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David Ramsey: New U.S. Olympic Committee CEO will tackle extremely tough job

March 27, 2018 Updated: March 28, 2018 at 7:36 am
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A flag symbolizing the United States Olympics flies over the entrance of the Olympic Training Center and the current headquarters of the USOC in Colorado Springs on Thursday, August 20, 2009. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)

It’s a tough gig serving as chief executive officer of the United States Olympic Committee.

Just ask Harvey Schiller, an expert on the subject. He led the USOC for six years.

“There are 300 million-plus people in the United States and each one has a different idea of what the USOC should be,” Schiller says. “Along with the expectations that it’s supposed to do more than what it has the ability to do.”

Susanne Lyons (Courtesy of USOC) 

Leaders of the USOC are, yet again, searching for a new permanent CEO. (Susanne Lyons is acting CEO.) This searching has long been the norm for the organization. From 1985 to 2009, nine men and one woman served as CEO.

The chaos slowed under Scott Blackmun, who served longer than any CEO since F. Don Miller departed in 1985. Blackmun resigned in February.

A flurry of abuse allegations have weakened the USOC. Horrified Americans were introduced to a monster named Larry Nassar, who abused hundreds of young gymnasts. Scandals have rocked Olympic swimming, taekwondo, judo and speedskating.

A strong leader will be required to repair a broken American Olympic Movement.

The new CEO will inherit a sweet office with stunning views on the corner of Colorado and Tejon in downtown Colorado Springs. The new CEO also will inherit the burden of the expectations of 300 million-plus Americans.

“They have to be careful,” warns Schiller, who served as CEO from 1988 to 1994. “There are thousands and thousands of people who think that’s the job for them. It’s a challenge to make sure the right person gets into that position.”

Jim Scherr, once an Olympic wrestler, served as CEO from 2003 to 2009. In many ways, he enjoyed the job.

“It was an opportunity to be in the center of the Olympic movement of the United States, something I had dreamed about since I was a very young athlete,” he says. “To try to make a difference for the athletes and to try to help them achieve their dreams, it’s pretty special to be a part of.”

But challenging, too. Scherr had to please the American public and keep peace with the IOC and chase medals and raise money.

“All in a public and politicized environment,” he says. “I was not only reporting to the board, which is more rational now than it was in the past, but to so many others.”

Scherr is optimistic about the USOC’s tomorrows. He believes America boasts the “strongest following” of the Olympics of any country in the world.

But first, he says, “the issue of sexual abuse” must be addressed forcefully and effectively.

This new emphasis must blend with an established focus: winning medals. Americans want to see a long, glorious procession to the medal stand.

“Every American expects their Olympic Committee to build this ever-winning organization that will send someone to the victory stand in every sport,” Schiller says.  

Steve Bull served as the USOC’s government relations chief from 1991 to the last day of 2008. He previously had worked in the Nixon White House as the president’s special assistant. He worked for seven different USOC CEOs.

“It’s terribly complicated,” Bull says from his home in suburban Washington, D.C.  “There are so many pushes and pulls by the so-called Olympic family. Each one comes to the party trying to get as big a piece of the pie to take home as she or he can. It’s not a unified movement, even though on paper it is.”

Bull laughs.

“There are 435 different immediate goals,” he says. “It’s a tough outfit to run.”

The USOC has endured troubles. The bribery scandal surrounding the Salt Lake 2002 Games. The doping scandal that starred Marion Jones, once America’s sweetheart. And, now, the abuse scandal that scarred hundreds of victims, weakened the movement and endures as an American catastrophe.

Bull admires Blackmun’s performance as CEO, but believes the organization faces a major overhaul. Blackmun often said winning medals ranked as the USOC’s prime focus.

“I think there’s going to be culture change,” Bull says. “. . . The sole focus on winning medals is going to be modified to address other areas. The most obvious one, obviously, is going to be athlete safety. They’ll be looking to soften the focus on winning medals.”

The new USOC leader must strengthen protections to vulnerable young athletes and maintain improved relations with the International Olympic Committee and raise plentiful funds and understand TV contracts and oversee a sometimes rebellious collection of National Governing Bodies and push for American cities to host upcoming Olympics and guide the U.S. to hundreds of medals and . . .

Hey, good luck with that search.

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