A year ago the U.S. Olympic Committee was basking in the afterglow of the feel-good Salt Lake City Games, awash in gold medals and strong television ratings. That has all disappeared like pond ice in April as the USOC finds itself embroiled in scandal and infighting, hauled before Congress and described variously as bloated, dysfunctional, ineffective and ethically bankrupt. The committee's fourth CEO in four years is under fire, and its third president in three years just quit, putting the USOC in a neck-and-neck race with the Los Angeles Clippers and the Cincinnati Bengals to determine the worst-run organization in sports.
"If Jesus Christ were to come down to run things, it would still take years for the U.S. Olympic movement to lay claim to high ground once again," says John Naber, winner of four gold medals in swimming at the 1976 Games and president of the U.S. Olympic Alumni Association, a group of more than 6,000 former athletes.
The USOC's problems are complex and long-festering. Fixing them won't be easy. "Can you give me the Middle East problem first?" says Canadian Dick Pound, a longtime International Olympic Committee vice president. "The [ USOC leaders] have lost their track." Here's how they can find it:
1 START OVER
The Amateur Sports Act of 1978 formed the USOC as we know it, a staggeringly cumbersome model in which a CEO has to share power with a volunteer president and is part of an up-to-23-member executive board that works with a 123-person board of directors. Among those directors are representatives from not only the 39 Olympic sports but also such vaguely sports-related bodies as the Boy Scouts of America, the American Legion and the Dwarf Athletic Association of America. It's amazing that the USOC leadership can order lunch, never mind create a cohesive plan for the most powerful athletic nation in the world.
So get rid of the entire structure. Fire CEO Lloyd Ward, whose efforts to steer a valuable Pan Am Games contract to his brother's company have permanently tainted him. Beleaguered president Marty Mankamyer resigned last week; the next step should be to eliminate her position and consolidate power in the CEO and a pared-down board of directors, which should be made up of 11 smart people with business acumen and vision.
These are not pie-in-the-sky suggestions. Congress has the power to amend the Amateur Sports Act, and it seems willing to do so. This week the Senate Commerce Committee, chaired by Arizona's John McCain, will hold a hearing on possible USOC restructuring.
2. CHOOSE AN OLYMPIC CZAR
The USOC needs a strong, recognizable leader with executive experience, preferably in sports, and an understanding of the Olympic ideals and Olympic politics. Here's a short list:
The head of the baseball players' union was a leading member of the commission that investigated the Salt Lake City bid scandal four years ago, and he has been on the USOC board of directors since 1996. He has a profound understanding of the economics of sports and is skilled at ruthlessly protecting the interests of athletes.