USOC fight worries sponsors, leads to congressional hearing

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

America's Olympic leaders thought they had solved their latest crisis, declaring it much ado about nothing.

Meeting privately two weeks ago to debate accusations of an ethics violation by CEO Lloyd Ward, they emerged with smiles and a plea for unity going into the Athens Olympics.

"For us, that's the end of it," said Bill Stapleton, U.S. Olympic Committee vice president.

Not quite.

Stapleton should have known nothing comes easy for an organization that even in good times is often filled with dissent and paralyzed by infighting.

Things have gotten so bad this time, though, that USOC executives will go before Congress on Tuesday to explain why America's athletes do so well when their leaders seemingly can't even agree on what to have for lunch.

Still, the intervention of some key senators is being welcomed by many within the organization as the best way to straighten out a quarter-century of raging turf battles.

"I think a congressional hearing is perhaps the only way out of this," said Bruce Derwin, a former USOC executive board member.

The scandal is giving some Olympic sponsors second thoughts and could lead to an overhaul of the committee.

USOC president Marty Mankamyer has been asked to resign by some members just nine months into her job. Her predecessor, Sandy Baldwin, resigned in May after admitting she lied about her academic credentials.

In the latest flap, the group's executive committee decided Jan. 13 not to discipline Ward over his attempt to help steer Pan American Games business to his brother.

The decision touched off a series of resignations, accusations and attempted coups that escalated almost daily.

It worried Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska so much that he summoned USOC leaders to Washington to appear before a hearing chaired by Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

"We may appear to be in costume sometime," Mankamyer insisted, "but it's really a great organization."

It may not be the same after Congress finishes examining why the 1978 act that gave the committee control over America's Olympic movement isn't working.

Source of the clash

The USOC's unwieldy structure includes volunteers on the 22-member executive board and 125-member board of directors. They often clash with paid staffers over the most minute issues.

The threat of congressional intervention isn't the only problem facing the organization. Forbes magazine warned recently that the USOC's overhead is too high and it doesn't spend enough money on its programs.

And at least one big sponsor is calling for an accounting of the organization's $125 million annual budget at a time when crucial sponsorships are being solicited.

All the turmoil inside the USOC doesn't appear to have had much effect on America's performance in the Olympics. The U.S. team won the medal count with 97 at Sydney and had a team-record 34 medals in Salt Lake City.

Still, some of the athletes at the USOC's training centers in Colorado Springs are wondering just what is going on.

"I think it's a shame that the problems with management are taking away from the athletes," triathlete Joe Umphenour said.

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