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What the U.S. Olympic Committee would rather keep silent

October 7, 2009 |  7:51 am

The United States Olympic Committee prefers the sounds of silence.

Here is what -- or hear what -- it isn't saying:

-- There is an open spot on the U.S. Olympic Committee board of directors -- the independent director position Stephanie Streeter belatedly vacated after becoming acting USOC chief executive in March.

I have learned the favorite to fill it is Robert Bach, president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division.

Why might his addition to the board be significant?

Like Streeter and other board members, he has ties to Stanford University. Streeter and board member Jair Lynch received undergraduate degrees from Stanford; board member Bob Bowlsby is the Stanford director of athletics; and Bach got his MBA from Stanford.

And Bach works in the same general area (hardware and software for entertainment) as did USOC Chairman Larry Probst, the retired chief executive of video games giant Electronic Arts. To my question of whether he and Bach had a professional relationship, Probst replied (somewhat obliquely) Tuesday by e-mail: "Part of his [Bach's] responsibility is the Xbox business and Electronic Arts develops software products for the Xbox platform.''

And what might that mean?

Well, if there is any pressure to get Streeter and Probst to resign in the wake of the USOC being blamed by some for Chicago's last-place showing in the 2016 host-city vote, their future would depend on the board. And they already appear to have built-in support, including old-school ties, to allay any pressure -- albeit unlikely -- from a board in which dissent long was discouraged by former Chairman Peter Ueberroth and which now has developed a totally corporate approach to communications.

That means the board members have taken a vow of silence, letting all statements come from the chairman or USOC chief executive via a communications department that has not included a chief communications officer since Darryl Seibel resigned in early May.

(I have made three requests to speak with Probst since the Chicago debacle in the 2016 host-city election Friday, none of which has borne fruit.)  

The USOC board currently has just nine members, and two (International Olympic Committee members Jim Easton and Anita DeFrantz) share a vote, so it is easy for a small group to exert control, especially because some of the members regularly choose to participate in meetings only over the telephone.

That opportunity to manipulate the board is one of the unintended consequences of the congressionally mandated 2003 reforms that reduced the USOC's policy-making body from a 23-member executive committee to the current nine-vote group. Ueberroth took full advantage of that situation in his four-year tenure as chairman, which ended last fall.

So?

It's something to talk about.  Key word: Talk.

-- As Alan Abrahamson revealed in his Universal Sports Blog today, Bob Ctvrtlik quietly resigned his position as USOC vice president for international relations three months ago to become a paid member of the Chicago bid committee international relations staff.

So quietly, in fact, that no one announced it, even though the resignation showed a commitment to ethical behavior on both sides, because the volunteer USOC position called for him to oversee any contractual arrangements between the USOC and Chicago 2016.  The USOC bylaws prevented him from holding both positions.

But there is another facet of this that Ctvrtlik revealed to me in a telephone conversation.

It was kept hush-hush, Ctvrtlik said, "because we didn't want to give fodder to another bid city that the reason I left was a rift between the USOC and Chicago 2016.''

That rift existed, but it was mainly between Chicago 2016 Chairman Patrick Ryan and Ueberroth, whose direct association with the Chicago bid ended (quietly, of course) early this year.

When I wrote that on June 10, Ryan, taking the high road, felt compelled to send me an e-mail denying there was an adversarial relationship between him and Ueberroth. But there was no doubt the Chicago 2016 chairman felt Ueberroth's intransigent attitude in the fractious revenue-sharing negotiations between the USOC and the IOC was doing Chicago's chances no good.

And keeping Ctvrtlik's resignation silent obviously didn't help Chicago either.

-- I would love to be a fly on the wall -- or a bug in the phone -- when the chief executives of the National Governing Bodies (they run individual Olympic sports in the United States) have both of their monthly conference calls Wednesday, one with Streeter and one among themselves.

Leaders of the NGBs, including NGB council chair Skip Gilbert, have been critical of the way Streeter became acting CEO and of the way she initially found no time to hear their concerns.  

Streeter publicly promised last month to work for better engagement with the NGBs, only to anger them again by dismissing her critics as a "vocal minority.''  That is why USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny wants to determine in Wednesday's call "what the prevailing opinion of our group is.''

Gilbert, the CEO of USA Triathlon, thinks he knows already.

"The overall objective of the NGBs is to create the best partnership with our Olympic committee to drive athlete participation and success at the international level,'' Gilbert said.  "Seeing what has happened at the USOC over the past six months, I would be surprised if the general consensus is not calling for significant change.

"We would be having this discussion even if Chicago had won.  There are much bigger issues here than just the bid.''

What is the sound a vocal majority makes?

 A very loud one.

-- Philip Hersh

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