|Scott Blackmun speaks to members of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team
at the University of East London on July 27, 2012 in London.
PARK CITY, Utah – On Tuesday afternoon, the United States Olympic Committee’s top brass discussed concerns surrounding the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, the medal forecast, the decision-making process behind a U.S. bid to host future Games and marketing Paralympians.
The press conference was organized as part of the 2013 Team USA Media Summit.
The panel included USOC Chairman and IOC member Larry Probst, USOC Chief Executive Officer Scott Blackmun, USOC Chief of Performance Alan Ashley, USOC Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Baird and Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, the USOC’s chief of organizational excellence and a 1984 Olympic track gold medalist at 100 meters.
Below are excerpts condensed for clarity and grouped by topic.
There’s been a lot of talk about the anti-gay law in Russia… is there anything the U.S. could do or say to influence that policy?
Scott Blackmun: First and foremost we’re a sports organization…whose job is to make sure Americans get the chance to compete in the Olympic Games. We are not an advocacy organization or a human rights organization. We are a part of a worldwide movement, though. What we can do is advocate for change within our movement. We want to make sure that people understand that we want that ALL our athletes – irrespective of any distinguishing characteristics or orientation – feel comfortable and a part of the U.S. team. We want to lead by example. We also want to advocate internally within the global movement to make sure that we as a family are doing everything we can to send a message that we don’t tolerate discrimination.
Have you received any more guidance from [new IOC president Thomas] Bach about what might be allowed or not allowed? Bode [Miller] spoke out very strongly yesterday… that it’s hypocritical to separate sports and politics.
Larry Probst: I have not had any direct conversation or communication with President Bach. I think he made a comment to the press within last 24 or 48 hours that he had assurances from officials in Russia that athletes, coaches, trainers, spectators, sponsors, and such that would not be impacted by the law that’s in place in Russia.
Blackmun: Candidly, to try to draw that line in advance – in terms of what would and would not be permitted – is very difficult for anybody to do. I want to make it very clear that we have not asked our athletes not to speak up. What we are doing is: we’re trying to make sure our athletes are aware of the law and aware of the possibility of consequences. Our job first and foremost is to make sure they’re safe while they’re in Russia.
If the USOC is not an advocacy or human rights organization, in what ways can USOC advocate for change?
Blackmun: There appears to be some confusion about what the IOC [Olympic] Charter says about discrimination based on sexual orientation. It says there will be no discrimination based on race, religion, politics or gender. I think there are people who’d like to see sexual orientation added to that list. We would support a change in that direction. The way the IOC is structured, the USOC as an NOC [National Olympic Committee] doesn’t have a vote, but… I think there are things we can do within.
Probst: I’m not sure of the protocol. If we’re talking about amending the Olympic Charter… it probably begins with Executive Board. The good news is that now we have representation on Executive Board... I would absolutely vote yes to amend the charter.
If an athlete were to say something in press conference at an Olympic venue, what might the IOC do or not do?
Scott Blackmun: We are actively seeking that kind of clarification. I’m not sure they’re going to be able to give it to us. When you start trying to legislate in advance what’s over the line and what’s not, you end up with a lot of examples and not a lot of guidance. We’re hopeful the IOC will find ways to add some clarity to that and we’ll share that with our athletes so they can decide how they want to handle it.
Regarding a bid to host the 2024 Games, how will you decide to go forward, and what’s the timetable?
Blackmun: There are three really important factors: One, can it be affordable and financially successful? Two, can we do great job of putting on the Games? Three, after what happened in New York and Chicago, I think we only want to put forward bid if it can be financially responsible.
Ideally, we’d like to have a decision by the end of 2014 [and have] a city selected so we’d have nine months or so to work with that city to put together a compelling bid. We’re not in a huge hurry right now. We’re in talks with less than 10 cities at this point. We’re seeing some great ideas. We saw that with Washington recently. Dallas and Los Angeles as well. We’re excited about the prospect of bidding. But we have not made a decision yet to go forward with it.
When will you decide whether to go forward with a bid at all?
Blackmun: I don’t think we’re going to make that decision until we see which city we’d put forward, and what the financial structure of what that bid will be. We want to try to get it down to our very, very best city — and looking at that, make a decision to go or not go, once we have that information.
What about a 2026 bid?
Blackmun: The first thing we’re going to decide is whether we want to bid for 2024. If we decide not to do 2024, then 2026 is something we’d consider very seriously.
It seems like there’s been a concerted effort for the organization to embrace and promote the Paralympics. When did that start happening and why?
Lisa Baird: I want to give credit to my colleague Charlie Huebner, our chief of Paralympics. He’s been pushing the agenda for Paralympics for a number of years. When we really saw what the possibilities were…we pushed all of our sponsors in London to sign Olympic and Paralympic athletes — which caused them to put them in massively-appealing multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns. We’re building a second brand called Team USA that encompasses Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Then, most recently, we’re happy to announce that, with NBC, we will bring the Paralympic Games broadcast to the United States. NBC is going to do 50 hours of live TV, and we’re going to be working with them to live stream ALL the competition, including the Opening Ceremony. It’s a way for Americans to really embrace the elite athletes. We see it growing. I think Americans are going to fall in love with those athletes just like they fall in love with Olympians.
Blackmun: As an organization, we also needed a philosophy for Paralympic sport. We weren’t sure why we were doing it five years ago. Were we doing it because it made us feel good? Were we doing it because we’re a sports organization? At a meeting in September a year ago, we said, ‘Look, we’re a sports movement, and the Paralympics is about sport. It’s not about disability.’ So our laser focus for the Paralympics right now is to help American disabled athletes win medals. We really have changed our focus.
Do you have a U.S. medal count in mind for Sochi?
Alan Ashley: This is a very popular question with the board. I don’t have a number. I look at the trends and track each discipline in each sport. We’ve got great group of athletes starting to coalesce towards bringing our best team to Sochi. Those athletes have a record of competing well internationally. Based upon that, I think we’re going to have a strong team. Where we end up in medal count? Can’t say.
Probst: We’re hoping to get a much more definitive answer to that at the next week’s board meeting (laughter).