Tarnished USOC wins no medals for mettle

January 28, 2003|By Laura Vecsey

GOT THOSE post-Super Bowl blues? We have something for you. Another episode of "Olympic Shenanigans."

Today's episode will take place in our nation's capital. So warm up C-Span, baby. The camera-loving senator from Arizona is about to stack the defense against the crackpot crew from the U.S. Olympic Committee.

And we thought Tampa Bay over Oakland was a one-sided game.

By the time Sen. John McCain and his powerful Commerce Committee get done with USOC witnesses in today's scheduled hearing, you'll think that the U.S. government has declared war on Colorado Springs, not Iraq or North Korea.

It's long overdue. The unwieldy mass that makes up USOC "leadership" spends more time acting like a cash-spitting ATM for all kinds of national governing bodies. And because Arthur Andersen used to prepare the USOC's books, you have to wonder about those ledgers.

A favorite insider tale about USOC incompetence is how some of the 123 board members spend more time debating whether to march in front of or behind the athletes in opening ceremonies than addressing more pressing matters, such as fund-raising. No big corporate sponsors are locked up after 2004.

Also, with no U.S.-based Olympics on the docket at this point, USOC fund-raising and promotion is far more challenging than when a Salt Lake City or Atlanta is on the horizon, sparking donations, driving publicity and awareness.

Worse, with New York in the hunt for the 2012 Summer Games and with only three Americans on the International Olympic Committee board, the current state of Keystone Kops leadership could hurt New York's bid, although it's hard to imagine IOC officials looking down at the USOC for incompetence. Didn't they write the manual?

The USOC has been marching toward this showdown with Congress for months. An internal ethics probe of USOC chief executive Lloyd Ward (he tried to get his brother's company a $4.6 million deal) blew the cover off a USOC "leadership structure" so fractured and dysfunctional, it was suitable to wonder if Enron or Martha Stewart has more credibility.

Since then, Ward and USOC president Marty Mankamyer have exchanged enough threats, lies, innuendoes and half-truths to throw Hans Blix into a dither.

The feud doesn't stop there, either. Last week, seven top USOC executives chipped in their two cents, twice calling for the resignation of Mankamyer.

Game. Set. Match. Time for McCain to lower the boom.

The USOC is accountable to the federal government under the 1978 Amateur Sports Act, which outlines the role and goals of amateur athletics and the Olympic movement in the United States. It's a good act. Its execution is what's flawed.

Though the USOC has undergone revision in the past, trimming its board from 600 to its current 123, it's time for another massive overhaul, one that would streamline the USOC into a corporate entity better suited to handle the big-business atmosphere and objectives of the current Olympic system.

The USOC is far from this now. Since 1999, three of its CEOs have come and gone - with insiders wondering how much severance money was paid to disgraced resignees - such as former CEO Sandy Baldwin, who stepped down after admitting her resume contained lies.

With Mankamyer and Ward clearly needing a divorce, the USOC is about to undergo another leadership change - one that will be federally mandated.

Important background worth noting: There has been no shortage of examples why "The Olympic Movement" needs vigilant watchdogging and drastic reform.

Remember those 10 gift-grabbing members of the IOC in the Salt Lake bid controversy?

Remember the last time McCain summoned IOC officials to Washington? That was in April 1999, with the Salt Lake vote-buying scandal in full swing. McCain threatened to yank the IOC's tax status and make it impossible for it to raise big corporate dollars on U.S. soil unless former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch agreed to clean up the IOC. The order was to make IOC officials accountable and its financial structure/spending more transparent.

The problem with a more transparent IOC - and it's a good problem - is that there is less chance for back-room deals to remain hidden. The corrupt, old-school way in which all sorts of Olympic business has been conducted is under siege.

In a sense, a more transparent IOC led to the full-blown figure-skating scandal that took over the 2002 Winter Games.

In an era of transparency, the IOC did not allow the International Skating Union to cover up its corrupt judging habits. Wrongdoing and incompetence can come to light.

The USOC's need for a figurative liposuction was made apparent last week, when the CEO of one of the Olympics' biggest sponsors wrote a letter urging the USOC to get its act together - pronto.

John Hancock CEO David D'Alessandro won't be on the witness stand before the Senate's Commerce Committee today. However, his written requests for USOC accountability will set a rubric for the kinds of questions and changes about to come.

Olympic sponsors don't want their brand tarnished every time a USOC leadership squabble steals headlines from athletes. Who would want to write a check to the USOC these days? That is the question anyone who is an Olympic athlete - or anyone who likes sponsoring or watching them - should ask. This is the crux of the USOC's problem - not a small one.

One year ago in Salt Lake City, the United States scored its greatest medal count in a Winter Games ever. Podium 2002 was a USOC platform that set a course for U.S. athletes to hit the medal stand in record numbers - and it worked. It's proof that efficiency and USOC are two things that can go hand-in-hand in achieving Olympic success.

Now, under the bright lights of Congress, it's time for the USOC to set some new goals.

Credibility would be an excellent start.

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