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

count.

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

relations.

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

count.”

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

for.

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

interested.

”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

movement.

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

bumpy.

”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.”