WASHINGTON — Aiming to overcome the scandals and infighting that have tarnished its image, U.S. Olympic Committee leaders began a four-day meeting Thursday to choose a new chairman and decide whether to keep an interim chief executive officer.
The U.S. Olympic movement is dealing with difficulty at what otherwise would be a time of triumph, with the United States bringing home 97 medals from Summer Games in Sydney and gearing up for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
But the USOC has been buffeted by accusations it kept quiet about positive drug tests by American athletes and turned a blind eye to Utah organizers’ plying international Olympic officials with lavish gifts.
Internal squabbling led to the October resignation of Norm Blake, the corporate turnaround artist hired as chief executive officer nine months before to streamline the ponderous organization.
Blake alienated athletes with proposals such as his “money for medals” idea tying some of the funding for the 33 Olympic sport organizations to their athletes’ performance.
And he angered many in USOC’s paid staff by bringing in his own management team and firing about 40 of the 500 employees.
Scott Blackmun, the USOC’s former sports director and top lawyer, has been acting CEO since Blake left.
Board members will decide this weekend whether to give Blackmun the job permanently or start a search to fill the CEO slot.
Unlike Blake, Blackmun has strong backing from athletes and the sports associations that the USOC oversees.
Board members also vote this weekend on a new chairman, a job that former Democratic presidential candidate and Olympian Bill Bradley turned down earlier this year.
The favorite is Sandy Baldwin, a former president of U.S. Swimming who sells real estate in Phoenix.
The other candidate is Boston lawyer and fellow USOC board member Paul George.
Baldwin had touched off Blake’s resignation by sending a letter to other board members questioning Blake’s ability to run the USOC and raising concerns about spending and revenues in a 2001-2004 budget plan that approaches $500 million.
Blake called the letter “underhanded” but said he realized that Baldwin would fire him anyway if she became chairwoman.
Whoever heads the USOC will have just over a year to help with raising money for the Salt Lake City games from corporate sponsors still skittish over the bribery scandal.
Two former Utah organizers go to trial next summer on bribery charges, and a former USOC official has pleaded guilty to tax evasion for his role.
The USOC also has been dogged by questions about its role in testing athletes for drugs and performance-enhancing chemicals like steroids.
It didn’t help when news leaked during the Sydney games that shot putter C.J. Hunter, husband of sprint superstar Marion Jones, failed four separate drug tests in Europe this summer.
An independent agency headed by 1972 marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter took over drug testing duties from the USOC in October.
The USOC’s former director of drug control programs is suing, claiming the body encourages doping by athletes. The USOC denies any wrongdoing.
This weekend, the USOC also will elect a new board of directors, with candidates set to include Bradley, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund.
On the Net:
U.S. Olympic Committee: http://www.usoc.org