Philip Hersh: Bellingham leaves USOC a legacy of athlete support
Now that Norm Bellingham has decided to step down on Feb. 11 after 4 1/2 years as chief operating officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee, it would be easy to remember his USOC career only for the outlandish compensation he received as its second-ranking salaried official (to wit: $663,369 in salary and benefits in 2008, $521,436 in 2009) and for his role as point man in Peter Ueberroth's folly, the U.S. Olympic network.
That would be unfair to a man who has given some 15 years of his life -- all but the last 4 1/2 unpaid -- to the Olympic movement in the United States, not including the years of training that led to an Olympic kayak gold medal in 1988.
The best measure of Bellingham's involvement with the USOC is his contribution to the planning that led to a record U.S. medal haul at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
For years, athlete funding was done on a short-term basis. Bellingham was among those who realized the investment had to be longer and had to focus on sports that had a good chance of delivering medals.
The initial impetus for the change, Bellingham said in Vancouver, was a "respectable medal total'' at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
"I don't think anyone ever perceived one-year programs would be sufficient,'' Bellingham said. "They needed to be 7- to 10-year programs, because the time it takes for an athlete identified as podium potential to reach the podium is eight to 10 years.''
The best example of that is Nordic combined. A nucleus of young athletes -- Johnny Spillane, Bill Demong and Todd Lodwick -- came oh so close to the first U.S. medal ever in the discipline at Salt Lake. Eight years later in Vancouver, they combined for not only the first medal but three more.
Bellingham was among the six finalists for the USOC top chief executive job that Scott Blackmun got in late 2009, a decision that made Bellingham's eventual departure inevitable.
For months before that, former USOC chairman Ueberroth regularly had jabbed Bellingham by asking, "Norm, what channel is our network on?''
Ueberroth's insistence on pursuing a financially nonsensical network idea eventually irritated Olympic TV rights holder NBC, which took its anger to the International Olympic Committee. That led to another of the rifts in USOC-IOC relations, which the USOC has been frantically trying to patch up.
As the USOC's public face in the deal, Bellingham looked like the bad guy for an idea that some insist remains in limbo but most think died aborning. He also got whiplashed by the fallout over the USOC board power play that ousted Jim Scherr and installed Stephanie Streeter as interim CEO -- and her $1-million compensation for less than a year in the position.
Current employees will assume Bellingham's responsibilities in the short term. Any full-time replacement can count on not making a $500,000 a year.
During his final year with the USOC, Bellingham oversaw the move into the organization's new headquarters in Colorado Springs. That included such things as helping choose the pictures for the walls.
Those pictures all show athletes in moments of striving rather than moments of triumph. The striving is what Bellingham saw as the essence and reward of the Olympic experience. Many of those athletes can also thank him for helping their efforts bring tangible prizes.
-- Philip Hersh
Photo: Outgoing USOC Chief Operating Officer Norm Bellingham. Credit: USOC