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U.S. Olympic Committee chaos: the whole story

October 8, 2009 |  1:04 pm

Stephanie The top two officials of the U.S. Olympic Committee, acting chief executive Stephanie Streeter and board chairman Larry Probst, took actions Wednesday that were tantamount to an admission the USOC had failed Chicago in its bid to be host of the 2016 Olympics.

But even Streeter’s announcement she would not seek the job on a permanent basis and Probst’s decision to turn his volunteer position into a full-time commitment fell short of satisfying their critics.

Leaders of 46 national sports federations, known as NGBs, who are directly involved in preparing Olympic athletes, gave a collective vote of no-confidence in both Streeter and Probst and called for both to resign immediately.

Streeter is to stay as acting CEO through a search process Probst said should be complete by the end of the first quarter of 2010. Before the NGB statement was issued, Probst said he had no plans to resign.

NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol and NGB Council chair Skip Gilbert decried the idea that Streeter, acting CEO since March 5, would stay in her position during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

In a Wednesday interview with the Tribune, Ebersol also said two national federation chief executives, Steve Penny of USA Gymnastics and Chuck Wielgus of USA Swimming, have ``exactly the skill set everyone knows we need’’ in the CEO of the USOC.

The day’s twists and turns suggested it is business as usual, which means chaos, for governance of Olympic sports in the United States as the USOC prepares to have its seventh acting or permanent CEO since 2000.

Neither Probst, who became chairman when Peter Ueberroth’s term ended a year ago, nor Streeter had any familiarity with International Olympic Committee members, international sports leaders or the Olympic movement when they got the positions.

Probst, retired CEO of video games giant Electronic Arts, said ``familiarity with both the Olympic movement and international sport will be a plus’’ for CEO candidates as the USOC begins a long process to gain some international clout.

``We don’t have political capital,’’ Probst said. ``We don’t have leverage. We need to do the work over the long haul to have more of a presence in the international community and with the IOC.’’

In a conference call with reporters, Streeter insisted her decision was made before Chicago finished last in a four-city field last Friday and owed to a desire to return to the corporate world. She moved from the USOC board to the CEO position when the board forced Jim Scherr to resign.

Until Wednesday, Probst had been ambivalent about committing to what he found surprisingly large time demands in the chairman’s job.

``I’m not a person that backs away from a challenge,’’ Probst said. ``And I’m not a person that runs from a fight. I think I can do this organization a lot of good.’’

The National Governing Body leaders made it clear they don’t want Probst to have that chance, based in part on responses to a questionnaire.

All 40 NGB respondents said no to the question of whether Streeter was qualified for her position. Thirty-eight of 42 said no to whether they approved of how Probst is handling his job.

``If you look at the shortcomings we feel Larry brought to the table – no sport experience, no experience within the Olympic movement, no international contacts to drive the relationships of our global partners – those are significant,’’ said Gilbert, chief executive of USA Triathlon.

``If you don’t know what you don’t know, you can’t really lead from a dynamic position. So, realistically, today is the day to make the change.’’

From the outset, Streeter had struggled to gain the confidence of her constituents, particularly the NGB leaders.

Streeter, formerly CEO of the Banta printing company, clearly was uncomfortable in public appearances and in dealing with the media, especially after the firestorm of criticism that followed her accession to Scherr’s position.

That criticism intensified when Ebersol told the Tribune Saturday he blamed the USOC for Chicago’s loss and said the organization needed ``real leaders.’’ Ebersol’s words carried particular weight because his network paid $5.7 billion for U.S. rights to the Olympics from 2000 through 2012.

``I think it’s a tiny step in the right direction,’’ Ebersol said of Streeter’s decision. ``But that is totally countered by once again their (the USOC’s) hiring a search firm that won’t have a clue and will find some candidate from a failed American business who has some kind of reputation and trot him or her out.’’

Scherr’s two predecessors, Norm Blake and Lloyd Ward, both were corporate leaders whom search firms brought to the USOC. Both were forced out after brief tenures – nine months for Blake, 18 months for Ward.

Streeter’s salary and potential compensation also fueled critics after the Tribune revealed in August she was receiving a base salary ($560,000) that was 31 percent higher than what Scherr earned in 2008, and her total compensation included bonuses up to $1 million.

IOC member Denis Oswald of Switzerland brought up Streeter’s salary as one of the issues that have led the IOC to lack confidence in the USOC. According to Ebersol, IOC members could not understand how a person so new in the position with virtually no experience in Olympic matters could receive such a high salary.

Her compensation also seemed out of line after the USOC had lost three major sponsors and cut 15 percent of its staff.

Streeter made little effort to engage IOC members, choosing not to attend the bid cities’ technical presentation to all the members last June in Switzerland. Her absence – and that of Probst – did not go unnoticed.

``The consensus of the group – and that was the USOC and the 2016 folks and the city – was that with the very few accreditations we had, it would be better for someone on the technical side of the bid to take those accreditations and not have Larry and I go," Streeter said Wednesday. ``In retrospect, that was not the right decision."

In delineating credentials for the new CEO, Probst clearly admitted the problems in USOC international relations that some IOC members cited as a reason for Chicago’s first-round exit in the 2016 voting. The criteria also made it clear that it would not be a person like Blake, Ward or Streeter, all of whom came to the job with no knowledge of the international Olympic movement and no connection to any kind of sports administration.

``It is someone who has the executive skills Stephanie has married with a background in sport, someone who is multi-lingual, someone who is willing to make a very long term commitment and has the ability to travel extensively all over the world who we believe can build the long-term relationships we need to have with IOC members," Probst said.

Ebersol thinks the head of a major national federation would be best for the job and is very angry the search process will go beyond the Winter Olympics.

``The people fit for this job are such a small group," Ebersol said. ``I can name a couple -- and you could name others -- because their skill set is exactly what everybody knows we need here: (USA Swimming CEO) Chuck Wielgus and (USA Gymnastics CEO) Steve Penny. They have enormous grass-roots sports that are wildly successful so they know what the importance of the athlete is and how to deal with it on a major domestic level.

``They also have sports that are so big they demand real fundraising ability, particularly among big domestic corporations. The Wielguses and the Pennys have dealt with the Visas and McDonalds. You are not going to find that anywhere else domestically -- people who have big sporting backgrounds, who know what the international federations are, who also have good relationships with their own terribly important international federations, so they have a natural way to fit in the world on a larger scale."

Wielgus said he was flattered by Ebersol’s suggestion but ``fully focused my job with USA Swimming. Penny could not be reached for comment.’’

Ebersol did not want the USOC to go to Vancouver with a leader ``everybody has already repudiated.’’

``I’m just infuriated we are going to blow six months so that Stephanie Streeter can get to go to the big dance in Vancouver," he said. ``Bring her there, let her go to the events, but don’t let her go as the executive director of the USOC. The big dance doesn’t happen again for 2 1/2 years in London. What better place than Vancouver to allow someone to hit the ground on the international scene?’’

The search to replace Streeter will begin in earnest after the USOC selects one of the nine search firms that have expressed interest in the task, a decision Probst said should come by the end of October. He hoped to have a new CEO in place by the end of the first quarter of 2010.

``We are going to be very thoughtful about this and involve all the various stakeholders and make sure we find a truly extraordinary individual because this is an extraordinarily challenging position," Probst said. ``At the end of the day, we want buy-in and support from all the constituencies."

There will be a nine-member USOC committee to review the candidates, and the group will be much more inclusive of all constituencies in the U.S. Olympic movement than the USOC board is. Board member Bob Bowlsby, the Stanford athletic director, will chair the committee, which will also include three more board members and representatives of the NGBs, athletes, multi-sports organizations (like the Boys and Girls Clubs), Paralympic organizations and the U.S. Olympians association.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Stephanie Streeter. Credit: Associated Press