Ueberroth right man for USOC

Posted: Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Peter Ueberroth is a contrarian. He goes against conventional wisdom, does things nobody thinks possible.

It takes brains, persuasiveness and a lot of chutzpah to pull off the turnarounds that have made Ueberroth famous.

Skeptics insisted he couldn't run a privately financed Olympics. He did it at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and produced a $225 million surplus even as the Soviets and their friends stayed home, sulking over the 1980 U.S. boycott of Moscow.

He moved on to baseball, taking over as commissioner a few months after the Olympics at a time when 21 of the 26 major league teams reported losing money. The sport seemed to be dying. Three years later, 22 teams said they made money or broke even. By the time he left in 1989, the sport was flush.

He thought he could turn around California's financial troubles when he threw his hat in the ring for governor, but Arnold Schwarzenegger muscled him out of that job.

Ueberroth, 66, faces only slightly less daunting a challenge now after being named Monday the chairman of the board of the beleaguered U.S. Olympic Committee.

He takes over an organization that, as acting president Bill Martin noted, was ''mentioned in the same breath as Enron'' last year. Throw in the excesses and failures of WorldCom and Tyco and you have a sense of how far the USOC fell in prestige.

Political intrigue and behind-the-scenes maneuvering had been staples of the USOC for 25 years. One leader followed another. Incompetence and infighting ruled. Then the joint fell apart in January 2003 with an ethics inquiry against chief executive Lloyd Ward that set off what Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a former Olympian in judo, called ''an Olympic-sized food fight.''

The USOC's volunteer and paid staff traded accusations daily and resignations came swiftly, including those of Ward and president Marty Mankamyer in a span of three weeks.

Congress held hearings and sponsors threatened to pull out. Finally, everyone knew, there would have to be wholesale reform.

Now after a 16-month emergency repair job headed by Martin and former wrestler Jim Scherr, who directed day-to-day operations as chief of sport performance and acting secretary general the USOC is going in a new direction.

Instead of 125 board members, there will be 11 volunteer directors three U. S. members of the International Olympic Committee, four independents, and four nominated by athletes and national governing bodies of sports.

''A board of 11 can function,'' Ueberroth said. ''A board of 125 is hamstrung.''

The USOC has a long way to go to restore its once lofty image with the public and with sponsors. Amid ongoing scandals over drugs in sports, with the prospect of some of America's top athletes being banned from Athens, the USOC needs strong moral and fiscal leadership.

''One of my big concerns in all this discussion we've had in Congress is the Olympic Committee had gotten off track and some in the upper echelon had developed a culture of privilege at the expense of the athletes,'' Campbell said. ''I don't worry about that at all with Peter at the helm.''

Ueberroth appears to be the right man for the job, winning the support of even one of the USOC's harshest corporate critics David D'Allesandro, chairman and CEO of Olympic sponsor John Hancock Financial Services in Boston.

''When you have had an organization that was basically led by the three blind mice, then you bring in somebody who has the vision of a hawk, it helps,'' D'Allesandro said.

''Ueberroth is what I would call 'the real deal.' He doesn't suffer fools gladly. He will never tolerate corruption. He will never tolerate incompetence. He will probably, for some time, have to deal with that, but it won't take him long to separate the wheat from the chaff with these characters.''

Winning over people like D'Allesandro is only part of Ueberroth's mission.

He has to get a handle on how much money is coming in, where it's going, and how to move more into the hands of athletes training for the Olympics while keeping it out of the pockets of an overindulgent hierarchy.

A close second to that is bringing back the USOC's good name within the international Olympic community and the rest of amateur sports federations around the world.

''The USOC has to be seen as a force to be reckoned with versus a force to be laughed at,'' D'Allesandro said.

He likened Ueberroth to the baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis after the Black Sox scandal in 1919.

''He's a modern day Judge Landis,'' D'Allesandro said. ''He'll clean up the problems.''

Other reformers have come in trying to change the USOC and have met resistance and failure.

For all Ueberroth's business acumen and high moral standing, it was on his watch as baseball commissioner from 1984-89 that the owners colluded not to sign free agents. That wound up costing baseball hundreds of millions of dollars.

To avoid any similar shenanigans at the USOC, Ueberroth will have to guard his flanks closer than ever.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org.

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