Like an athlete getting ready to compete, the United States Olympic Committee put in years of preparation and hard work to bring the Olympic and Paralympic Games back to home soil.
Led by chairman Larry Probst and CEO Scott Blackmun, the USOC became a more active and engaged participant in the worldwide Olympic Movement, culminating in the awarding of the Olympic and Paralympic Games 2028 to Los Angeles.
“I don’t think we would be in this position,” said LA 2028 CEO Gene Sykes, “were it not for the foundation that Larry and Scott and their colleagues created to make the atmosphere between the USOC and the members of the International Olympic Committee as strong as it is today.”
It’s no secret that the USOC had fallen short twice in its quest for the ultimate Olympic prize. In 2005, New York was the second of five cities eliminated in the IOC vote for the 2012 Games. Four years later, on Oct. 2, 2009, Chicago went out first among the four 2016 candidates, securing only 18 of 94 possible votes in the opening round.
“The relationship between the USOC and the IOC was clearly strained,” said Blackmun, who was named CEO three months after the vote for the 2016 host city.
He and Probst, chairman of video games giant Electronic Arts, made it their mission to mend fences within the international community.
Blackmun said that becoming a more active and engaged partner in the global movement is a long-term commitment by the USOC.
“It wasn’t something that we did so that we could win the Games,” Blackmun said. “It was something that we did because we recognized that we weren’t as engaged as we really should be given our position in the worldwide movement.”
Blackmun, who first joined the USOC in 1998 as General Counsel and Director of Legal Affairs, and Probst, who had no experience with the Olympic Movement before becoming chairman of the USOC board in October 2008, put together a strategic plan for the organization in 2010.
They decided they had to become the face of the USOC at meetings and competitions around the world, a role formerly filled mainly by staff members. “If we were to going to take ourselves and our intended direction seriously, we absolutely had to be there,” said Blackmun, who logs about 200,000 miles a year.
One month after Blackmun became CEO, he and Probst went to the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010 and held more than 100 meetings with IOC members, international federation officials and other stakeholders.
They went to IOC meetings, joined IOC commissions and took on leadership roles with the Pan American Sports Organization (now known as PanamSports).
“They’ve built relationships within the Americas, and that’s really helped the credibility of what they’re doing,” said Ed Hula, editor of Around the Rings, which covers the business of the Olympic Movement.
Hula added that the expanded USOC presence garnered the continental backing which Chicago didn’t have in 2009 when Rio de Janeiro won the Olympic and Paralympic Games 2016.
Probst and Blackmun also encouraged cities in the U.S. to bid for competitions and events. The list grew exponentially and includes the Association of National Olympic Committees general assembly in Washington in 2015, the 5th IOC World Conference on Women and Sport in Los Angeles in 2012 (before it became the bid city) and several world championship competitions.
“We’ve opened our doors as best we can,” said Angela Ruggiero, the four-time Olympic ice hockey medalist who became an IOC member in 2010.
The biggest roadblock to improving the USOC’s relationship with the IOC was removed in May 2012, when Probst and Blackmun renegotiated a controversial revenue-sharing agreement. Some IOC members believed the U.S. was receiving too large a percentage of the money from American-based sponsors and the U.S. broadcast partner, NBC. Their displeasure was reflected in the host city vote.
“The IOC is a club; you just don’t ingratiate yourself to this group overnight,” said Hula. “It took some time to do that and some hard yards on Larry’s part and Scott’s part, recognizing the perception that the rest of the world had about USOC and U.S. Olympic bids evidenced in what happened to Chicago in 2009. The importance of negotiating that new revenue-sharing contract was a real key to turning things around, but it’s taken six years, seven years, for this to happen.”
Probst became an IOC member in 2013, joining Ruggiero and Anita DeFrantz, the longtime IOC member from the United States.
Ruggiero subsequently became chair of the athletes advisory board, earning a seat on the prestigious IOC Executive Board alongside DeFrantz, who is an IOC vice president. The United States is the only country with two members of the EB. Both also travel extensively and have taken on roles with LA 2028.
“There’s always been that common vision and a concerted effort to engage with more stakeholders, to host more events in the U.S, to be a part of that family and have that focus,” Ruggiero said, “so if the time came again that the U.S. wanted to bid, we would be in a good position.”
The time was not right to bid for the 2020 Games, which will be held in Tokyo. “We looked at it,” Blackmun said, “but we had not yet resolved the revenue-sharing arrangements when we had to make that decision. We were concerned that if we put forth another U.S. bid and we didn’t win, that it might be difficult to recruit U.S. cities in the future. So we really wanted to wait until we felt like we could put together a really compelling proposition, not only from a Games delivery standpoint, but importantly from a campaign standpoint.
“Can we not only put on a great Games, but can we win this thing?”
Yes, they could -- with Los Angeles 2028.
Probst, Blackmun and the USOC staff helped the LA bid committee -- led by Mayor Eric Garcetti, chairman Casey Wasserman and Sykes -- learn the international ropes.
“There are layers and layers of complexity that a neophyte or an outsider would have a hard time processing without a lot of assistance,” Sykes said. “The USOC team, especially people like Scott and Larry, who have been at this for a sustained period of time and are right in the middle of it, have given us an appreciation for the people, for their personalities, for their background and I think it’s made us much wiser and more sophisticated. And I believe we’ve been more effective because of it.”
Sykes said LA 2028 has had a “warm and trusting and incredibly collaborative relationship with the USOC,” which held workshops for bid staff.
“We have felt that at any point in time when we didn’t have the experience or the history or the capacity to understand or do something, we could call on the USOC,” Sykes said. “Every time we wanted them here, they would get on a plane and be here.
“We’ve felt from the beginning that we have been part of their team, and they’ve been part of our team.”
Sykes added that the two USOC leaders are both “good listeners and good observers of what’s happening.”
Patrick Sandusky, the USOC’s Chief External Affairs Officer who previously was the spokesman for the Chicago 2016 bid, said Blackmun and Probst are “pretty straight-laced, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guys. I’d say authenticity is what they have in spades, and I think people can tell that they’re not just in it for the moment, they’re in it for the long term.”
Hula said it’s obvious to Olympic observers that Blackmun and Probst have the best interests of the USOC and American athletes at heart.
“Scott is not a showboat kind of guy at all,” Hula said. “He’s a really serious, businesslike sports-administration professional, and people recognize that. He’s not a person who is trying to promote himself, he’s trying to promote the USOC, trying to make the U.S. as strong a partner as it can be on an international and continental basis.
“Larry is well-regarded for what he’s done. He keeps his head down. He wants to make sure he’s there to represent the interests of the U.S. Olympic Committee on the IOC. It’s the first time in a long time that the IOC looks to the United States and can feel comfortable and confident about the stability of their leadership.”
Blackmun believes the perception of the USOC has changed so that it is “taken more seriously. I hope people understand that we do care deeply about the movement.”
He views the Olympic and Paralympic Games Los Angeles 2028 as “an incredible accomplishment for our country. I’m excited because we’ve got a whole generation of Americans that hasn’t seen the Games hosted on American soil.”
Ruggiero said landing the Games in 2028 has truly been a team effort.
“There are different pieces that go into a bid, and you have to have all of those line up perfectly,” she said, “and I think in this bid, we had that. We had that partnership, we had that engagement, we had the right people at the top prioritizing it in Scott and Larry.”
Seven years after a crushing disappointment, the United States has crossed the finish line with an Olympic victory.
“If you just do the right thing,” Blackmun said, “more often than not, it pays dividends. And in this case, we really just wanted to be a more active and engaged member of the team here.”