Updated: January 5, 2014 at 2:55 am
As Scott Blackmun relaxes in his spacious U.S. Olympic Committee office in downtown Colorado Springs, it's obvious he and the USOC will not be departing soon.
"I still love what I do," Blackmun said, smiling as he enjoyed a view of the mountains from his fifth-floor office. "I feel I have one of the best jobs in the world."
For several years, USOC ties to Colorado Springs were strained as other destinations courted one of the nation's premier sports organizations, but the city provided $53 million of incentives and persuaded the USOC to remain.
Blackmun waited for nearly a decade for his job as CEO. He served as interim CEO in 2001 and hoped to drop the interim from his title. He lost a vote and returned to work as a lawyer but never quite lost his itch to lead the organization. On Jan. 6, 2010, he was given his wish.
He's entering a crucial year in his reign as the USOC's leader. The U.S. Olympic team departs this month to compete in Sochi, Russia. This could become a complicated journey. Russian president Vladimir Putin signed an anti-gay propaganda law in June, igniting protests across the world, including the United States. Blackmun must wisely lead an organization that balances American ideals with international reality.
Blackmun believes the USOC should have a narrow focus. The Olympics, he said, should not be about political protest. The Olympics should be about athletic competition. But even with this focus, his job is complicated. Modern athletic excellence has often been connected with performance-enhancing drugs. Blackmun seeks to produce American medalists who are "clean," or free of PEDs.
Blackmun talked for nearly an hour in his office with the inviting view of the Rockies. He declined to dodge questions. He's a graduate of Stanford law school but seldom turned to lawyer-speak. He spoke freely and frankly. He's savoring and enjoying a job he awaited for nearly a decade.
Blackmun was a soccer goalie in high school and during his undergraduate days at Dartmouth College. He grew up a fan of UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and retains admiration for the iconic coach. Wooden, a courtly man, won 10 national titles at UCLA. He died in 2010, but Blackmun speaks of him in the present tense.
"In my view John Wooden was an idealist who was also a realist who would do what he needed to do to win. . I'm certainly no John Wooden. I think that he is all about excellence being the best that you can be, whether you are at this level (holding his hand high) or at this level (holding his hand low). I don't look at him as an idealist as much as someone who believes in human achievement and understands that everyone has different tools and what's important for each of us is to use those tools to be the best that we can be and the result of that, especially if you're working as a team, is that you will achieve a lot more than you thought you could ever achieve.
"The thing I remember most is the first day of practice every day he would work with the kids on how to put on their socks. These were all high school All-Americans coming to play at UCLA and he spent an hour . helping them put on their socks on the theory that you need to do the basic things well and first before you move on to the other stuff. That's what I remember."
Blackmun grew up watching the Olympics and enjoyed, as millions do, the matchless sports human interest stories the games deliver to TV viewers. He was especially intrigued by English sprinter Derek Redmond, who suffered a severe injury to his hamstring midway through the 400 meters in the 1992 Olympics. Redmond's father, Jim, slipped past security, joined his son on the track and the men struggled together to the finish line.
"I remember Derek Redmond and his dad came out of the stands. It's funny, it's not an American moment but I really remember that. This was different. This is not sports in the way that we see sports in America with the four or five professional leagues. This is very, very different. Character matters. This is different. The raw human emotion. The father wanting to protect his son. The pride in wanting to get him across the finish line because that matters in life. The joy found in effort whether you win or lose but we're going to finish this thing with our heads held high. It was very moving to me."
And yet .
Blackmun must deal with the less heart-tugging corners of sport. He has been walking a complicated tightrope for months as he deals with Russia's anti-gay propaganda laws. President Barack Obama announced he will not attend the Sochi Games. Obama also announced he was sending Billie Jean King, a gay activist, to Russia as an official member of the U.S. delegation.
"Obviously, the White House is not going make an appearance at the games in Sochi, and we understand that. We understand that the president has a lot of important things that he needs to get done. We don't quarrel with that."
Question: Is President Obama offering a statement about American ideals by not making the trip?
Answer: "I think you'll have to ask him that. It certainly appears that way and candidly we are a diverse nation and we believe that this diversity is what makes us strong and so we've had a tough time dealing with this issue ourselves because we very much believe in diversity and don't agree with the law in Russia but, importantly, we really respect that the games are all about not focusing on the differences between countries but instead focusing purely on sport. That's one of the reasons that the Olympic Games are so appealing to everybody because you can bring different nations together who have very different beliefs and put those different beliefs beside and just compete and nothing else. Our hope is that we shine a bright light on Russia and that the games will help all of us focus on what we have in common and not our differences."
Q: Your thoughts on Billie Jean King's role as a U.S. delegate?
A: "She is an advocate. She has done a lot of really good things. Her work with the Women's Sports Foundation and the things she has done to promote women's sport have had a huge positive impact on young women, young girls in this country. Yes, I think she is an advocate and I think her advocacy has had a very positive impact on this country."
King recently was quoted as saying, "Sometimes I think we need a John Carlos moment." (Carlos, an American sprinter, and teammate Tommie Smith raised their fists at the medal podium at Mexico City in 1968 to express solidarity with those seeking human rights.)
Q: Do you agree with King's view?
A: "You know, no. I don't agree with that particular statement because, again, if you believe in what the Olympic movement is supposed to be about, which is bringing people together for competition and not to focus on the differences then we should honor that because that's what makes the Olympic movement and the Olympic Games strong, but you can't confuse that with the notion that we would like to see all forms of discrimination eliminated and we should all work hard in this country to make sure that happens. I just don't think that the Olympic Games are the appropriate platform for that because that steals the attention away from the athletes, their stories and their efforts to win a medal for their country. It should be about the athletes and what they are striving to be.
Q: What is your view of the Carlos-Smith moment from the 1968 Games?
A: "I'm proud of what they did. It is memorable and memorable in a positive way with the benefit of hindsight. So, I'm being inconsistent in what I'm saying here and I acknowledge that, but I do think that if the Olympic Games became a platform for people to express different points of view on the laws of nations then we would very quickly devolve into something that would cause the Olympic Games to lose their special meaning."
Q: You were involved in the recent struggle to rescue women's softball and wrestling as Olympic sports. Wrestling made the cut. Softball did not. Before the decision in 2013 by the International Olympic Committee, you said "It's not a perfect world," in reference to choice between wrestling and softball. What did you mean?
A: "It's really tough because in a perfect world we would be able to support all our athletes and allow all of them to compete in the Olympic Games. That one was really tough because I was a big proponent of women's softball. I think women's softball deserves to be in the games. They don't have the World Series like the baseball players have. They don't have the World Cup like the soccer players have. They need this platform and women's participation in sport is so important in this country. I just felt we had to work very hard to get women's softball in. And candidly I didn't feel the same way about baseball because baseball does have the World Series.
"And then, lo and behold, wrestling gets taken off the Olympic program, and it's impossible for me to imagine an Olympic games without wrestling. . We were in a tight spot because we wanted both of those sports to be in the games, so we tried to walk a tightrope and provide support to both wrestling and women's softball even though it was obvious that only one of those was going to get voted through. . I said it wasn't a perfect world because in a perfect world both of those sports were going to be in the Olympic Games and it was obvious that it wasn't going to happen."
Q: How closely do you work with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency? And how well do you know fellow Springs resident and USADA CEO Travis Tygart?
A: "I know Travis, but I wouldn't say I know him well. By design, we don't have a close working relationship with USADA because it's important that they maintain their independence. . Obviously, it creates a conflict of interest if it's our job to win medals and to catch the cheaters. We externalized that back when I was at the USOC in 2000. By design, we want to keep it separate. We do provide somewhere between a quarter and a third of their funding annually, a little more than $3 million. I think our relationship is excellent. I think we work together very well in those instances where working together is supposed to happen, and we have great respect for everything that they've accomplished."
Q: How important is it to you for this American team to be clean?
A: "It's incredibly important because the Olympics are about so much more than just winning and competing. It's about doing it the right way. So if we don't do it the right way we undermine the very thing that we are. We undermine our very brand. We're about integrity. We're about excellence. We're about respect and if we have people who are competing with the assistance of performance-enhancing drugs it undermines that great brand. It's an extremely high priority for us, and I think the U.S. has the strongest anti-doping regime in the world but it's always going to be an uphill battle because the cheaters are always trying to stay a step ahead of the testers."
Q: Regime? What do you mean by regime?
A: "I mean we have a system, an organization in USADA, a collection of people there who are really good at what they do and they are well supported financially. Our athletes get tested more than any other athletes around the globe and we're proud of that."
Q: An Olympic museum is planned as part of the City For Champions project. What will the museum look like?
A: Dick Celeste, Blackmun said, will have a strong say in what the museum looks like. Celeste, a former Colorado College president, is leading a fundraising effort for the museum.
"Hopefully it will be a place where people can come and see and hear the great stories of our Olympic and Paralympic athletes and what they've been able to overcome and what they've been able to achieve and I think it will include a lot of memorabilia but also include a lot of interactive activities where people can see not only what it takes to be an Olympian but what it takes to become an Olympic champion. . I'm excited about the museum primarily because I'm a Colorado Springs resident, and I think this museum is going to make Colorado Springs a much stronger city and it's going to make the USOC stronger. My excitement really relates more to the fact I'm a Colorado Springs resident."
Q: Why no financial support from the USOC for the museum?
A: "I think it's a very legitimate question. I think our job is to prepare American athletes to compete in the Olympics and Paralympics. . You have to remember that we are really the only developed nation in the world that has an Olympic team that is 100 percent privately funded. We have to go out and raise that money every year, and we raise it from Americans who want to support American athletes. For us to take those resources and divert them away from our athletes and toward a museum, I think would put us in a slippery slope and in a business that is not our core business. We support the idea of the museum and would be very collaborative and cooperative with the community, but I think the real benefit of the museum accrues to the community, and that's why we're excited about it. We are going to be supporting the museum with our artifacts. We're going to be providing those artifacts to the museum free of charge, and if you look at the value of that collection, it's extremely significant. It's not like we're not going to be supporting the museum. We will be supporting the museum in a very significant way. It's just that on the financial side, we feel we need to keep our eye on our mission, which is providing support to our athletes."
Q: Can you tell us about the day in 2001 when you lost the vote to become the CEO of the USOC?
A: "I saw it coming. It wasn't a surprise to me at all. We were a very political organization at that time, and it wasn't too difficult to read the tea leaves. I had a pretty strong sense on how that would turn out. In retrospect, I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me for a couple reasons. One, I got to go to work for Anschutz Entertainment in Los Angeles and had a great learning experience out there, had a fantastic opportunity to learn about the sports business from a completely different side than the Olympic world. But I also think if I had gotten the job it would have been really difficult to succeed both because of our structure at the time, which was a 120-person plus board and 25-person executive committee driven by a lot of politics and frankly without a narrow focus on the success of our athletes at the games, which is what we have now. I think if I had gotten that job, I wouldn't have gotten the exposure that I got and I probably would have failed. I think anybody at that job at that time would have failed.
"They changed the structure in a way that I think has been really positive. It's a much smaller board. It's a board focused on policy and strategy as opposed to day-to-day operations. It's a board with a very narrow mission, which is sustained competitive excellence at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, so I think today we have a perfect structure where the board really empowers the staff and the team here so we stay focused on policy and strategy and it wasn't like that in 2001. Back then, they wanted out pick the blazers and ties and now they don't.
Q: Where were you when you found out about the vote?
A: "I was sitting in my hotel room in Chicago. I found out from a reporter. A reporter called me and told me I had lost. I didn't hear from our president at the time until the next morning."
Q: Why did you want to come back to the USOC after that painful experience?
A: "It was late 2009. I had not reached out to the head hunter and expressed an interest in the job. I felt I that I had my time at the USOC and was grateful for that time and kind of proud of what we were able to accomplish way back when but it really wasn't in my intended career path, but they called me and said would I be interested in meeting with (USOC chairman) Larry Probst and meeting with the selection committee. I was practicing law at the time and while that can be really rewarding in some ways I think a lot of people would aspire to being part of the Olympic movement as opposed to selling their time by the hour so I said 'Why not, why not go talk to them and find out more about it.'
"I was incredibly impressed with Larry and his resolve to make the USOC stronger again and to see it occupy the place in the Olympic movement that it really deserves. I was incredibly excited after my first meeting and one thing led to another and about 30 days later they offered me the job. It was not something I had to wrestle with. I was excited to come back. I really was."
Q: How long do you plan to stay in this position?
A: "I don't have any plans to leave. I still love what I do. I feel I have one of the best jobs in the world. We have an incredibly dedicated team of people here who are supporting our athletes and we've been lucky to have great success at the Olympic Games. As long as we feel we are supporting our athletes in a way that allows them to be successful, I think this team here will want to stay here as long as possible."