In the midst of sexual assault scandals that have rocked Olympic sports throughout the country, the longtime chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee announced Monday that he will step down at the end of the year.
Larry Probst, known for vastly improving the USOC’s international stature over the last decade, expressed remorse for the situation closer to home, where young athletes in gymnastics, swimming and taekwondo have been abused.
The Larry Nassar scandal, in particular, involved hundreds of girls and women who came forward to say that the former sports doctor molested them under the guise of providing medical treatment.
“I think we’ve been very clear about this … we failed our athletes,” Probst said. “I’m at the top of the food chain, so I take this very personally.”
Board member Susanne Lyons will begin a four-year term as chairwoman in January, joining newly appointed chief executive Sarah Hirshland to put women in the USOC’s two primary jobs.
“I think we’ve seen that there are areas that need to have change, absolutely, going forward,” Lyons said. “Sometimes having fresh eyes and a fresh perspective can be a catalyst to that type of cultural change, a lot of it has to start at the top.”
The USOC, which oversees scores of smaller national governing bodies that manage each Olympic sport, elected Probst as chairman in 2008. The organization’s tense relationship with Olympic leaders worldwide caused two cities — New York and, later, Chicago — to fall short in bidding for the Games.
The 68-year-old Probst, known for heading video-game giant EA Sports, helped soothe those bad feelings by renegotiating the USOC’s revenue-sharing agreement with the International Olympic Committee, diverting more of America’s massive broadcast dollars to the rest of the world.
Under his guidance, U.S. sports officials also took a larger role in IOC events and conferences. This thawing was considered vital to Los Angeles being named as host for the 2028 Summer Games.
“Larry led the USOC at a critical time in the history of the organization,” IOC President Thomas Bach said. “At the same time, he became a trusted voice and valuable member of the IOC.”
During Probst’s tenure, U.S. teams led the medals count at the Vancouver, London and Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
But those successes were cast in a different light after news reports surfaced of coaches and others in positions of authority abusing young athletes.
The USOC has been accused of placing too much emphasis on medals and sponsorships while ignoring signs of trouble within the national governing bodies.
“I think that’s part of what Sarah and I need to do,” Lyons said, speaking of herself and the new chief executive. “To always make it clear that this isn’t just about medals and money.”
Lyons joined the board in 2010, at a time the USOC was involved in launching the U.S. Center for SafeSport, an independent entity that, among other things, adjudicates abuse allegations. More recently, she headed a working group to further study athlete safety.
Earlier this year, when USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun stepped down, citing health issues resulting from prostate cancer, Lyons filled his spot until Hirshland came aboard in late August.
The months ahead will be important.
The organization has pledged to modify its relationship with the national governing bodies, playing a more active oversight role. It must also restore its tarnished image.
The decision to hire Hirshland drew criticism initially because in a previous job with the U.S. Golf Assn., her focus was in marketing. Lyons has a similar background in sponsorships and business.
“It’s no secret that the USOC is at a very critically challenging time in our history,” she said. “But I think we have the right people in place to make the changes that are necessary.”