USOC to rescue wayward U.S. Fencing Association
Dwindling funds? Leadership in hiding? Unpaid athletes and coaches? Phantom appointments? What is going on with the U.S. Fencing Association? In order to address the growing problems in the sport, the U.S. Olympic Committee will announce on Wednesday that it will begin overseeing certain operating aspects of the U.S. Fencing Association, which is in operational and financial freefall after its most successful Olympics four years ago.
Last Friday members of the Olympic fencing team were told that that the USOC will bypass the federation and pay funding directly to athletes, many of whom, like several high level coaches and referees, have not been paid money owed them since the last Olympics. Though it operates on a budget with less than $4 million in revenues, the association operated at a $1 million loss during its most recent year.
As part of a comprehensive review of the way many national governing bodies under the Olympic umbrella conduct business, the USOC decertified the existing body for team handball in 2006 and replaced it with a new one in April. It did the same for modern pentathlon and has overseen reorganized structures for boxing and taekwondo federations that were operating poorly. Even USA Track & Field, a heavyweight among U.S. sports governing bodies, is under scrutiny as it attempts to find a new CEO. Yet some of those squads, especially team handball, have a history of poor results. The team handball squads have not qualified for the Games since 1992. (The team was granted a home-country exemption at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics).
Fencing, however, was an unqualified success story in Athens. It had been a century since a U.S. fencer had won an Olympic gold medal, before Mariel Zagunis captured the women's sabre crown in Athens, with Sada Jacobsen adding a bronze. Though the men failed to win a medal in Athens, the sabre team seemed primed for future honors after losing matches by identical 45-44 scores to France in the semifinals and Russia in the bronze-medal contest. The men's foil team also placed a respectable fourth. NBC actually sprinkled coverage of the sport into its traditional menu of swimming, track and gymnastics. The women's sabre team backed up that performance by winning a gold medal in the team competition at the 2005 world championships. It looked like U.S. fencing was headed for a boom cycle of publicity and financial prosperity.
The USFA's Web site should have been inundated with more hits than, well, a novice fencer, except that the site was down for six weeks after the Games. The team's top fencers, many of whom chose to stay with the sport, could have been reaping the rewards, except that USFA didn't pay much of the money that was owed them.
Michael Massik, the association's executive director, and Nancy Anderson, appointed president of the association in 2004, should have been welcome sounding boards for ways to grow the sport and the federation in an unprecedented era of opportunity and expansion. Instead many members complained that Massik and Anderson shut off communications and wouldn't respond to calls or emails, especially when it came to money matters.
"Anderson simply went AWOL from her vice presidents and her executive committee," said one Olympic team member. "When people told her they'd been trying to reach her, she'd say her computer crashed or she'd been out of town or she wasn't feeling well. The only time you could get Massik to respond to emails was copy someone else on them."
Anderson did send out a group email on Jan. 4, 2005, in which she stated: "There are times when we all need to keep a little perspective on life and, as we all face 2005, this seems like a good time." The memo included 22 pictures of playful kittens with captions that read, in part: "2004 has sped by; now, we need to face 2005." It ended with a photo of one kitten cleaning another with the caption: "And, most importantly, never forget to love those dearest to you."
In early 2006 Mike Morgan, the apparent chair of the USFA's fundraising committee, started receiving inquiries about his committee's efforts. The problem was that no one had told him he was running the committee. Morgan's letter to USFA's board of directors read as follows:
To: USFA Board of Directors
From: Mike Morgan
Re: Fundraising Committee
I am writing in response to a request from the National Office to submit a report by January 15th, 2006, on the actions of the above referenced committee. I surreptitiously "discovered" my appointment and designation as Chair on January 10th, 2006. Prior to that, I was never officially consulted and received no specific communication regarding my participation in this or any capacity from the President, USFA Officers, Executive Director, staff liaison or other committee members. Consequently, I have no knowledge of actions taken or planned (if any) by this Committee.
Since I never officially accepted this appointment, it is unnecessary to submit a formal resignation. For the record, I am not currently, nor do I anticipate working with this group.
I have served as a development, fund-raising and marketing consultant for 38 years. With respect to my appointment, this administration's conduct may be characterized as both negligent and disconnected. In a sector that I consider as the bedrock of every non-profit organization, this is an inexcusable failure in adhering to reasonable professional standards