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USOC under fire for Olympic-sized missteps

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Three weeks after Chicago's first-round rejection in the bidding for the 2016 Summer Games, Olympic athletes and sports executives are demanding major change in the U.S. Olympic Committee. At stake, some say, is support for American athletes and the quest to host Olympic Games in the United States.

The U.S. Olympic Committee is back in crisis mode five years after major reforms, four years after stabilizing its leadership, and three weeks after Chicago's first-round rejection in the bidding for the 2016 Summer Games.

Olympic athletes and sports executives are again demanding major change, and U.S. Olympic leaders are scrambling to respond.

At stake, some say, is support for American athletes as they prepare for the Vancouver Winter Olympics in February, and the Winter and Summer Games of the future.

"If all of the energy is trying to right the ship, if you will, is that taking away from the energy needed to create programs to bring better athletes into the pipeline, to develop them for Olympic competition?" asks Skip Gilbert, executive director of USA Triathlon and chairman of the Association of Chief Executives for Sport.

"We would hate for something to fall through the cracks that could, at any level, put any of our athletes or any of our sports ... at a disadvantage," he said.

A Leadership Problem?

Also at stake is the quest to host Olympic Games in the United States. Leadership missteps at the USOC are blamed, in part, for Chicago's embarrassing first-round elimination in the bidding for the 2016 Summer Games.

Rebellion was already brewing among athletes and Olympic sports executives before the failed Chicago bid, says Lisa Delpy Neirotti, an Olympic scholar at George Washington University.

"They withheld their complaints and unhappiness until the Chicago bid was done, just on the hope that we could get the games back in the United States," Neirotti says. And when Chicago didn't get the games, "the door was open for people to come out with the criticism. ... That's when they came out with their guns slinging."

Gilbert released a survey of CEOs of Olympic sports governing bodies, which found little to no confidence in senior USOC leadership. The group called for the resignations of USOC acting CEO Stephanie Streeter and USOC board Chairman Larry Probst.

"These are two of the highest sports jobs in the country, and they're right now being filled by two people with no sports experience," says Doug Logan, who heads USA Track and Field.

"Sports is not rocket science," adds Logan. "But by the same token, it is a business in and of itself that has got its own set of relationships, which are rather unique. And to fill both of those jobs by individuals who have no knowledge or experience with sports — that's got to be rethought."

The U.S. Olympians Association, which represents 6,000 current and former American Olympic athletes, has similar concerns.

"They have a great understanding of how a corporation should be run, but unfortunately that is not what we have here," says Willie Banks, a former Olympic and world champion triple jumper who runs the U.S. Olympians Association. "The understanding that they lack is that this is a public trust. We don't sell anything. We raise money to put a team out on the field of play during the Olympic Games."

Streeter has said she will not be a candidate for the permanent CEO position. Probst acknowledged the management mismatch in a teleconference with reporters this month.

The ideal CEO of the USOC, Probst said, "is somebody that has the executive skills that Stephanie [Streeter] has, married with a background in sports. Someone who is multilingual ... Someone who is willing to make a very long-term commitment ... and that we believe can build the long-term relationships that we need to have with [International Olympic Committee] members."

The reference to IOC members and language skills stems from perceived weaknesses in the U.S. Olympic leadership that severely hampered USOC support for Chicago's Olympic bid. The USOC also offended IOC members by prematurely announcing a new U.S. Olympic television network despite warnings from the IOC not to proceed. And the USOC and IOC have been entangled in a long dispute over the American share of Olympic revenues.

Probst was not available for an interview for this story by NPR's deadline. But a spokeswoman indicated in an e-mail that Probst is meeting with USOC "constituents" this week in an effort to address their concerns.

Probst also refuses to resign, and the USOC board has voted to keep him as chairman.

'We've Become The Laughingstock'

Probst and Streeter are the latest in a string of U.S. Olympic leaders with solid corporate credentials but little or no Olympic or sports experience.

"That's a mistake the USOC board has made over and over again," says Olympic journalist Meri-Jo Borzilleri, who covered the USOC at the Colorado Springs Gazette and continues to do so as a freelancer.

"The USOC went through four presidents and four CEOs between 2000 and 2003," Borzilleri recalls. "And while you haven't seen that rate of change now, you're seeing the same sort of instability and inner turmoil that you saw back then."

During this month's conference call, Probst recognized that problem. "We want buy-in and support from all the constituencies so we're all on the same page and all moving together in a positive fashion," he said then.

Borzilleri says the turmoil threatens any forthcoming Olympic bids of American cities.

"The prospects for a future games in the U.S. are pretty dim right now," Borzilleri says. "You've got to start with a good solid leadership and good stable leadership in place before the IOC will even consider thinking about awarding the games to the U.S. again."

Neirotti is more direct. "We've become the laughingstock," she says. "Here we're the most powerful, wealthiest national Olympic committee and we can't keep a leadership position [filled]."

Probst and the U.S. Olympic board say they'll have a new CEO in place by the end of the year. That'll be the sixth USOC CEO this decade.