking big fat cigars. Bob was one of those kind of guys.

Mike Moran, who succeeded Bob as the USOC's spokesman, has written a fantastic tribute to Bob. It's here, and you can almost smell the cigar smoke.

Reading Mike's piece, you'll also laugh out, affectionately, at the stories of how Bob would sleep in his office. Or how, when he would go home, it wasn't to some place in or around Manhattan -- he commuted to Philly.

Or how, when he moved west to Colorado, he still never drove, his wife dropping him off at the office before 7 in the morning in a huge Pontiac Bonneville they had picked up somewhere, then coming back most evenings to pick him up.

Bob was, as I would learn, an amazing story-teller.

Did you know, for instance, that the 1920 Antwerp Olympic gold medal featherweight freestyle match was not only between two Americans but, indeed, an all-Ivy League final? Bob Paul knew. It was among the first stories he told me:

Charles Ackerly, former captain of the Cornell University team, defeated Sam Gerson, the former captain of the Penn team, for the gold medal.

The amazing thing, when you think about it, is not that Bob knew such stories. Of course he did. He was steeped in Olympic and Ivy League lore. To call him "old-school" would be gentle.

The truly amazing thing is that such a man not only could but would leave the East for Colorado Springs to help build up the USOC.

Of course he and the others -- Col. F. Don Miller, Baaron Pittenger, Jerry Lace, to name three of the 10 who set out in what might as well have been a covered wagon --  had a mandate. Nonetheless, to do what they did takes vision and a special courage. It took belief in something a lot bigger than the Ivy League.

Here's how desperate it was for some in that original group of 10. The office manager, James McHugh, one of those who made the trip out from New York, wore a watch on his left arm that was still set to New York time. On his right wrist he wore another watch set to Colorado Springs time. McHugh lasted a year on Mountain time before retreating to the sanctuary and comfort of Nathan's Famous and Broadway.

Bob Paul, though, persevered. He learned to love the West. After he formally retired from the USOC in 1990, he became its informal archivist, historian and a special assistant to the executive director.

So thanks, Bob, wherever you may be now, however it is this gets to you. The Olympic scene is a lot better because you and the others took an enormous leap of faith.


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."