New Boss For Troubled U.S. Olympic Committee After more than a decade of turmoil and leadership missteps, the U.S. Olympic Committee named Scott Blackmun, a former chief counsel, as its new chief executive officer. The appointment might reassure international Olympic officials, but Blackmun faces a tough set of challenges.
NPR logo New Boss For Troubled U.S. Olympic Committee

New Boss For Troubled U.S. Olympic Committee

The U.S. Olympic Committee is looking backward and inward in the latest attempt to restore stability, along with its tarnished reputation.

Former chief counsel and one-time acting chief executive officer Scott Blackmun will become the group's new CEO, the USOC announced at a press conference at its Colorado Springs, Colo. headquarters.

Blackmun, 52, left the USOC in 2001 after three years as chief counsel, senior managing director and acting CEO. He had been passed over for the permanent chief executive job. Blackmun has since worked as an attorney specializing in sports and entertainment, and as the chief operating officer at Anschutz Entertainment Group.

"He will bring stability that this organization has not had," says Doug Logan, CEO of USA Track and Field. "The state of the USOC was chaotic ... and Scott is a very, very able executive."

Since Blackmun's departure, the USOC has gone through so many permanent and acting CEOs that it has plunged into instability and infighting. The leadership turmoil was blamed, in part, for Chicago's devastating last place showing in the recent bidding to host the 2016 Olympics.

"The problem that we've faced for a long time is that we continually have changeover in our leadership," notes Olympic triple jumper Willie Banks, who directs the U.S. Olympians Association, a group of former Olympic athletes.

Banks believes that Blackmun's earlier Olympic experience will reassure international Olympic officials. "They're seeing that we're going with someone who's tried and tested, (someone) that they know," he says.

Positive relationships with international sports federations and the International Olympic Committee are key if the United States wants to entertain any hope of hosting another Olympics.

USOC Board Chairman Larry Probst says Blackmun is in the job for the long haul.

"We wanted to ensure that we selected a new leader who would be part of the USOC for years to come," Probst says in a written statement. "And in Scott, we believe we have found that person."

Blackmun says he's "ready to make a long-term commitment to the success of this organization and America's athletes, and to supporting the growth of the Olympic Movement worldwide."

But Blackmun faces a U.S. Olympic scene fractured by battles between different sports federations competing for influence and funding. The USOC governs Olympic sports in the U.S. and doles out a good share of their funding.

One of the USOC's toughest internal critics praises Blackmun's appointment. Skip Gilbert, of USA Triathlon, chairs the Association of Chief Executives for Sport, which recently demanded resignations, restructuring and reform.

"The USOC is a different animal than almost any other corporate entity," Gilbert says. "And I think the biggest fear from those within the Olympic movement was the USOC would reach out and again get a chief of some part of the corporate sector that didn't really have any kind of roots within the Olympic movement."

Gilbert adds that Blackmun "understands the Olympic movement. That's a huge relief to those of us on the inside."

Most of the CEO's hired in the last decade had solid corporate pedigrees, but little Olympic experience.

"Scott does bring the corporate knowledge of how to run a business," says Lisa Delpy Neirotti, an Olympic scholar at George Washington University. "So you get both the understanding of what the USOC's role is, as well as how to run it efficiently and effectively."

This should comfort corporate sponsors who watched in dismay as the USOC's missteps seemed to tarnish the American Olympic brand. In one notable flub, the group announced a U.S. Olympic TV Network even after the International Olympic Committee warned against it because they wanted to avoid conflicts with exclusive rights-holder NBC.

The challenges that Blackmun now faces appear nearly as daunting as the quest for Olympic medals itself. The USOC is locked in a dispute with the IOC over the U.S. share of television and corporate sponsorship revenue. The U.S. generates the vast majority of Olympic funding, and the USOC currently takes the largest cut.

But Blackmun is no stranger to complex Olympic politics. A decade ago, Blackmun shepherded the USOC's response to the Salt Lake City Olympic bidding scandal. The scandal focused initially on the IOC, but eventually spread to the USOC, prompting internal, congressional and federal criminal investigations.

At the news conference announcing the appointment, Blackmun and Probst were asked by NPR why they believe Blackmun will last in the job given the many recent CEOs who were initially praised, but later forced to leave.

"My wife asked that same question," Blackmun responded. "And what I told her is that what I think is really different is the quality of the [USOC] board ... [which] is really committed to the success of the USOC and aren't there for the wrong reasons."

Probst said that an exhaustive search process produced "exactly the right person ... and that's why I think we're going to have a tremendous amount of success going forward."

Blackmun officially takes the helm January 26, a little more than two weeks before American athletes take to the snow and ice at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.