The summer of ‘96 will be a watershed for the U.S. Olympic Committee. It will be hosting the world when the modern Games celebrate their 100th birthday in Atlanta, and officials hope that means a flood of gold-medal performances to go with the sponsorship dollars already in hand.
But before it gets to the Games, the USOC faces a mountain of issues that will help decide its fate long after the Olympic flame is doused in Georgia.
Some, such as picking a new executive director, are right in the hands of the committee’s top officials. Others, such as whether another U.S. city, Salt Lake, will host the 2002 Winter Games, are beyond its control.
In small groups and larger gatherings, the USOC has started examining what it must do in the next 18 months to make sure its bankbook continues to swell and its athletes remain among the best in the world.
“It’s time for us to look at who we are and where we are going,” USOC president LeRoy Walker said. “We are young, like a small Fortune 500 operation that is looking to grow.”
There’s no doubt the Olympics in America are a growth industry.
The USOC’s budget for the four years that end with the Atlanta Games is $409 million, some 36 percent higher than the previous quadrennium. The Games themselves, run by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, have a $1.6 billion budget that’s expected to leave a surplus of about $60 million.
Whenever the Olympics are held in the United States, TV networks spend more for rights fees, sponsors pay more to use the Olympic rings in their ads and Americans snap up anything connected with the Games, from T-shirts to Olympic coins. And the USOC, as the guardian of all that is Olympic in this country, gets a cut of every dollar spent.
And that’s why, even with a $32 million balance in its bank account, the USOC is looking at ways to reduce its budget significantly. It is drawing up three budget proposals for 1997-2000, from best case to worst, and a major factor in which one flies will come from the International Olympic Committee in June.
Salt Lake City is the front-runner to get the 2002 Winter Olympics. If that happens, the USOC can breathe easier.
“It could have as such as a $100 million impact on the USOC’s budget,” said John Krimsky, the committee interim executive director and chief fund-raiser.
If the IOC turns elsewhere, Krimsky and his financial lieutenants have to get out the knives. They already have given some hints about where they might cut.
The USOC’s biggest single expense is sending athletes to international events, such as the Olympics, the Pan American Games and the Goodwill Games. It also stages events such as the biennial Olympic Festivals and promotes development of future medal-winners through a network of national training centers and grants to sports federations.
To cut back may mean sending smaller teams - or no teams at all - to some events. Dropping the festivals and forcing colleges to finance teams for the World University Games are two budget-saving alternatives that have been mentioned. So is reducing the size of Olympic teams.
That kind of paring does not sit well with some U.S. Olympic officials.
“The Games are what we’re about, and I think there must be other ways,” said Anita DeFrantz, one of America’s two IOC members. Among the alternatives she suggested were charging for use of Olympic training centers, getting Congress to institute an Olympic tax checkoff similar to those that help fund political campaigns, and going to professional sports and athletes for help.
“I’m not smart enough to figure it all out,” DeFrantz said, “but we are a very large operation and we have to figure out how we got that large. Sport is big business.”
Walker has stressed repeatedly that trimming teams is just one of many areas the USOC should examine as it looks at its finances - and that it’s probably at the extreme of what might actually occur.
“We have a lot of things on the table to look at. We’re still looking at them,” he said. “You have to examine all the factors.”
Walker has started to bring the USOC’s top officers together for occasional management retreats, to help them focus on their tasks.
“We look at the questions of accountability, of credibility,” he said. “We ask ourselves, `Are we still on the right track?’ It’s part of the process of making decisions.”
One decision the USOC will make soon is who will take over the executive director’s job on a permanent basis.
Krimsky has been interim dirctor since October, after Harvey Schiller left the USOC to become president of Turner Sports. More than 90 candidates had submitted resumes when the deadline for applications closed last Tuesday.
Although he said last weekend that he was still deciding whether he wanted the job, Krimsky has emerged as a leading contender. There has been no deadline set for filling the job, although Walker has talked of having a new director in place by this summer.
While that search goes on, the USOC is dealing with other issues, many of which should come to a head at a board of directors meeting in Orlando, Fla., in April.
It has appointed task forces to try to recruit more women and minorities in leadership roles, and has set up a panel with the NCAA to study the impact on Olympic sports of university budget cuts caused by genderequity laws.
Federal acts mandating equal athletic opportunities for college men and women have forced some schools to drop long-established programs, such as wrestling or men’s gymnastics. That puts an added strain on the USOC’s training facilities and budgets.
“With some sports, it’s a real crisis,” Walker said. “Others have handled it fairly well. But gender equity has had an impact. We are very concerned with what is happening in colleges in Olympic sports that are on the bubble.”
NCAA athletes, of course, cannot accept corporate endorsements or other outside money to help them with their training. And that’s why so many terrific athletes postpone or even pass up college to prepare for an Olympics.
The new task force needs to do two things:
1. Find a way to change or circumvent the NCAA regulations about outside income. Swimmer Janet Evans or gymnast Scott Keswick should be able to train for an Olympics without having to be blackballed now and forever by the NCAA.
2. Get college facilities more involved in the Olympic mix, allowing young people who show Olympic promise to use, for example, the UCLA gym or the Texas pool or the weight room at Nebraska.
The USOC also is reshaping its code of conduct for Olympic athletes, trying to make sure it doesn’t encounter a repeat of last winter’s Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan fiasco in which Harding sued for $25 million to keep her place on the Winter Games figure skating team.