Robert Helmick, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee for the past six years, resigned Wednesday amid controversy over whether some of his private financial arrangements as a sports law attorney represented a conflict of interest.
Helmick, 54, said as recently as last weekend that he would not leave office until his term expires in the fall of 1992, but he changed his mind while attending a meeting of the International Olympic Committee's executive board in Berlin.
He returned Wednesday to his New York office, where he announced his decision to USOC executive committee members in a one-hour telephone conference call.
"I would have preferred that my term end some other way," he said in a telephone interview Wednesday night. "But I suddenly realized that this situation has paralyzed the day-to-day operations of the U.S. Olympic Committee. We are under fire, and it's got to stop.
"It seemed like the honorable, responsible thing for me to step aside. We've got to shift the focus back to where it belongs, which is on our athletes as they prepare for the Olympics next year in Albertville and Barcelona."
For the past two weeks, the focus has been on Helmick after USA Today reported the financial details of his consulting contracts with several clients that either had or sought business relationships with the USOC or the IOC. According to the newspaper, Helmick earned at least $127,000 last year from the deals.
Although Helmick has disputed that figure, he has acknowledged that he had contracts with Turner Broadcasting System, the international governing body for aquatic sports (FINA), an agency hired to attract sponsors to the USOC, and groups that were attempting to have the sports of bowling and golf admitted to the Olympic program.
Helmick, who said he has severed his ties to those clients, apologized to the USOC's executive committee 11 days ago in a meeting at Chicago for creating the appearance of a conflict of interest but maintained he never attempted to influence the USOC or IOC on behalf of his clients.
The 22-member executive committee subsequently gave Helmick a vote of confidence, although it also commissioned a special counsel, former U.S. deputy attorney general Arnold Burns, to investigate further.
"All of us in a leadership capacity were confident that the unprecedented amount of coverage given to this issue by USA Today would not continue and that the matter had been handled very responsibly by the USOC," Helmick said Wednesday. "Instead, the coverage has escalated.
"I consider this a trial by the media, particularly by USA Today. But there is not one shred of evidence that I did anything wrong. No one asked me to resign, and if anyone thinks I'm running away from this, they're dead wrong."
In his six years as USOC president, Helmick, who makes his permanent home in Des Moines, Iowa, but also has a New York office as an attorney for the firm of Dorsey & Whitney, became the most influential American in international sports since the late Avery Brundage, IOC president from 1952-72. Helmick was believed to aspire to that position himself, having become one of two U.S. representatives to the IOC in 1985 and winning election to the 11-member executive board in 1989.
But his future now with the IOC is clouded, although he said Wednesday he does not plan to resign. The other 10 members of the IOC's executive board met with him Tuesday in Berlin but decided to take no action until Burns completes his investigation. Under the IOC charter, Helmick can remain a member until he is 75.
A former college water polo player who achieved prominence in sports administration as president of FINA, Helmick was elected USOC president in 1985 to succeed John B. Kelly, who died of a heart attack only a few weeks into his term.
Elected to his first full four-year term in 1989, Helmick successfully lobbied earlier this year for a change in USOC bylaws that would enable a president to succeed himself. Highly regarded for his role in bringing a more corporate structure to the USOC, resulting in more funds for athletes and various sports governing bodies involved in the Olympics and Pan American Games, he virtually was assured of re-election next year.
Individual USOC executive committee members would not comment Wednesday on Helmick's resignation but released a joint statement that said:
"The United States Olympic Committee has been forever changed for the better by the work, commitment and dedication of (Helmick). During his presidency, he moved the organization through a period of its most dynamic growth to a vibrant sports organization."
The executive committee has scheduled a meeting for Monday at USOC headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., to discuss potential successors to fulfill the remaining 14 months of Helmick's term. USOC sources said they expect the committee eventually to nominate one candidate, who will be subject to a vote at the Oct. 29-Nov. 3 board of directors meetings in Colorado Springs.