U.S. Olympic athletes owe a debt to George Steinbrenner

Michelle Kwan was a 13-year-old whose parents were trying to scrape up money for her skating when Yankees owner George Steinbrenner stepped up to the plate.

Kwan, who became the most decorated figure skater in U.S. history, never would meet Steinbrenner, who died Tuesday at age 80. But she still has the “wicked cool” Yankees jacket Steinbrenner sent in response to her thank-you letter for his $10,000 contribution to her funding in the fall of 1993.

“He was like an angel to come and help us,” Kwan said Tuesday. “He supported a 13-year-old who at that point wasn’t anybody.”

Kwan was among many U.S. Olympians for whom Steinbrenner, a two-term U.S. Olympic Committee vice president, quietly provided financial help or a job.

That group includes gold-medal gymnast Trent Dimas; skating champions Nicole Bobek and Tonya Harding (ironically, only a few months before her associates attacked rival Nancy Kerrigan); gold-medal runner Diane Dixon; and, perhaps most significant, 1992 Olympic swimmer Ron Karnaugh, now a doctor in New Jersey.

“He tremendously impacted my life in so many ways,” Karnaugh said Tuesday. “I will be grateful to him and his family forever. In many ways, he helped fill the void from the loss of my father.”

Steinbrenner came to Karnaugh’s Olympic Village room with then-USOC chief executive Harvey Schiller to tell the athlete his father had died at the opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics.

When Karnaugh’s mother expressed concern about how her son would manage swimming in the Games and beginning medical school a month later, Steinbrenner allayed her fears.

“On the spot, he said not to worry about a thing and that he would pay for my medical school, which he did,” said Karnaugh, an interventional physiatrist. “Then he encouraged me, pushed me to do my best and kept checking in on me. Without him, I could have very easily failed to reach my goals.”

Every U.S. Olympian after 1988, when Team USA won only six medals at the Winter Olympics, owes a debt of gratitude to Steinbrenner.

He would chair the commission created to assess that poor performance. The 1989 Steinbrenner Commission report insisted that the USOC’s previously vague primary mission should be to win medals and backed it by beginning athlete-funding programs that eventually led to the record-breaking medal total at the 2010 Olympics.

“The Steinbrenner report in 1989 revolutionized the USOC’s sport performance philosophy,” former USOC president Bill Hybl said Tuesday.

Steinbrenner, born on the Fourth of July, was an unabashed America-firster in Olympic matters.

At his first meeting as a public-sector member of the USOC executive board in 1987, he went ballistic after learning the USOC had sent $10,000 from a friendship fund to Japan.

“Ten thousand dollars to the Japs?” he blustered. “This . . . has got to stop.”

Steinbrenner also exacerbated what would become ongoing friction about revenue sharing between the USOC and International Olympic Committee when he insisted the U.S. should get double the 10% it then received as a share of U.S. broadcast rights.

He served as USOC vice president from 1989 through 1996, focusing his attention on the organization’s finances. Steinbrenner resigned the USOC post for about six months after Major League Baseball suspended him for actions that were “not in the best interests of the sport.”

Karnaugh last saw Steinbrenner, already very ill, on opening day of the 2010 season at Yankee Stadium.

“He immediately recognized me and said, ‘Hey, Doc, how are you doing?’ ” Karnaugh said. “He treated me like family.”