Blackmun on USOC progress: Not quite to base camp

Chicago Tribune

Scott Blackmun became the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief executive after that organization’s most recent leadership circus.

The good thing is “recent” now means 3 ½ years ago.

The bad thing is the USOC’s history since it was made the overall governing agency of Olympic business in the United States in 1978 had been one clown act after another.

In the period from 1999-2003, the USOC had four presidents and three CEOs.   Prior to that, the average CEO term worked out to just 2.2 years.

The turnover, with its accompanying airing of dirty laundry, destroyed the organization’s credibility, led it to be dragged before Congress and killed any chances of establishing relationships with international sports leaders.  From one day to the next, no one knew who was running the USOC’s ship of fools.

Blackmun is a former USOC general counsel who was briefly interim CEO during one of the paroxysms of chaos.  Since he took over as full-time boss in January, 2010, following the USOC board’s heavy-handed ouster of CEO Jim Scheer and the failure of acting CEO Stephanie Streeter’s bold-faced power grab at the job , the USOC has made headlines only for the achievements of its athletes.

Working in harmony with volunteer board chairman Larry Probst, now fully invested in the time-consuming international relations responsibilities of a position he once thought would require just a few hours per month, Blackmun has managed to move the USOC slowly and quietly forward.  Its big internal news these days comes from making tweaks – like Wednesday’s naming of Olympic champion Benita Fitzgerald Mosley as chief of organizational excellence (whatever that is) - that attract little attention.

In part two of this Q-and-A with Blackmun (for part one, click here), the focus is on the USOC as an organization.

Q.  How much easier has the prolonged stability at the top made doing everything in your job?

A.  Internationally, it has made all the difference in the world.  First, people in the U.S. were ready for some stability.  We have earned some credibility with our own NGBs (national governing bodies of Olympic sports) and the AAC (athletes advisory councul) because of the transparency and accountability that exists today.

Because we are respected at home, it is much easier for us to be respected when we travel internationally.  Combine that with the fact Larry and I are both spending a lot of time on the road - I don’t think it’s a complicated business (establishing international ties), but I think it is a very time-intensive business.  We are just now building relationships that hopefully will be a part of the landscape for a long time.

Q.  Would Larry continue as chairman beyond 2016?  (The terms are four years.)

A.  I hope he does.  He has built some very good friendships internationally.  I think he has the respect of the board.  I would love to see him stay as long as possible.

Q.  What about you?  Any feelings about how much longer you would like to go.  (Blackmun will be 56 in September.)

A.  I don’t have any feelings on what my time horizon is going to be.  I have no intention of leaving.

Q.  The U.S. still has just three IOC members (one, Angela Ruggiero, has a fixed term as an athlete-elected member)   What are the chances of the U.S. having another?

A.  We would like to have one, but so would a lot of other countries.

Q.   Is your best chance to get one by having a U.S. person become head of an international federation that automatically has an IOC member?  (Note: that accounts for Switzerland having five IOC members.)

A.  As I look at our runway the next 10 years, one thing we need to do a much better job of is to get Americans more involved in international federation leadership.  It is a weakness for us right now.  That is not because it will help us get an IOC membership; it is because it is important for our success.

(My note:  Probst may have a shot at being named one of the 15 members from the National Olympic Committee senior executive category, which has at least one opening.)

Q.  Does Angela have a chance at becoming a full-time member when her athlete term ends?

A.  Angela Ruggiero is talented, charismatic, industrious.  She clearly seems to have earned the respect of people in Lausanne (IOC headquarters) too.  They appointed her to chair the coordination commissioner for Lillehammer (2016 Youth Olympic Games) and she is on the coordination commission for Pyeongchang (2018 Winter Olympics.)  I think she has a bright future.

Q.  What are the big U.S.-oriented issues you are dealing with?

A.  The two things I am focusing my individual time on are the bid for 2024 and our fundraising.  As we look at our revenue streams, we think our greatest opportunity is philanthropic revenues.  We are in the final stages of our search for a chief development officer.

Q.  Realistically, by 2020, how much could this kind of fund-raising generate?

A.  We would like to be at $50 million a year.  I would guess that 100 colleges raise that much money.  That would be more than triple our current level of fundraising, and I think that is achievable.

Q.  But colleges have a built in constituency of alums.

A.  They have a built-in advantage.  That’s right.

Q.  Overall, how would you assess your first 3 ½ years on the job?

A.  I’m really pleased, mostly because our teams did so well in Vancouver (2010 Winter) and London (2012 Summer.)  That is the first, second and third priorities for us.

We have also had pretty good success on revenue generation.  We have been able to bury the hatchet with the IOC and have constructive dialogue with them now.  I think we have had good success in that area but there is so much left to do in order to get the Games back in the United States and to generate the level of philanthropic support that our athletes need.

If we were climbing a mountain, we are not quite to base camp yet.


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