In the spring of 1936, Howard K. Smith of Tulane ran 14.4 in the high hurdles at a regional qualifying meet for the Olympic Trials. "A guy beat me by two yards and I reasoned that if I was that far back in the first round, I didn't have a prayer of making the team, so I went home," recalls Smith. The guy was Forrest Towns, who in Berlin won the Olympic gold medal in 14.2. Smith went on to other pursuits, rising to anchorman on ABC's nightly news, but, perhaps because of what might have been, he continued to follow Olympic sports and this week helped present a document to President Ford which may be of vastly greater worth to the U.S. Olympic effort than any silver medal. Smith has been a key contributor to the 22-member President's Commission on Olympic Sports, which spent $1 million and took a year and a half to analyze the entire U.S. amateur sports system. Chaired by Gerald B. Zornow, board chairman of Kodak, and directed by Mike Harrigan, formerly of the White House staff, the commission has made recommendations that seem sufficiently sound to mark a watershed in American sports history.
It is certainly a papershed. Despite the efforts of several editors, including, for a time, this writer, the two-volume report runs to 613 pages and contains studies on all 30 Olympic sports and profiles of umbrella organizations like the NCAA, AAU, U.S. Olympic Committee and high school state associations.
"It's thick all right," says swimmer-sportscaster Donna de Varona, one of the commission's six athlete members, but it's clear. No one has an excuse now not to understand the issues."
By all means, then, let us try. Smith, who asserts that his only talent is that of simplifying the complex, was drawn to the commission's work for reasons understandable to any fan. "American performances in international sport are deteriorating," he says—an observation confirmed by Olympic medal counts. Then, too, the U.S. record of attempting to involve large numbers in participation sport is not good. The commission report calls America's active populace "that of a rather small country, isolated within a larger, passive society.... Fifty million Americans never exercise; the number and quality of school physical education programs are declining; degenerative diseases associated with obesity and physical inactivity have reached the epidemic stage."
Neither international-class athletes, at one end of the scale, nor broad community programs, at the other, are helped by the fragmented, contentious nature of U.S. sports. "Endemic feuds between organizations bristling with sporting sovereignty," says the report, "constantly threaten athletes' rights of free competition and access to facilities...[Because of such disputes] no clear policy in amateur sports, physical education or fitness can be maintained."
The cause of this mess, the commission decided, is essentially poor organization, abetted by a kind of traditional naivet�. Senator John C. Culver (D., Iowa), one of eight legislators on the commission, says, "This country reminds me of the substitute football player who comes stumbling, ashen, back to the bench and says, 'They're tackling out there.' International sport is important to every nation on this green earth. Of course it's getting tougher."
To figure out how to stay in the game, the commission scouted the opposition, finding, "There are three basic modes of sports organization employed by successful sporting nations. In one, government is in control. In another, a non-governmental sports authority is in control. In the third, no one is in control. Only the U.S. uses the third method."
Noting that the myriad U.S. sports organizations—club, school, church, community and military—have never found it in their interest to combine into a truly national sports union, the commission set out to make it in their interest, and its recommendations for a Central Sports Organization are to that end.
The divisive forces in U.S. sport are strong and have resisted all efforts at reform for more than 80 years. International Olympic Committee rules limit government influence in Olympic sports, and in 1974 IOC President Lord Killanin wrote President Ford to the effect that government intervention in the affairs of the USOC or U.S. sports governing bodies (each sport has one, recognized by the appropriate international federation), could get the U.S. kicked out of the Games. As well, those historical opponents, the AAU (which is recognized as the national governing body for eight Olympic sports) and the NCAA (which governs none but is instrumental in training great numbers of Olympians) both have vested interests in the status quo, and the NCAA, for one, proved an effective lobby when sports legislation was proposed after the Munich Olympic failures. (The Amateur Athletic Act of 1974, an amalgam of bills introduced by Senators Tunney, Pearson, Cook and others, passed the Senate but died in the House at the end of the term.)
"We could see that we needed a law because of all the agreements struck in the past that didn't hold up," says Harrigan. "We had to propose a kind of structure which solved the problems without federal control and which could be supported by the majority of the athletic community."