COLORADO SPRINGS — When it comes to amassing medals, money and friends around the world, leaders of the U.S. Olympic Committee couldn’t be happier.
Yet to bring the Olympics back to the United States, they know they’ll need to keep collecting allies in Washington, too.
Speaking at the USOC’s annual assembly Friday, CEO Scott Blackmun said Olympic leaders need to reach out to politicians in the nation’s capital to shore up support for a possible bid for the 2024 or 2026 Olympics.
“We believe the next bid needs to be not only the bid of a city but a bid of a nation,” Blackmun said. “We want to have the White House and the Hill on board with us. We can’t wait two or four years to have them get on board with us.”
The USOC has put together a committee to explore a bid; it will report to the board of directors at its next meeting in December.
“Make no mistake, we do want to bid, and we do want to win,” chairman Larry Probst said. “But we will only bid if the business logic is as compelling as the sports logic.”
On Friday, Blackmun and Probst addressed leaders from the U.S. Olympic world — recapping America’s successes at the London Games and looking toward the future. The Winter Olympics in Sochi are only 17 months away and, on a grander scale, the USOC wants to bring the Olympics back to home turf for the first time since 2002.
Probst said the atmosphere for bidding is better both internationally, now that the USOC and International Olympic Committee have reached a deal on revenue sharing, and domestically, where dysfunction that rocked the USOC has largely been resolved.
“When I stepped into this role four years ago, we were engulfed in period of challenge and turmoil, and that’s an understatement,” Probst said. “We had back-to-back Olympic bids that did not win — or frankly even come close to winning. ... When Scott and I first sat down at the end of 2009 to chart the future direction of the USOC, we both recognized that the organization needed a major course correction.”
While the USOC’s internal politics have been smoothed out, the federation wants to make sure it gets continued support from Washington. A handful of congressmen complained before the Olympics that the U.S. team’s uniforms for opening ceremony were made in China. The USOC and its supplier, Ralph Lauren, have changed that for future Olympics.
The dust-up illustrated the fine line the USOC walks when delving into the realm of Washington. It seeks support from politicians but doesn’t want them micromanaging its affairs, especially considering the USOC doesn’t receive federal funding.
These days, supporting the U.S. Olympic movement isn’t a high-risk political proposition.
The United States won the most overall (104) and gold medals (46) in London and “sent a clear message to the world,” Probst said, that it “is far from finished in raising its competitive game to new heights.”
The U.S. team actually took home six more medals from Beijing four years ago than it did from London last month, but the tone at the assembly four years ago couldn’t have been more different.
Outgoing chairman Peter Ueberroth, tired of criticism heaped on the USOC for taking too much cash out of the revenue-sharing arrangement with the IOC, gave arguably the most memorable speech in the history of these assemblies. He pointedly reminded international partners that, “U.S. corporations have paid 60 percent of all the money, period. Be sure you all understand that. The rest of the world pays 40 percent. It’s pretty simple math.”
Meanwhile, behind closed doors, the stage was being set for the ouster of CEO Jim Scherr and a number of other key executives — moves that both outraged and confused other Olympic leaders and played into Chicago’s humiliating fourth-place finish in the bidding for the 2016 Olympics.
Four years later, the keynote addresses were part of an overall love-fest, filled with chart after chart detailing the success stories of the past four years.
In addition to winning the medal counts, the USOC increased overall revenue by 5 percent in a bad economy, to $699.5 million, while also upping the amount of direct support to athletes and national governing bodies by 17 percent, to $247 million.
Blackmun opened his presentation by showing a feel-good video of U.S. swimmers, featuring Missy Franklin, hamming it up to the song “Call Me Maybe,” in buses, airplanes and practice pools on their way to London.
By the end of Blackmun’s presentation, the rest of the assembly hall was practically singing Kumbaya.
“This is a very different place than it was four, five, six years ago,” said Bill Marolt, CEO of the U.S. Ski Team. “You go to a ... meeting and we’re talking about real things and real direction, whereas four, five years ago, we’d just sit around and (complain), basically.”
Happy as everyone may be, the success of all the relationship building will ultimately be judged on whether the USOC can bring the Olympics back. The 2024 Games won’t be awarded until 2017, but the topic is always near the top of the agenda at these meetings.
“I really believe the time is right to bring the Games back to the United States, and make sure we do it the right way,” said Peter Vidmar, the two-time Olympic gold medalist who is chairman of USA Gymnastics. “Not just throwing a city out there, but really having the best bid out there, and I feel we’re capable of doing that.”
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