Paul Tagliabue

A call to assess the USOC's 'structural challenges'

A call to assess the USOC's 'structural challenges'

Reading the more than 200 pages of the Ropes & Gray report into the “constellation of factors” underlying Larry Nassar’s abuse of gymnasts, it’s evident there is abundant blame to go around beyond the obvious — Nassar was a monster.

For the U.S. Olympic Committee, this crisis marks a signal moment. 

Whether or not one might dispute some of the considerable blame leveled the USOC’s way in the report, especially given still-unexplained FBI inaction, it’s crystal-clear the time is now for the USOC to undertake its own far-reaching review of its mandate and governance, in particular its relationships with and the oversight it exercises — or should, or doesn’t — over the 50 national governing bodies. 

Hence this call:

The USOC should empower a special blue-ribbon commission aimed at assessing — to use the language from Ropes & Gray, pages 162 and 163 — the USOC’s “structural challenges” in “reorienting from a service- to an oversight-centered approach and moving the NGBs away from an ingrained interpretation of the [1978 Amateur Sports Act] that was based on protecting athletes’ right to compete.”

The very first, and most pressing, matter is elemental: how much oversight?

USOC, in it to win it, picks Boston for 2024


In deciding Thursday which city it wanted to put forward for the 2024 Summer Games, there were many considerations the U.S. Olympic Committee had to take into account. Ultimately, though, only one truly mattered: the USOC is in it to win it. It picked Boston. Nearly two years ago, the USOC started with roughly three dozen cities. It winnowed that many to four: Boston, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco. All along, the Boston plan — despite vocal local opposition and uncertainties about basics such as an Olympic stadium — captured the imagination of USOC leadership and staff.

To hear the USOC tell it Thursday after the announcement was made following a board of directors meeting at the Denver airport, they are, well, excited to get this show on the road:

The Boston skyline from across Boston harbor // Getty Images

“We’re excited about our plans to submit a bid for the 2024 Games and feel we have an incredibly strong partner in Boston that will work with us to present a compelling bid,” USOC chairman Larry Probst said in a statement.

Chief executive Scott Blackmun said the USOC “couldn’t be more excited about the partnership we’ve established with the leadership team in Boston,” including bid leader John Fish and the mayor, Marty Walsh.

“I couldn’t be more excited to share Boston’s athlete-focused vision for the Games with my IOC colleagues,” the former ice hockey star Angela Ruggiero said.

The Olympics tell us about which direction our world is headed, and that direction — for all the IOC’s Eurocentric tradition — increasingly has been looking at and across the Pacific.

Of course the 2012 Summer Games were in London, the 2014 Winter Games were in Sochi, the 2016 Summer Games will be in Rio. There are others elsewhere, too: the 2018 Youth Games, for instance, will be in Buenos Aires.

But consider:

The 2008 Summer Games, Beijing; 2010 Winter, Vancouver; 2010 Youth Games, Singapore; 2014 Youth Games, Nanjing; 2018 Winter, Pyeonghang, South Korea; 2020 Summer, Tokyo; 2022, Almaty, Kazakhstan, or Beijing.

What the USOC rolled the dice on Thursday for 2024, with the choice of Boston, is that the IOC wants not only to come back to the United States but to the East Coast, instead of to San Francisco or Los Angeles, which look out across that very Pacific.

DC, and paying due respect to the energy, enthusiasm and leadership of businessmen Russ Ramsey and Ted Leonsis as well as the input of the likes of former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, was always going to be DOA. Can you say, for instance, CIA? How about that torture report a few weeks back?

Just imagine a two-year bid campaign chock full of headlines blaring “torture,” amplifying the role of the United States of America in overseas adventures. Not to mention the “oversight” of 535 self-appointed know-it-alls, each of the members of Congress. In the IOC, moreover, there are those who well remember the former president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, essentially being hauled before Congress to testify at the height of the late 1990s Salt Lake City crisis.

San Francisco?

There, the IOC would have had the advantage of being able to show off the five rings on the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. Beautiful, for sure.

But as the New York Times pointed out in a story this week, who wants to go to San Francisco for the complexities of a Summer Games when something seemingly as simple as improving four grass soccer fields last year was met with litigation, protests and a ballot measure?

Plus, there are those in the IOC who remember, too, that the 2008 Beijing torch relay in San Francisco was met with — and had to be dead-ended on the approach to that very same Golden Gate Bridge because of — protests.

Los Angeles made an extraordinary series of presentations to the USOC. And bid leader Casey Wasserman and the mayor, Eric Garcetti, fluent in Spanish, were viewed as stars-in-the-making.

For all that, and for all that is going on in downtown LA — now unequivocally hipster central — the USOC could not, in many conversations with IOC members, apparently get past a “been there, done that” vibe from 1984.

How that jibes with, for instance, London (2012 Games a third time) or Beijing (a 2022 Winter bid favorite, not even seven years after the close of the 2008 Summer Games): unclear.

At any rate, it all pointed to Boston.

The IOC is said to be intrigued by the more than 100 universities in and around Boston, which would be used to house events and athletes. That’s the age demographic the IOC is after, big time.

The Boston plan also features significant numbers of temporary venues. That’s a key feature of “Agenda 2020,” the 40-point plan the IOC membership enacted at a meeting last month in Monaco.

The good news about Boston: it’s a blank slate for many in the IOC.

Boston’s reputation for great sports is, let’s remember, within the United States; that reputation is grossly inflated by ESPN’s incessant showing of Red Sox games and the fact that Tom Brady and the Patriots are on TV seemingly every weekend from September until January.

All that means little to nothing outside the continental 48 states. Brady? Does he play soccer? The Red Sox — overseas, that whole 2004 thing and the 86-year-curse might as well be the far side of the moon. Remember, too: baseball is on the outside of the Olympics trying to get back in.

The USOC, and its new Boston partners, face — let’s be real — a sales job.

The upside: the USOC, and its new Boston friends, get to come up with a story, a compelling narrative, about why Boston, and why the United States for 2024.

Not to say it can’t be done. Or that there are forces that may already want the USOC to prevail.

You don’t think so?

So curious that IOC president Thomas Bach’s op-ed entitled “A New Olympics,” which relayed the highlights of Agenda 2020, ran Tuesday in the Boston Globe, and only in the Boston paper.

Not in the San Francisco Chronicle, or the Washington Post, or the LA Times.

Or maybe that was just a coincidence.

Bids for 2024 are possible from Germany; from Paris; from Rome; and elsewhere.

You might have thought that, back in September, Boston 2024 bid leader Fish seemed to have committed campaign sin No. 1 when he told the Globe he “reckoned” the city’s odds of being named the U.S. entry were “75 percent based on the perceived reaction to Boston’s pitch to USOC officials,” adding, “I’m not in this to lose. I would never bet against myself.”

Over the past five-plus years, ever since Chicago’s 2009 debacle for 2016, the USOC public playbook has been humility and self-deprecating graciousness.

Apparently there was no public reckoning whatsoever.

The USOC is not in this to lose, either. Kudos, Mr. Fish. Congrats, Mayor Walsh.


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."

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."