COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – After a year of turmoil and one grand humiliation, the leaders of the U.S. Olympic Committee feel they're on their way toward a key goal: making Olympic stories about athletes on the field, not politics off it.
Chairman Larry Probst and CEO Scott Blackmun spoke at the USOC's annual assembly Friday and painted a picture much different from what existed last fall. The USOC was in turmoil, which led to Chicago's embarrassing first-round exit in the bid to host the 2016 Olympics that went to Rio de Janeiro.
Since then, Blackmun has taken over for Stephanie Streeter, Probst has redoubled his efforts and the USOC has made progress with the International Olympic Committee — all reasons for optimism, Blackmun and Probst told the crowd during their annual "State of the USOC" addresses.
"We can't allow the stories of our athletes to be crowded off the page by stories about us," Blackmun said. "We will have disagreements. And we will make mistakes. The important thing is that we have to address those disagreements directly, and in a spirit of partnership."
Later on Friday, NBC Universal Sports chairman Dick Ebersol gave his keynote address, one he rewrote in the afternoon after hearing Probst and Blackmun speak in the morning. He heaped praise on Probst, who got bad reviews when he arrived at the USOC, but has worked hard to change that reputation.
Ebersol's presence at the assembly, to say nothing of the positive way he spoke about the USOC leadership, was a key sign of how things have changed. He received a standing ovation when he was introduced. A year ago, he was one of the most outspoken critics of the federation.
"In American life, there aren't a lot of things that happen like this," Ebersol said. "Larry Probst did not back down, did not feel sorry for himself, but quickly saw what had been lost. The trust, the broken relationships that had mounted over the years. And he set on a truly open course to change things. His search for a new CEO began, unbelievably, with him telling the search firm to talk to the naysayers."
Overall, the scene at a hotel across the street from the USOC's new Colorado Springs headquarters was quite a shift from what's been seen at the last two Olympic assemblys.
In 2008, then-chairman Peter Ueberroth threw gasoline on a simmering fire between the USOC and International Olympic Committee when he made his case about where money for the Olympics comes from.
"Starting in 1988, U.S. corporations have paid 60 percent of all the money, period. Be sure you all understand that. The rest of the world pays 40 percent. It's pretty simple math," he said.
Last year, Streeter was part of a question-and-answer session after her speech — a difficult encounter that foreshadowed the trouble the USOC would endure when the 2016 Games were awarded.
"It was a bid of incredible technical merit and social promise," Probst said Friday in recounting the Chicago effort. "And yet, we lost tragically in Round 1. Without taking anything away from Rio's win ... the rejection of Chicago was a shocking blow that told us there was still much work to be done."
Earlier this month, the USOC and IOC resolved one important, lingering financial issue: how much the USOC should contribute toward the administrative cost of the games. The next — and biggest — issue will be the way sponsorship and TV money are divided.
Probst's rededication to his job as Ueberroth's successor has been key to the long project of improving America's image overseas.
The USOC is also in the midst of restructuring at home — many of the suggestions coming from a task force headed by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
Among some of the key issues spelled out Friday:
—Making sure the USOC gets the most bang for its buck with the $21 million it spends each year on Olympic Training Centers. Blackmun said he was surprised to learn that only 13 percent of athletes who use OTCs are Olympic athletes, while 46 percent are not in the elite-athlete pipeline.
—Coming up with a revenue plan for the 2013-16 period. The USOC currently provides $87 million to athletes and national governing bodies and has to try to augment that in a rough economy.
While not ruling it out, Probst and Blackmun said there is no focus on trying to bring the 2020 Olympics to the United States, though a long-term goal of the USOC will be to host games every so often.
The USOC is also monitoring turmoil in a pair of key summer sports: swimming, which has been awash in allegations of sex abuse by coaches, and track and field, which recently fired CEO Doug Logan. USA Fencing and USA Triathlon also recently ousted their CEOs.
"This is the time of year where we allocate our resources," Blackmun said in an interview after his speech. "By the end of October, we'll have our plans in place for 2011 and as part of that process, it's natural for us to ask questions about governance."
AROUND THE RINGS: Rich Bender of USA Wrestling was elected the new chair of the NGB Council, replacing Skip Gilbert, who recently lost his job as head of USA Triathlon. ... USA Track and Field chair and president Stephanie Hightower missed her flight to Colorado Springs after the car she was riding in on the way to the airport was involved in a minor accident. ... The USOC gave the Jack Kelly Fair Play Award to table tennis player Steve Pupel. ... The USOC announced that the 2011 assembly also will take place in Colorado Springs.