The standoff had lasted for years, so long that it seemed that the Rockies would crumble before Colorado Springs and Lausanne were on the same philosophical planet. The International Olympic Committee wouldn’t budge on its demand for a bigger share of television and marketing revenues and the US Olympic Committee wouldn’t bid for the Games until the dispute was resolved.
The standoff ended three years ago when chairman Larry Probst and chief executive officer Scott Blackmun, the USOC’s current leaders, worked out a long-term formula, paving the way for Boston’s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics and ushering in what has been an unprecedented period of cooperation and comity between the committees.
“What happened was that Scott and Larry found a way to make the contract work,” said Anita DeFrantz, the Olympic rowing medalist who has served on the IOC since 1986 and is a member of the executive board. “And they deserve credit for that.”
After nearly half a century of squabbling the IOC and USOC finally are on the same page, and Olympic insiders say that Probst and Blackmun’s understated diplomacy has done much to make that happen.
“Primarily it’s given the USOC a human dimension as opposed to being this gigantic money-raising organization that doesn’t care about anything outside of the United States,” observed Dick Pound, the longtime IOC member from Canada.
In the wake of a dysfunctional decade that was marked by the Salt Lake bidding scandal, embarrassing infighting at the USOC’s top-most level, and IOC resentment at what it considered grabby American greediness, Probst and Blackmun dedicated themselves to international fence-mending. “I imagine that he and I are going to be showing up in the same places very frequently,” Probst, who was named chair in 2008 and elected to the IOC in 2013, said when Blackmun was hired in 2010.
They’ve since turned up regularly wherever the Olympic family gathers, at meetings of the national committees and international federations, at Pan American hemispheric conclaves, and at world championships in various sports.
“They’ve made a point of being visible and being present,” said Pound. “You gradually get to be known. Neither of them is a particularly frightening personality. They’ve worked out a modus operandi that seems to work.”
The Era of Good Feeling between Colorado Springs and Lausanne, where the two committees are headquartered, represents a dramatic departure from a rocky relationship that dates to 1968 when US sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith gave the Black Power salute on the medal stand in Mexico City. IOC president Avery Brundage, an American himself, vowed to kick out the entire US track team if the USOC didn’t send the athletes home.
Conflict and contention had marked the committees’ relations for decades since. There was Denver’s late withdrawal as host of the 1976 Winter Games that forced the IOC to move the event to Innsbruck. The US-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics that kept more than 60 countries out of Moscow. The refusal of Los Angeles to sign the customary agreement underwriting the costs of the 1984 event. And the Salt Lake scandal that resulted in the resignation or expulsion of 10 IOC members, the formal warning of 10 more, and the implication of a quarter of the membership.
“Salt Lake was a huge problem because IOC members who did nothing had their reputations in their countries somehow sullied,” said DeFrantz. “It was a bad, bad time.” While the USOC wasn’t directly involved in the payoffs, which amounted to more than $1 million in cash, tuition payments, travel, shopping sprees, and gifts, the committee still was Salt Lake’s choice for the Games and its financial partner, and thus came in for blame. “It’s all one thing because when you put it together it’s about the United States,” said DeFrantz. “Salt Lake was the United States.”
The USOC, which is one of the few national committees that receives no funding from the government, historically has been a convenient target for anti-American sentiments from the IOC, a Eurocentric body that was founded by a Frenchman and is run by a German and that has nine Europeans on its 15-member executive board. “Europeans always have had that admiration/envy thing going,” said a source familiar with USOC operations. “It’s a way of taking out your frustrations.”
The Americans, whose networks and corporations long have filled the IOC’s coffers, traditionally have been seen as the obnoxious rich kid who is tolerated because he picks up the tab. While the USOC has come under fire for everything from politics to protocol, its squabbling with the IOC usually has been about money. The wrangling began in the late ’70s after Congress passed the Amateur Sports Act that turned the USOC from a quadrennial travel agency into the ruling body for Olympic sports.
“The USOC made a move to get a greater share of television revenue,” said former executive director Baaron Pittenger. “The Amateur Sports Act gave the USOC a much broader mandate and greater authority than it had previously, and it required money to do that.”
Under its open-ended 1996 agreement with the IOC, the USOC collected 12.75 percent of the rights fees paid by American networks and 20 percent of the IOC’s global marketing revenues, most of which came from US-based companies such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Visa. As those numbers increased IOC resentment grew, with Dutch member Hein Verbruggen calling it “an immoral amount” in 2008.
Yet the size of the US contribution is substantial by any reckoning. NBC will pay nearly $8 billion for the domestic rights to the Games through 2032 while the IOC’s global sponsors each ante up $200 million a quadrennium. “Who pays the bill for the world Olympic movement? Make no mistake about it,” said Peter Ueberroth, the 1984 Olympic organizing committee chief who was named USOC chairman in 2004.
But until recently the American clout within the IOC wasn’t proportional to its financial weight. After Brundage, who ruled the committee for two decades, stepped down in 1972, US influence dwindled and its disharmony with the IOC grew.
“Explaining something sensible to Lord Killanin is akin to explaining something to a cauliflower,” USOC president William Simon remarked about Brundage’s Irish successor during the wrangling over the Soviet Union’s counter-boycott of the LA Games. “The advantage of the cauliflower is that if all else fails you can always cover it with melted cheese and eat it.”
The USOC’s standing with the IOC wasn’t helped by its subsequent farcical leadership follies with the committee going through six chairmen/presidents (one of whom resigned in disgrace after falsifying her academic credentials) and seven executive directors in a decade. “I’ve had dinners that lasted longer than some of the management in Colorado Springs,” David D’Alessandro, who was chairman of Olympic sponsor John Hancock, said then.
The turning point was a spat between president Marty Mankamyer and chief executive Lloyd Ward in 2003 that prompted a congressional hearing and a radical shakeup and downsizing, with the USOC’s 123-member board reduced to less than a tenth of its size. “This is not evolutionary, this is revolutionary,” acting president Bill Martin said.
Still the dispute with the IOC continued over revenue sharing, which one insider said had evolved from an economic issue into a visceral one and contributed to Chicago’s shocking first-round elimination in the voting for the 2016 Olympic host. “[Former IOC president] Jacques Rogge didn’t like the US but he didn’t know how to move the thing forward,” said Pound. “So it languished and festered for a while.”
The breakthrough came in May 2012 when the USOC agreed to reduce its TV share to 7 percent and its sponsorship cut to 10 percent starting in 2020. That opened the door for an American bid that has been well-received in Lausanne. “A good, strong bid is always welcome,” said DeFrantz. “It is not so welcome if you’re in the middle of a contract fight. That’s gone away.”
So has most of the brawl and bile that once characterized the relationship between the committees. Cooperation and comity now are the watchwords for the IOC and USOC, and Boston stands to benefit.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.