- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

The combination of U.S. Olympic Committee internal politics and federal government oversight usually is the sort of stuff that completely numbs most sports fans.
Congress' impending entry into the USOC's ongoing leadership and ethical crisis, however, bears watching for two simple reasons. The new structure of the organization, whatever it may be, will directly determine whether America continues to be a power during Olympic competition or fades to a much weaker state. The very future of the Olympic movement as a relevant and meaningful part of the American sports culture also stands at risk.
Widely suggested reforms, such as whittling down the USOC's massive 123-member board of directors and removing volunteers and some insiders from the executive leadership structure, are relatively easy fixes. For the USOC to truly emerge from its current mess marked by constant leadership turnover, decreasing dollars for athlete support and eroding public confidence it must redefine its very function and purpose.
That fundamental and difficult question rang loud and clear during Thursday's congressional hearing on the USOC. Even USOC board members and closely aligned sponsors do not have a clear vision of what the organization's mission is or should be.
Is the USOC supposed to take the lead in developing Olympic athletes? Should it just be a fund-raising umbrella group for the governing bodies for each individual sport? Is its true purpose instead more concentrated to marketing and licensing, since it already vigorously sells the Olympic rings for commercial use? What about any responsibilities to the grass-roots development of Olympic sports? Is the USOC's nonprofit status still a proper fit?
No one seems to know for sure.
"In the USOC's case, there is no uniformity of purpose," said Donald Fehr, USOC board member and executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. "Rather, the USOC is more like a legislative body, with the different interest groups struggling with one another to protect their own and to get their piece of the [financial] pie. The structure makes dispute and discord the order of the day."
As a result, a Congress-led strip-mining of the current USOC structure is likely and could happen within months. Surprisingly, most USOC leaders are openly embracing the federal intervention, plainly admitting the deep-seeded problems cannot be fixed alone.
But a clear danger exists that without some guiding principles to a USOC reconstruction, the preceding demolition will be little more than pomp and circumstance.
"We must remember that, due to its mandated mission, the USOC must interact with its 78-member organizations only 38 of which currently manage Olympic sports," said Anita DeFrantz, a USOC board member and liaison to the International Olympic Committee. "In many ways, the USOC was chartered to act as a privately funded 'Ministry of Sports.'"
So what to do now? If comments from Sen.John McCain, Arizona Republican and head of the Senate Commerce Committee, are any indication, two things about the USOC crisis bother him most: the constant infighting among executives and the lack of revenue actually reaching amateur athletes. Only a third of USOC funds actually gets to them, and that winnowing total includes sports in which professionals compete in the Olympics.
A new blue-ribbon panel being appointed by McCain and the Commerce Committee will study the USOC and report back with recommendations. While the changes to be enacted through regulation or legislation will be broad and substantial, they also are likely to hone on the athlete funding and executive-level peace as primary goals.
"The athletes appear to be nothing more than an afterthought in the eyes of this ever-growing behemoth of an organization," McCain said. "We must restore faith in this organization."

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