Work in Sports
Posted: Tuesday April 18, 2000 01:54 PM
The new USOC chief's business-speak throws a scare into minor sports
By Jamal Greene
Olympics, meet insurance. The U.S. Olympic Committee, a largely volunteer organization that has traditionally run with the efficiency of an Edsel, knew it needed to get sleeker. So in February it hired Norm Blake, former head of insurance giant USF&G, as its first CEO. But when Blake said last week that the USOC might reduce funding to governing bodies of Olympic sports in which the U.S. doesn't fare well, heads turned, particularly those that seemed destined to roll.
Blake's Management 101 jargon baffled some in the Olympic community and enraged others. Establishing what he called a "portfolio management discipline," he vowed that sports in which U.S. athletes had little or no chance of winning a medal -- "low value-added programs," in his terms -- would have their funding reevaluated. "Do we want to throw money at a sport that, frankly, would not have the means to ever medal or to make America proud?" he asked.
By last weekend's USOC board of directors meeting in Boston, Blake had tempered his tough talk. He declared that his restructuring wasn't a mandate to shift cash from the have-nots to the haves. Rather, he said, he merely wants each sport's national governing body to justify its funding by developing a sound business plan.
Thus, in less than a week, Blake, perhaps conveniently, went from Stormin' Norman to Norm from Cheers, collecting handshakes like so many frosty brews. Said Sheri Pittman, president of USA Table Tennis, which was thought to be endangered, "He's talking about sitting down together and, I forgot how he put it, 'sharing the family meal.' We have confidence we're part of the family." Said Michael Massik, executive director of U.S. Fencing, "I was disturbed to see my sport in the newspaper [as among those in danger], and when I asked specifically if he said my sport, he told me no."
Blake apologized for causing alarm. "It's important as an effective speaker that you talk in terms that people understand, so I am at fault for not expressing myself in a manner that's more familiar to the audience," he said. "But I'm working on that." Considering that just days before he glad-handed his way through the meetings in Boston he referred to the athlete talent pool as "the available feedstock," he has plenty of work to do.
Issue date: April 24, 2000
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