LEAN AND TOO HUNGRY
SI's Robert Sullivan reports from San Diego on the first meeting of the U.S. Olympic Committee's board of directors.
The 100-member USOC board was created this year to replace the bloated (400-member), bureaucratic House of Delegates, which until its disbanding in February had final say on most USOC matters. The goal was to streamline decision making, and, indeed, last weekend the board acted on two important initiatives: It approved long-stalled plans to build a 16-sport training center in Chula Vista, Calif., and provide greater support for centers in Lake Placid, N.Y., and Colorado Springs, and it passed a proposal to award more USOC money to federations whose athletes do best in international competition.
"The Olympics are not for recreation," said USOC president Robert Helmick, underscoring the organization's new emphasis on winning. "We do not want to take up our time, beds and money with athletes who are not dedicated to being the best they can be."
The creation of a slimmed-down board is welcome. Among other things, it saves the USOC a small fortune every time members are flown in for these meetings and put up at plush hotels. Still, the harmony in evidence in San Diego was almost unsettling. The new focus on earning medals was scarcely questioned. The motion to link USOC funding to a federation's success rate in producing winners passed nearly unanimously, receiving the support even of smaller, less successful governing bodies that for reasons largely beyond their control—the lack of grass-roots participation, for example—aren't likely to produce any Olympic champions in the next millennium.
It's glib to suggest, as Helmick seemed to, that if athletes in some of these underdeveloped sports were somehow more "dedicated," they would become world-beaters. The formula isn't that simple. Some of the most dedicated U.S. Olympians are those trying desperately, even quixotically, to finish higher than, say, 39th in their event. In the past the USOC slanted funding toward those federations whose athletes were struggling and needed the most help. Now, weaker federations will still get as many USOC dollars as ever, but the sports that produce medals and world-ranked athletes will earn bonus money. While there's something to be said for this financial incentive, one fears that the rich federations will merely get richer, and the disparity between the strongest and weakest will grow.
"People always remember [modern Olympics founder Baron Pierre] de Coubertin's statement about participation being the important thing," said USOC treasurer LeRoy Walker, "but they forget the Olympic motto: citius, altius, fortius. Swifter, higher, stronger. That means better. You shouldn't continue to reward mediocrity." Neither should the U.S., in its quest for medals, dismiss as irrelevant those who strive for victory but don't reach it.
WEATHERING THE STORM
It was a foregone conclusion that English and/or Dutch soccer fans—the most notorious rowdies in the sports world-would create disturbances before last Saturday's England-Holland World Cup game in Cagliari, Italy. The only question was how grisly the scene would become. Some worried that even the presence of 4,000 Italian police and soldiers might not be enough to control the brawling and rampaging.
Thankfully, no cataclysm ensued—though the streets of Cagliari were no place for a romantic stroll, either. The Dutch supporters, to their credit, remained peaceful. The English, alas, did not. As perhaps 1,000 English fans walked to Sant'Elia Stadium, police tried to steer them onto a route that would prevent them from encountering Dutch supporters also walking to the game. The English fans began throwing rocks and taunts. Police responded with clubs and tear gas, and some residents hurled flowerpots at the English from their windows. In the end, 10 people were hospitalized with bruises or concussions, but property damage was minor, and there were no flare-ups at the game, which ended in a 0-0 tie.