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Olympic reform panel starts work: 'Opportunity to think big'

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — A Congressionally formed panel exploring the inner-workings of the U.S. Olympic enterprise hinted at proposing potentially radical changes to a business that has been operating under the same framework for more than 40 years.

“We tend to make sport policy in this country in a very reactive posture, a very crisis-oriented posture,” the panel's co-chair, Dionne Koller, said Thursday. “We’ve made some very important policy changes that way. But this commission is an opportunity to be proactive, and an opportunity to think big.”

Koller said the Commission on the State of U.S. Olympics and Paralympics has begun receiving feedback from athletes, administrators and the general public on 10 aspects of the Olympics and how they are run in the United States.

The 16-person panel was created by Congress as part of a bill that sought better oversight of the Olympics in this country. After a two-year delay getting started, mainly due to red tape and indifference from Congress, Koller's group has scheduled a public hearing for September with plans to release its report next spring.


Speaking at the advocacy group Project Play's annual conference, Koller said changes might be appropriate for the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, the landmark law first passed in 1978 that set the template for the U.S. Olympic system.

“There's no way to do that without looking at the original act and accounting for the fact that this is not the 1970s anymore,” Koller said. “I think it's really important to have an understanding of history, where we've been, where sport was at the time, but also where we are today in sports.”

Koller views her group as the 2020s version of the President's Commission on Olympic Sports, which was created by President Gerald Ford in the mid-70s and set the stage for the Stevens Act.

Congress formed the 21st-century commission as part of the "Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act of 2020,” that was, itself, a reaction to the outrage spawned by the Larry Nassar sex-abuse scandal and the inability of Olympic leaders to identify or react to the problem.

One part of that law called on the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to more than double funding for the newly created U.S. Center for SafeSport, one of dozens of Olympic-related agencies that the commission has been asked to examine.

Koller said the commission has collected “tens of thousands of pages of documents,” and collected responses from more than 2,000 surveys from across the Olympic landscape.

Among the areas the commission is looking at is finances. Under the terms of the Stevens Act, the government does not fund Olympics sports in the United States, leaving thousands of athletes largely beholden to money derived from sponsorships, media contracts (mostly from NBC) and fundraising.

That has led to decades of feuding between athletes who scrap for stipends, salaries, endorsement deals, health care and retirement and who often point to six- and seven-figure salaries made by some Olympic leaders as the most tangible sign that the system is out of balance.

One possible area for the commission to explore could be whether its time to rethink government's (non)role in funding the USOPC, its athletes and their corresponding sports organizations (National Governing Bodies). The NGBs have been under increasing pressure to comply to safe-sport rules and best-practices governance.

“If that's what the commission comes forth with, we would be welcome participants in that,” said Kathryn Carson, the chair of USA Gymnastics who was part of the Project Play panels. “There needs to be an understanding of what our role is now, how it's expanded. It's very clear how that's being expanded, and we also need to have additional resources for NGBs who might only have a few people on their staff.”

Koller's commission struggled getting off the ground and, for a time, couldn't even get calls back from some of the same lawmakers who proposed forming the panel. The USOPC, which has rewritten its bylaws and made dozens of changes it portrays as helping athletes, has generally welcomed the commission's work.

Still, possibly the biggest unknown is whether the USOPC or Congress will heed the recommendations the commission makes. Koller said regardless of what is adopted and what is ignored, the commission is dedicated to “the most fair process possible” as it dives into complex subject matter that rarely elicits across-the-board agreement.


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