Probst bullish on US hopes in London
This is what passes for smack talk at the new version of the
U.S. Olympic Committee: ”I’d be willing to bet we don’t finish
third,” chairman Larry Probst said about the 2012 Olympic medal
Addressing the USOC’s annual assembly Friday, Probst was
speaking to a prediction by a widely respected Olympics expert that
the U.S. Olympic team, which has won the medal count the last four
Summer Games, will fall behind both China and Russia a year from
now in London.
It’s the kind of prediction that might fire people up and,
behind the scenes, probably has. But more often than not, of late,
the USOC leaders make a point of acting like partners and not
competitors with the rest of the Olympic world.
Probst and CEO Scott Blackmun both used their keynote speeches
to tout the USOC’s new emphasis on improving international
Left unmentioned were the awkward realities of the Olympic
movement and the United States’ role in it – essentially, that
without the success of the U.S. team and the billions of dollars
its sponsors and broadcasters provide to latch onto that success,
the Olympics would be a shell of the mega-event it is today.
Three years ago, in his memorable farewell speech as USOC
chairman, Peter Ueberroth poured gasoline on the USOC relationship
with international partners by spelling that out in the most
certain of terms: ”Who pays the bill for the world Olympic
movement? Make no mistake about it. Starting in 1988, U.S.
corporations have paid 60 percent of all the money, period.”
Probst and Blackmun have spent the last three years trying to
undo the public-relations damage from that address and told a crowd
of Olympic leaders, athletes and administrators that they’re well
on their way.
”Our goal is to become off the field what we have always sought
to be on the field – the best and most respected national Olympic
committee in the world,” Probst said. ”To do that, you have to be
present, you have to be real, and you have to connect.”
Probst said he attended 18 international meetings in 13
countries over the past year, trying to get the ”face time”
that’s considered so valuable in Olympic circles.
At the end of the day, though, there is a competition, and on
his list of the top five stories in the Olympic world of the last
year, Probst mentioned two ringing successes – America’s 25 medals
at track world championships and 32 medals at swimming. If the U.S.
teams match those numbers at the Olympics next year, they’ll be
well on their way to the top of the medals table.
”I don’t understand why we would be anything but a strong
favorite to win the medal count,” said USA Gymnastics president
Steve Penny, who doesn’t have to play as much politics as the USOC
leaders. ”I don’t believe the experts. That’s all we need to hear.
You think we’re going to finish third in the medal count? Fine.
We’ll show you where we’re going to finish in the medal
While the world focuses on that, the insiders keep looking at
the relationship between the USOC and IOC, which has improved but
has not yet been cemented by an agreement on the contentious
revenue-sharing arrangement that both sides seek a solution
The disagreement is over the USOC’s long-standing 20 percent
share of global sponsorship revenues and 12.75 percent cut of U.S.
broadcast rights deals. The IOC wants more of that money.
Those negotiations were fast-tracked this summer with the idea
they might get resolved in time for the United States to make a bid
to host the 2020 Olympics. But the USOC wasn’t comfortable with the
terms and decided to hold off – a move that keeps that
uncomfortable issue on the table and takes some luster from the
IOC’s bid process because it doesn’t include an American city.
Probst and Blackmun were noncommittal about bids for 2022 –
Denver and Reno-Tahoe have approached the USOC about a possible bid
– or 2024, though the CEO did indicate the USOC always remains
”I think 20 years is long enough,” Blackmun said of the
20-year gap since the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, the last Olympics
held in the United States. ”I think it’s important that we host
the Games in the United States as a way to keep Americans connected
to the team.”
In his presentation, Blackmun focused on the domestic side,
highlighting increases in revenues (a projected $697 million over
this four-year period compared to $610 million for the period
ending in 2008), the continuing quest to shore up sponsorship
commitments through 2016 and a new search for diversity inside the
To illustrate the improved feeling about the USOC, he cited a
study that showed ”negative” stories about the USOC have declined
from 11 percent of overall copy generated in 2009 to only 1 percent
so far in 2011.
Most of the ”negative” 2009 stories came out of the USOC’s
unexpected decision to fire CEO Jim Scherr and replace him with
Stephanie Streeter. Blackmun replaced Streeter in 2010 and, on both
domestic and international fronts, the road has become less
”One thing I sometimes feel is that people in Washington are
focused on one party or the other instead of the nation,” Blackmun
said. ”Historically, we’ve had some of the same issues in this
room. I don’t feel like that today. I feel unequivocally supported
by everyone in this room.”