Tough task: USOC tamped down discord to help LA get Games
By EDDIE PELLS
Sep. 12, 2017
LIMA, Peru (AP) — These were the jobs nobody wanted.
Sure, becoming leader of the U.S. Olympic Committee meant you immediately became the person pulling the strings behind the world's most successful Olympic team.
It also came with a massive task: Build a strong enough relationship with the rest of the world to bring the Olympics back to the United States after decades of mistrust and miscommunication .
It took eight years, a nice-sized dose of humble pie and more than a few setbacks, but Scott Blackmun and Larry Probst succeeded. The International Olympic Committee will award Los Angeles the 2028 Games at a ceremony on Wednesday. It will be the first Summer Olympics awarded to the U.S. in 27 years, when the IOC gave the 1996 Games to Atlanta. It will end a string of embarrassing losses: New York for 2012, and Chicago for 2016.
As much as the significant financial compromises the USOC made since Blackmun became CEO and Probst became chairman, Blackmun said the biggest game-changer was "the investment of time."
He estimates he and Probst spend 150 days a year on the road, most of them at meetings with leaders in the Olympic movement. Often, they head to the meetings with no agenda or wish list, per se, but only to be present, and to let it be known that the USOC doesn't have to get something out of every transaction it has with its counterparts.
"They did a great job of bridging a financial divide and a feeling that America was not partnering with the IOC and others," said Mike Plant, president of U.S. Speedskating, who served on the USOC board when Blackmun was hired. "There was a feeling we weren't givers, and that we were takers, and they've done a real good job of reaching out and strengthening the relationships and saying, 'We want to work with you.'"
That's not always the way things were, and the template for "U.S. exceptionalism" — read: U.S. comes in with its money and cleans up the IOC's mess — was set the last time the Olympics visited Los Angeles, back in 1984.
Back then, the IOC was coming off a terrorist attack (Munich), a mountain of red ink (Montreal) and a boycott (Moscow). Heading into the bidding process for 1984, only Tehran showed any interest at first.
The Los Angeles Games, in many ways, saved the Olympics and turned them into the multibillion-dollar enterprise they are today.
Every bit as significant, they turned the United States into the machine that brings the money to the party. TV contracts have increased more than tenfold over the ensuing 30 years. (ABC paid $225 million for the 1984 Summer Games. The most recent NBC contract, for 2021-32, was valued at $7.65 billion.) That has kept IOC coffers brimming, and the USOC negotiated accordingly, insisting on a greater percentage of both the IOC's TV and sponsorship dollars. Some IOC members thought it was too great.
But in 2008, Peter Ueberroth, the outgoing chairman of the USOC, spelled out the federation's position in a startlingly frank speech.
"Who pays the bill for the world Olympic movement?" Ueberroth said. "Make no mistake about it. Starting in 1988, U.S. corporations have paid 60 percent of all the money, period. Be sure you all understand that. The rest of the world pays 40 percent. It's pretty simple math."
About a year later, Chicago entered as a favorite to land the 2016 Olympics and finished last.
About a year after that, Blackmun joined Probst to try to repair the damage.
"We all heard the stories," said Casey Wasserman, chairman of the LA bid. "I think Scott and Larry worked from Day 1 to improve that. Without that foundation and the relationship between the U.S. and the IOC, we wouldn't be here today."
There were mistakes along the way.
Most notably, Probst and Blackmun were the front men for a domestic selection process for 2024 that concluded with the USOC board choosing Boston over Los Angeles.
With lagging public support in Boston, the USOC had to pull the plug on that bid and scramble to get LA back on board. LA not only came back but agreed to take the 2028 Games when the IOC changed course and put those Games on the table, as well. Paris will host the 2024 Olympics.
"Of course, I wish it had gone down a little bit differently," Blackmun said of the Boston debacle. "But that was more than two years ago, and we're in a very good place right now."
At one point, Probst was viewed as a short-timer in his position, which is not paid. Some thought Probst, who is chairman of the video game mega-business EA Sports, didn't have the patience to deal with the diplomatic niceties needed to succeed in the Olympic world. His answer was to double down. Now, he's a member of the IOC with a steadily growing list of duties there.
Blackmun, meanwhile, had served in different capacities for the USOC, before stepping away, then returning. He now has a contract through 2021, with a USOC option to extend through 2024.
"I do credit Scott and Larry, because they've kept things level," said Anita DeFrantz, an American member of the IOC. "They've set a direction."