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Chicago bid spurs truce in U.S. Olympic family feud

September 9, 2009 |  2:30 pm

In the interest of avoiding any negative publicity that could affect Chicago's Olympic bid, the leaders of the U.S. Olympic sports federations -- called National Governing Bodies in Olympic world parlance -- have declared an informal truce in their Olympic family feud with the new USOC leadership.

"Chicago 2016 is the most important objective for everyone in the (U.S. Olympic) movement, and that is the one thing that brings complete consensus at this time,'' said Steve Penny, president and chief executive of USA Gymnastics.

Penny also is a member of the NGB Council, meeting this week in Chicago as part of the annual U.S. Olympic Assembly. He has been outspoken in expressing reservations over the USOC board's decision to dump chief executive Jim Scherr and replace him on an acting basis with board member Stephanie Streeter.

Other NGB leaders also have been very critical of the leadership change, which occurred in March. Many wondered why it could not have waited until after the Oct. 2 vote for the 2016 host city, since the switch only added to a long-held worldwide impression that years of USOC leadership instability were back.

Streeter alluded to the dissatisfaction in her keynote speech today to the Olympic Assembly, saying, "Changes were made that the board believed would strengthen the organization, some of which were greeted enthusiastically, some of which were not.''

Streeter also scored points for acknowledging a major criticism of the way the USOC board has operated since it was reorganized after the 2003 leadership turmoil that led to congressional castigation of the USOC's management. NGB Council chair Skip Gilbert, the executive director of USA Triathlon, had complained loudly that the federations, who are directly involved in the training of Olympic athletes, were being ignored by the new USOC management.

 "I will be open and available to discuss what's important to you,'' Streeter told the NGB leaders. "I will hold our team at the USOC accountable to perform at the highest levels in the service of the Olympic movement. I will ensure that you and your work are highly respected at the USOC.  That is my commitment to you.''

Penny, for one, was impressed. (Gilbert missed the speech; he was on his way to Australia for the triathlon world championships.)

"I feel like everyone is trying to do the right thing – the challenge right now is just getting everyone on the same page as to what that is and how you get that done,'' Penny said. "[Streeter's] presentation this morning is an indication that she is listening.''

USOC Chairman Larry Probst was pleased the NGBs are holding their fire while the Chicago bid's fate remains undecided.

"That seems like a good idea,'' Probst told me this afternoon. I think his tone could fairly be described as wry.

Just as he had done in Berlin last month when discussing the controversy created over the USOC's defying the IOC when it announced in July the launch of a USOC network (since postponed indefinitely), Probst also admitted that the situation with the NBGs could have been handled better.

"If some of the people in the NGB leadership are upset and unhappy, then clearly things could have been done better,'' Probst said. "More importantly, I think there is a commitment on Stephanie's part and certainly on my part to have a good partnership with the NGBs and the NGB leadership and to foster good communication, work together and be on the same page so we are supporting both the Chicago bid and the athletes to be as successful as they can.

"I think that is what you heard Stephanie talk about this morning – trying to be more engaging and more communicative, better partnering. I am very supportive of all those things and have had this discussion with Stephanie on multiple occasions.’’

(It is plain Streeter has been listening to Probst, since she echoed today what he had said 3 1/2 weeks ago in Berlin about the USOC having miscalculated the IOC's negative reaction -- it was virulent -- to the network announcement.)

It will be interesting to see how long the truce holds. If Chicago does not get the 2016 Summer Games -- which would be an important source of future revenues for Olympic sports in the United States -- some will undoubtedly say the network fiasco and the leadership change played a role. If Chicago wins, there may be a feeling of being unburdened of any critical restraints.

No matter what, the NBGs should hold Streeter to the commitment she made today. It seemed like an olive branch instead of the big stick the USOC leadership had been wielding while not speaking at all.

-- Philip Hersh