A group of U.S. Olympic Committee officials acknowledged in an internal conference call Friday that the organization, long buffeted by management turmoil, appears to have hit bottom.
"In my opinion," Robert Marbut of San Antonio, executive director of the U.S. Modern Pentathon Assn., said during the call, "the USOC has reached an absolute all-time low."
Bill Gorton, the chief operating officer of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn., said, "This time I'm embarrassed to wear the five rings on my sweater." And Michael Lenard of Los Angeles, a team handball representative and former USOC vice president, said, "I would agree with all those hands that say it might be the worst it's been. We are in a death spiral."
Though officials also acknowledged that a U.S. Senate hearing next Tuesday is likely to be difficult at best for the organization, Jim McCarthy of Chicago, like Marbut a member of the USOC's executive committee, said he welcomed the hearing on Capitol Hill as a "backstop for the free fall we seem to be in."
The comments were made in a call that included a number of the USOC vice presidents, a handful of executive committee members and dozens of representatives of what are called the "national governing bodies," or NGBs, the federations that run Olympic sports in the United States.
Many NGB officials had complained before the call that they had read only news accounts of the predicament in which the USOC finds itself. The purpose of the call was twofold -- to update those officials about what has erupted into arguably the worst crisis in USOC history as well as provide a brief about the hearing before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, chaired by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
The tumult includes an ethics inquiry of Chief Executive Lloyd Ward; the executive committee's decision last week to take no disciplinary action against Ward; five resignations in protest; a call by seven senior USOC officers, including the vice presidents, for President Marty Mankamyer's resignation; her vow to stay on; and a leading sponsor's demand for a full audit of the USOC's books by Feb. 15.
The witness list for the hearing probably will include Mankamyer, Ward, former ethics compliance officer Patrick J. Rodgers and Anita DeFrantz of Los Angeles, the senior International Olympic Committee delegate to the U.S. Also a possibility is the testimony of one or more of the USOC "officers," USOC lingo for the five vice presidents and the heads of the athlete and NGB groups.
Marbut, a former White House fellow who along with George has played a key role in USOC preparations for the committee hearing, said Friday of Congress, "If we don't get our act together fast, they're going to do it for us and we're not going to like what it is."
A number of questions were asked Friday about the officers' demand, issued Tuesday, that Mankamyer resign. McCarthy said it showed a "paucity of judgment" and turned "crisis" into "chaos."
"It's my view that officers are expected to lead and there are decisions you have to make in the heat of battle, in real time, that you have to make," Bill Stapleton of Austin, Texas, a USOC vice president, said.
In other developments, Ward sent out an e-mail Thursday evening that detailed for many within the USOC his activities for 2002. He said, among other things, that he earned $12,500 in honoraria for speeches and donated the money to "athlete programs." He did not elaborate.
In another mass e-mail, Ward apologized again for his role in this "major distraction," and offered to donate his 2002 bonus -- if any -- to "athlete programs."
Meantime, public records indicate that General Motors has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years to Ken Duberstein's Washington lobbying firm, raising questions about a conflict of interest since Duberstein is the chairman of the USOC's ethics board, Ward a member of the GM board. The Colorado Springs Gazette reported the story in Friday's editions.
Rodgers has alleged that Duberstein told him, referring to the Ward inquiry, to "make this go away." Duberstein, a former White House chief of staff, has denied any impropriety. He declined to comment Friday.
A source familiar with the Duberstein firm's lobbying efforts indicated that General Motors had been a client since 1989 and its dealings with the auto company did not reach to the board level.