DENVER – Even before the coronavirus pandemic wiped the Summer Olympics off the 2020 sports calendar, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee was an organization in peril.
In an online address Thursday, made necessary because the annual assembly cannot go on in person, leaders of the committee paid heed to how much more difficult things have become since the virus started shutting down sports, from the grassroots to elite levels, over the last seven months.
“Last year I talked about evolution and ‘Jurassic Park,’” chair Susanne Lyons said, in a nod to the changes the USOPC had embarked upon, pre-COVID. "I know this year feels a bit more like ‘Apocalypse Now.’”
Both Lyons and CEO Sarah Hirshland spent most of their speeches discussing challenges the USOPC is facing and actions it has taken to change. Underlying it all was the notion that the COVID-19 crisis has placed the future of the USOPC as we know it — and the Olympic movement itself — into question.
“Our collective future ... in many ways depends on” expanding on the reforms the USOPC has made over the past few years, Hirshland said.
The USOPC is an organization that faced a 20% budget shortfall in the aftermath of the postponement of the Tokyo Games — a number that would grow higher and be “devastating," according to Hirshland, if the rescheduled games don't go off as planned next year.
It's an organization facing a groundswell of unease from athletes of color, who want the U.S. to use its position as the world's dominant Olympic nation to press for changes, most notably in longstanding rules that have limited free speech at the games.
It's an organization trying to rebuild and reframe an ethos portrayed as having, for decades, valued medals over the well-being of the athletes who won them.
Sex-abuse scandals brought with them a generational overhaul of the organization and its affiliated national governing bodies. The upheaval has been accompanied by the specter of increased government oversight of the day-to-day activity of an organization charged with overseeing four dozen sports and thousands of athletes.
Athletes' representative Han Xiao used his short address to the assembly to press the USOPC to improve in every area — a signal that there's more to do despite the reforms that have already taken place.
“I challenge us to look at new compliance measures and transform them from a burden to a competitive advantage, where doing the right thing leads to more people joining our ranks,” Han said.
Exacerbating all these problems is the reality that the very pipeline of athletes that has placed the USOPC at the top of the medals count for the last six Summer Olympics is threatened by the virus.
Board member Kevin White, the athletic director at Duke, said at least 230 college sports programs, including 104 in Division I, have been shut down due to budget constraints that have morphed out of COVID. College sports teams supplied the U.S. with about 75% of its roster at the 2016 Summer Games.
“The bottom line, I think you all need to know, is that American higher education, not just athletics, is hemorrhaging like never before,” White said.
About the only glimmer of hope: The number of programs lost would be even greater, White said, were it not for a concerted effort by the USOPC over the past few years to increase awareness about the connection between colleges and the Olympics.
“That may be a little dark,” White said, “but that's what I think.”
While the USOPC pushes forward with a new game plan — including increased oversight over national governing bodies, more focus on athletes' mental health, and hearing from athletes who are part of a newly created social justice council — it does so knowing its agenda is inherently vulnerable to forces outside its control.
The Summer Olympics are nine months away, with a Winter Games set for February 2022, and the Los Angeles Games — the first Summer Games in America in a generation — scheduled for 2028.
The immediate challenge at this week's assembly: “We need to look ahead and decide what we want sport to look like in America when we reconvene in October 2021,” said Max Cobb, the leader of the NGB council.
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