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U.S. Olympic Panel Will Consider Reforms

It is expected to cut the number of directors, but Congress will likely have the final say.

October 17, 2003|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

CLEVELAND — More than 120 members of the board of directors of the U.S. Olympic Committee, traditionally a blue-blazered, cocktail-drinking bunch, convene here today to do something radical.

They are set, at a meeting scheduled to run through the weekend, to vote themselves out of office. Most of them, anyway. About a dozen, maybe fewer, might remain.

But, as even senior USOC officials acknowledge, they really have no choice.

Years of political infighting and chronic management turmoil culminated in a crisis earlier this year that led to more than a dozen resignations from key USOC positions, including the president and the chief executive. That led to embarrassing congressional hearings. That then produced separate congressional and internal reform task forces and recommendations, and considerable sentiment that reform is not only necessary but desirable.

So, with approval of a reform plan a virtual certainty, the key question remaining within the USOC is simple: Will transition happen fast? Or will it drag out long enough to provide perks, such as a trip to the 2004 Athens Summer Games?

In other action here, the USOC's policy-making executive committee is scheduled today to hear from USA Track & Field officials about the case of Jerome Young, the U.S. sprinter who tested positive for the banned steroid nandrolone in 1999. He was cleared to compete at the 2000 Sydney Games by a USATF panel and went on to win gold in the 1,600-meter relay.

The International Olympic Committee and track's worldwide governing body, the International Assn. of Athletics Federations, want to know how and why Young was cleared to compete. The relay team's medals are at stake.

However, it might not matter what the USOC decides this weekend. The U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives are at work on their own reform plans.

The USOC is a congressionally chartered institution. Thus, it's likely that Congress gets the final word on how a reform plan will be structured, as well as the timetable. Congress is not known to move with lightning speed, and the House Judiciary Committee -- a new player in the Olympic reform arena -- is suddenly intrigued by the USOC; however, the Athens Games are a mere 10 months away.

The USOC has operated under its current management structure since 1978, when Congress gave it responsibility for fielding U.S. teams at the Games.

Asked about a time frame for reform, Bill Martin, the University of Michigan athletic director and acting USOC president, said, "We've operated for 25 years under one governance structure. It isn't going to kill us if we take a thorough amount of time to implement a new one in an orderly fashion."

He dismissed concerns about perks.

"Who gets a trip? All the board members don't. I've been on the board seven, eight years and never gone to the Games."

But he and others agreed it was necessary for the USOC to enact its own internal reform package, even if Congress ends up getting the last word.

Enacting such "legislation demonstrates a commitment to reform and gives [Congress] an idea of the wishes of the organization in this regard," senior USOC managing director Jim Scherr said.

The USOC plan shares much in common with the Senate and House blueprints -- a commitment to sharply reduce the size of the board of directors and the vesting of day-to-day authority in a chief executive.

It's in the tedious but essential details that key differences have emerged. And though the USOC must answer to Congress, it must also answer to the International Olympic Committee -- and a potential IOC conflict with the congressional plans has yet to be defused.

Sentiment, at least among some on Capitol Hill, is not with the IOC.

"We'll deal with that when we come to it, because I'm not really up to knuckling under to a threat from the IOC to the United States Congress," Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), said in an Associated Press story last month.

All agree the board of directors should be downsized dramatically -- from 123 to 11, per the USOC plan, or to nine, the congressional version.

There are actually separate House and Senate proposals. Full details on the House proposal are forthcoming. The Senate version says that the U.S. members of the IOC ought to be ex officio members of the board; the USOC plan says the U.S. IOC members would vote but share the equivalent of one vote.

The USOC plan would give voting power to a majority made up of sports officials and athletes.

The congressional versions say five of the nine should be independent directors. The IOC, however, says that doesn't comply with a rule in the Olympic charter that sports officials should run what they consider a sporting enterprise. The congressional stance is that the Olympics is also a business, with the USOC's annual budget well over $100 million, and thus business people should be running the show.

U.S.-based corporations provide significant financial support to the IOC. NBC, the U.S. broadcaster, is the IOC's single-largest financial underwriter, with a $3.5-billion deal to televise the Games from 2000 to 2008, and another $2.2-billion deal to show the 2010 and 2012 Olympics while also becoming a top-tier corporate IOC sponsor.

But, with New York bidding for the 2012 Summer Games and the USOC dependent on the revenue that a domestic Games yields, Jim Easton, the lone U.S. member currently on the IOC executive board, and others said it's in the USOC's interest to get a reform package passed that meets approval all around -- and as quickly as possible.

Referring to this weekend's meeting, Martin said, "The big picture to me is, let's have that honest, fair, open discussion. Let's move forward. Let's vote. Because if we don't, Congress is going to do it all for us, and we're not going to have a voice. And I think that's a disaster."

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