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Panel Calls for Major Reforms at Scandal-Plagued US Olympic Commitee - 2003-06-24

A specially-appointed panel has appeared before the U.S. Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to present its plans to reform the U.S. Olympic Committee. The panel has recommended shrinking the USOC, and radically altering its makeup in the wake of recent scandals and political infighting.

The USOC has been under scrutiny and criticism since last year's resignation of its former president Sandra Baldwin for falsifying her academic record. Her replacement, Marty Mankamyer, also resigned after being accused of trying to oust the committee's Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Ward.

Mr. Ward later resigned even though he was cleared in an ethics investigation brought after he was accused of funneling Olympic business to his brother's company. Since Mr. Ward was investigated last December, eight other USOC members have resigned during the upheaval.

Because of the embarrassing situation at the USOC, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee appointed a special five-member panel to propose reforms.

Committee chairman, Senator John McCain of Arizona, said at Tuesday's hearing that the Olympic movement is not about anyone's personal gain but about the hard work and dedication of the athletes pursuing Olympic dreams. However, the Arizona Republican said that the USOC has lost sight of that role.

"The USOC is an entity entrusted by the American people with the privilege of being the custodian of these dreams. However, as the organization has continued to grow and the agenda of individual constituencies have become paramount to the common objectives of the USOC, the athletes have become an afterthought and the victims of egregious behavior," he said.

The Independent Commission included Major League Baseball's Players' Association head Donald Fehr. Testifying on Capitol Hill, Mr. Fehr said the commission found the USOC had become too large, too ingrown, and too lucrative for its members.

"We concluded that both the structure and the culture which produced it are broken and that a drastic overhaul is in order. We unanimously recommend that the USOC be substantially restructured without delay. It is our belief that if these reforms are promptly implemented, we believe that the USOC can and will again earn the respect of the athletes it exists to serve, and regain the confidence of the American people. And if it does not do that, it is not going to be successful going forward," he said.

Among the panel's recommendations are reducing the USOC's board of directors from 124 members to just nine. The board would also have four additional members with limited voting rights.

The Independent Commission also recommended that the USOCbe compelled to report to Congress every year instead of every four years as it does now.

Roberta Cooper Ramo, the former president of the American Bar Association who helped salvage the Olympic reputation after the Salt Lake City bribery scandal, told the Senate Committee that Congress has to intervene.

"We find that the deteriorating quality of decision making, management and leadership of the USOC is so serious that Congress must act to mandate a new governance structure. There is only one year to the Athens Olympics and without complete change in leadership and focus, in the short term and in the longer term, success of our athletes and the resonance of Olympic ideals in our country are in peril," she said.

The reforms are meant to ease friction between the paid chief executive officer and its volunteer president. The report calls for a strengthened role for the CEO and elimination of the volunteer president.

The Senate Committee also heard from members of an internal USOC task force, which also concluded that widespread reform is needed. But paralympian Bob Balk, a member of the USOC task force, said that some of the Independent Commission's recommedations, including establishing a so-called "Olympic Assembly" would not change the climate at the USOC.

"The Assembly should be established in a non-governance, purely advisory role to the Board of Directors fully utilizing the considerable volunteer resources available to the USOC. Imposing decision-making responsiblity upon the Assembly will result in the creation of an organization nearly identical to the 124-member Board which currently exists at the USOC with all of its inherent challenges which we are here to resolve," he said.

The Senate-appointed panel recommended that USOC reforms be put in place before January first, 2004. Senator McCain has said that he wants to amend the Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which governs U-S participation in the Olympics, the Paralympics, the Pan American Games and also governs the organization of Olympic Games in the United States.

Former figure skater Rachel Mayer Godino, the head of the USOC's Athletes' Advisory Council, told the Committee that athletes are hoping Congress will take time to consider the full impact of changing the Stevens Act.

"The athletes' council also believes that it is critical that changes to both the USOC Organic documents and the (Stevens Olympic and Amateur Athletes') Act accurately reflect the intention of Congress. A few misplaced words or inadvertent sentence structure can have an enormous impact on the interpretation of legislation, and therefore on the USOC and the athletes it serves. Speed must be balanced with accuracy," she said.

Senator McCain called on both the specially appointed panel and the USOC task force to work out their differences quickly so changes in the Stevens Act can be brought to Congress before its August recess.