COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) – The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee is on the brink of change, sparked by frustration over years of flat earnings and what some describe as sluggish management after sex abuse scandals have turned the movement on its head represented America.
Speaking at this week’s annual US Athletes and Administrators Meeting, both CEO Sarah Hirshland and Chairwoman Susanne Lyons said the federation’s top priority for the coming year is athlete excellence and revenue growth. This comes after years of prioritizing athlete safety after the scandals exposed what critics called the USOPC’s single-minded focus on money and medals.
Lyon’s term as chair expires in late 2022. One candidate to succeed her is Dexter Paine, a current USOPC board member and past chair of US Ski & Snowboard, who is closely associated with the national governing bodies (NGBs) that govern the individual sport and have felt largely hollowed out after the Larry Nassar scandal.
Also on the grid is former LA 2028 CEO Gene Sykes, who played a key role in bringing the Summer Olympics back to Los Angeles. The July 8 vote to elect Lyon’s successor will be a clear indicator of what will be the focus at the USOPC in an ever-changing dynamic between athletes, NGBs and international relations.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Lyons said what some see as a paradigm shift is being driven by tough economic conditions, along with abysmal TV ratings for the last two Olympics, raising concerns that fans are losing their love lose to the Olympics. The US is now six years away from hosting its first Summer Games since 1996, and officials know the Olympics must be hosted in Los Angeles to fuel US passion for the entire industry.
“For a time it was considered horrible to actually say you wanted to win a medal,” Lyons said. “It was like, ‘Medals, terrible.’ But I think everyone understands that to have that commitment you have to perform.”
Olympic sports in the US are conducted by more than four dozen NGBs, which in turn are overseen by the USOPC. When the sex abuse scandal broke, the downsides of the loose ties between the organizations were exposed. The conclusion, pushed in part by Congress, was that the USOPC, which provides millions in funding to the NGBs, needs to exercise more oversight over the NGBs and take a stronger role in their oversight.
Friction came in almost all areas.
Since 2019, the amount of money the USOPC provides to NGBs for SOPs has remained virtually unchanged at approximately $50 million per year. Part of this is due to the pandemic, which delayed the 2020 Olympics by a year and took a heavy toll on budgeting across the Olympic world. Another factor was the movement of USOPC dollars straight into athletes’ pockets. There were also “administrative” costs, some dealing with ongoing court cases involving Nassar’s victims and others dealing with increased oversight of the NGBs. Also, at the behest of Congress, the USOPC now funds the US Center for SafeSport with $20 million per year, an increase of more than 600% from when it was founded.
Somewhat overlooked is that a lot of the money that the USOPC gives to the NGBs ends up going to athletes who train under the organizations umbrella for years and then become part of “Team USA” – overseen by the USOPC – when the Olympics begin around.
US Biathlon CEO Max Cobb acknowledged the growing tension between the NGBs and the USOPC. Cobb said 2022 is the right time to realign priorities with the Paris Games still more than two years away.
“I think now is the time to step in and have the really tough talks and be really honest with each other about what we’re doing,” he said. “And be really transparent about how the funds are being used and what resources are available to us.”
Other frustrations included:
– Some NGBs felt burdened by new audit requirements introduced by the USOPC – in response to what was seen as lax oversight after the Nassar case – that required additional work at additional cost for organizations already under pressure.
– NGB leaders opposed some of the athlete-centric programs that the USOPC had created. An example is the Athlete Marketing Platform (AMP) program, which offers athletes direct marketing opportunities with sponsors, but sometimes duplicates the efforts of the NGBs themselves, effectively diverting money from those NGBs.
– The sudden fall earlier this year of head of athletics Rick Adams, a longtime head of the USOPC, angered virtually the entire NGB community. Adams was the USOPC’s primary link to NGBs on the esports side. The US performance at the Tokyo and Beijing games – first medals in the summer and a respectable fourth in the winter – were good indicators that sporting performance was functioning efficiently despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.
Almost everything eventually comes down to money again – how to get more into the Olympic system and how to allocate it, especially in times of high inflation when flat earnings actually represent diminishing purchasing power.
Lyons said she was encouraged by a survey conducted after the Tokyo Games in which more than 90% of US Olympians and Paralympic athletes in Tokyo said that “USOPC prioritizes their health, well-being and safety while providing appropriate protection.” Providing resources and quality services throughout their gaming experience.” She said the change in perspective signaled at this year’s gathering does not mean the federation will stop focusing on it.
“I’ve never seen an Olympian or Paralympian who didn’t want to win,” she said. “I don’t think we’re going to see any kind of backlash, at least from our athletes, to say, ‘Oh, you know, they’re talking about medals again.’ Because they want to win medals.”
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