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USOC Is Facing Hard Time at Hearing

Officials from troubled Olympic organization expect grilling today in appearance before Senate committee.

January 28, 2003|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Peter Ueberroth, who ran the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games and knows about leadership and the Olympic movement, views the U.S. Olympic Committee's crisis with sadness, anger and determination.

America's athletes, he says, deserve better. The United States, he says, deserves better.

"There has been more than a decade of a lack of leadership," Ueberroth said Monday. "Any organization either progresses or regresses. The USOC has steadily regressed and no longer well serves the premier athletes, or the rank-and-file athletes, in the United States."

He added, "Einstein's quote, and I don't have it here word for word, is very close. He said, 'You can't fix the problem with the same people who broke it.' "

Senior USOC officials will be at Capitol Hill today for a hearing before Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the Senate Commerce Committee, a session USOC officials expect to be unpleasant with the focus likely to be direct and simple: How did the USOC get so broken, and what must be done to fix it?

More congressional hearings are likely, with a view toward revision of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, which gave the USOC control of Olympic sports. Olympic observers say the USOC's political gyrations, turf wars and seemingly constant infighting must stop because the strife has undercut the USOC's ability to operate internationally, drawn the attention -- and in some cases, ire -- of sponsors, and may jeopardize U.S. medal hopes.

"Here's the way I look at it," said David D'Alessandro, chairman and chief executive of John Hancock Financial Services, a top Olympic sponsor, who last week called for a review of the USOC's books by Feb. 15.

"When you become the president or CEO [of the USOC], you receive two things. On your first day, you receive epaulets -- you know, for your shoulders -- and you get a hat with a crest on it.

"About three months later, you walk into your office and there's a blindfold and a cigarette."

The U.S. won the medal count at Sydney in 2000, with 97, and in Atlanta in 1996, with 101, but, said John Lucas, a professor emeritus at Penn State and an expert on the Olympic movement, "We should be grateful for [winning] because we [the USOC] are working at less than 20% efficiency."

The USOC's penchant for political divisiveness, long familiar to Olympic insiders, has been on public display for the last month. An ethics inquiry centering on Chief Executive Lloyd Ward has spawned an internal revolt, with all five USOC vice presidents last week calling for the resignation of President Marty Mankamyer. She has vowed to stay on. Five USOC officials have resigned, among them three members of the ethics board and ethics officer Patrick J. Rodgers.

Rodgers, Ward and Mankamyer are among those due to testify today, along with Rachel Godino, an executive committee member who joined in the call for Mankamyer's resignation.

Also scheduled to testify are Kenneth M. Duberstein and Thurgood Marshall Jr., the chairman and vice chairman of the USOC's ethics committee, as well as Washington attorney Fred. F. Fielding, who wrote a report that formed the basis of the ethics committee's inquiry into Ward.

This newest USOC strife has eclipsed anything that came before, but plenty has come before. Since 1999, for instance, the USOC has had four chief executives, and Ward is the 11th since 1978. It has had three presidents since 2000.

Fundamentally, said John MacAloon, a University of Chicago professor and Olympic expert, "The USOC cannot decide whether it is a nonprofit [organization] working in the public interest and therefore ought to be governed and managed like any other important NGO," a non-governmental organization such as the Red Cross or Greenpeace, "or whether it is a quasi-public corporation whose job it is to manufacture money and medals, and therefore it ought to be run like a private business. It is always getting caught in between."

It has not helped that the USOC is based in Colorado Springs, Colo. It has long had difficulty attracting top-notch executives to a locale that makes sense for athletes who gain endurance by training in thin air but removes its top administrators from the nation's political, business, cultural and sporting centers.

Only a few of the leading names in U.S. culture, politics, business and the arts have signed up to be part of the USOC. Fewer still -- New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner is a notable exception -- have been hands-on.

The USOC is chartered as a nonprofit organization, which might make sense for tax reasons -- both for it and for ordinary Americans who want to donate -- but adds to the burden of luring first-rate executives interested in making money.

Ward, a former Maytag CEO, makes $550,000 annually. He supplements his income with service on three corporate boards, among them General Motors, a USOC sponsor.

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