Politics & Policy

Olympic Sport Is in Good Hands

Where the honor is.

On February 13, the Commerce Committee under Senator McCain (R., Ariz.) will convene another in a series of hearings investigating the latest U.S. Olympic Committee failures in leadership. The senators are vowing they will turn the Olympic world upside down and bring honor back to the rings. A little rubbing here, a little micromanagement there, and the five rings will control them all.

Unfortunately, judging by the cast of characters slated to speak, little will be accomplished and even less revealed. Not one of the people involved has one iota of day-to-day knowledge or experience in developing Olympic athletes. With the exception of David D’Alessandro, C.E.O. of John Hancock — an outspoken critic who has experienced the USOC clutter firsthand — the rest of the people who will be testifying are the usual suspects: an Olympic medalist here, a TV professional there, a career bureaucrat, and so on.

Thankfully, in the case of the Olympic movement, the USOC boardroom is more or less beside the point. At the middle-management level, the USOC has Olympic-level people in areas such as security and Games planning, to name just a few. Certainly the staff needs pruning, but the day-to-day operation functions even when the C.E.O.’s head is somewhere else (as has lately seemed to be the case).

More importantly, the core of the entire structure is really not in the USOC at all. The National Governing Body (NGB) for each sport — USA Swimming, USA Track and Field, U.S. Sailing, and so on — do all the work that the USOC staff love to credit to themselves. Only those members of the USOC executive committee who are the direct representatives of their constituent bodies have any real understanding of the pulse of Olympic sports.

If Sens. McCain, Campbell (R., Colo.), and Stevens (R., Alaska) looked closely, they would see dedicated athletes, coaches, and volunteers who daily go about their business of developing young talent. These people are the stakeholders of the Olympic world. Few of these hands-on folks could name the USOC leaders; fortunately it doesn’t matter. When the Olympic trials come around, they will be there anyway.

Much has been written about the last vestiges of amateurism and the impact of big money in Olympic success. Sad to say, the explosion of the USOC budget from $50 million in 1976 to $500 million today has not resulted in any significant increase in medals. Yes, handouts to NGBs and athletes are the order of the day — the welfare state is alive and well at the USOC. It’s always crowded at the trough. Most of this money comes from sponsors who falsely believe they are getting access to athletes. But of course, the USOC has no athletes, since they reside at the NGBs and train with their coaches in schools and clubs nationwide. Clearly, as in all financial shell games, the money affects performance more by mistake than by design. No one ever performed their best just for the bucks.

So, what’s a senator to do? Well, first they need to realize that the USOC is a great travel agency, a middling site manager, and so-so athlete-service provider. Then, end the charade. Get the USOC out of the sport-performance business; they don’t really do it now anyway. Allow the NGBs and athletes to compete in a market-driven environment. They’ll be fine: They’re competitors; it’s what they do.

— Murray Stephens is director of the renowned North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Stephens was 1996 USOC Coach of the Year for swimming and is a member of the Executive Board of USA Swimming.


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