Olympic Playmakers—Part II
“We try to be part of the ‘team’ of the Olympic Movement, conscious of things we can provide, of participation, of making sure we are operating as a country that shares the same values”. Lawrence Probst, President of the U.S. Olympic Committee
America’s loss of impact over a decade or more within the administrative ranks of the IOC, successive, almost dismissive, defeats of New York and then Chicago as bid cities, and absence of front runners in recent EB elections have been embarrassing for the financially most powerful NOC. The man with responsibility for reversing this trend is Larry Probst, successor as president of USOC since 2008 to Peter Ueberroth – iconic leader of Los Angeles ‘84.
It has been an unusual emergence into the country’s most responsible position in international sport. Probst had no prominent credentials beyond a highly rewarding career in the video games industry. How did it happen?
In the business world he had had continuous exposure to sport through his company, Electronic Arts, involved with almost every sport. This introduced him to most commissioners, to athletes, to sponsors. In 2007 he had retired as CEO, was holidaying in Mexico and playing golf when he had a call from Ueberroth. “I’ve got an idea – you ought to be on the USOC board”. Probst was interested.
Ueberroth was due to retire the following autumn. Meeting at a regular convention in the summer, Ueberroth, notably pro-active, sprang upon an unsuspecting retiree. “I want you to take over from me as President”. Probst stalled, reluctant. He didn’t want the hassle, the travel. Ueberroth persisted. “It will only take 20 per cent of your time”. Almost everything he told me, Probst recalls with a smile, was a fabrication. “Peter’s a great closer. It’s time to give something back, he said to me – in front of my wife. What was I to do?”
There was no retreat for this outwardly benign but front line businessman whose personal sporting experience had not stretched beyond the recreational. How beneficial to USOC will be the recent renewed contract with IOC, the healing of a 10-year scar, with its reduction of America’s share of billion-dollar TV rights from NBC and from global TOP sponsorship income?
“They were complicated and challenging negotiations which took a long time coming” Probst says. “Three of us, CEO Scott Blackmun and Fraser Bullock, who had been a key figure in the Salt Lake City games, worked really hard for 18 months. Fraser thought it would take two to three months to reach a conclusion. I predicted two years. I think it’s finally a good arrangement for USOC, for the Olympics, for the IOC. It removes one of the roadblocks from another potential host city bid. It was very well received by the EB members, in effect saying ‘welcome back’”
Why had the rift lasted so long?
“It was partially related to the repetitive alteration in USOC senior officers, the absence of continuity. Relations with the IOC have improved significantly over the past couple of years. Scott and I have travelled extensively, getting to know people, attending competitions, defrosting the dynamics between the negotiating teams. Continuity is vital, and some of the tensions were defused.”
Is such a long term financial contract, stretching to 2040, securely stable?
“I think so. We were very, very careful, which is why it took so long. Both sides were conscious about different points of the deal that would stand the test of time.” Given the potential aid to world sport that can be generated from American wealth, does Probst detect any lingering foreign resentment of U.S. power, of being too big for their boots?
“It is hard to know. Scott and I try to be part of the ‘team’ of the Olympic Movement, conscious of things we can provide, of participation, of making sure we are operating as a country that shares the same values. We are very careful about how we communicate.”
How important is return to the EB, a position last held by James Easton six years ago, and/or Probst’s own election to the IOC?
“The latter’s up to the President Jacques Rogge – I can’t say. I’d be honored to be considered but don’t have any expectation. Certainly it is a long-term goal to have more representation within the IOC”.
Where does USOC currently stand on calculation of future host city bids?
“We have got several great cities – Chicago had a terrific legacy plan. I wasn’t around for New York’s attempt in 2005, but looking forward it obviously has to be an iconic American city, in some form or other: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York. Dallas has expressed some interest, Florida too. The nomination of the right city is important, but we have got to have the right message. Why that city. There has to be a sound technical plan, a legacy plan, and to make clear to the IOC that the city and USOC are in lock-step with one another, speaking the same language.”
Where lies America’s ethical balance, between their conventional attitude of ‘win-or-bust’, and embracing the unique Olympic spirit of great and small nations living harmoniously side by side in competition?
“American people expect us to win a lot! Disappointed if we don’t! We take the Games very seriously. I can’t say less. But Americans do appreciate the diversity of the Games’ global embrace. That was evident when Dick Ebersol put together the expanded program of NBC, recognizing that competitors assemble from the entire world. The stories from lesser nations are what specially connect people to the Olympic Games.”
This article is taken from The Sport Intern, a blog published by Karl-Heinz Huba in Lorsch, Germany. It is reprinted here with permission. Mr. Huba can be reached at ISMG@aol.com.