WASHINGTON – Sen. John McCain wants athletes to be the top priority of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and he will create a task force to recommend changes to the troubled organization.
"The athletes appear to be nothing more than an afterthought in the eyes of this ever-growing behemoth of an organization," the Arizona Republican said Thursday during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing.
He said he is already forming an advisory panel, which will recommend changes to the 1978 Amateur Sports Act governing the USOC. He wants the work done within a few months, so the distraction caused by the latest USOC ethics scandal doesn't damage New York's bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics.
USOC leaders have been locked in a feud that led to the resignation last week of president Marty Mankamyer and calls for chief executive Lloyd Ward's resignation. It is the latest episode in the tumultuous committee that has seen four CEOs and three presidents in the past three years.
David D'Alessandro, chief executive of John Hancock Financial Services, a major USOC sponsor, told the Senate Commerce Committee that the Olympic committee is failing to meet its obligations to athletes.
"Clearly, the USOC has lost its way," he said. "It fails to provide enough resources and opportunities to aspiring athletes, fails to be financially self-reliant, and fails to provide financial and ethical transparency."
John Hancock provides $10 million annually in sponsorships to the USOC, and D'Alessandro has threatened to withdraw the company's support if the committee does not clean up its act in the wake of its latest ethical scandal.
He was one of several Olympic experts who said the USOC needed to refocus its attention to athletes, rather than internal power struggles. To achieve that, senators were told that they should take the initiative to eliminate as many as 100 of the spots on the USOC's 123-member volunteer board of directors, bring in more management from outside the Olympic community, and vest more authority in its top executives.
"The fact of the matter is, if you started with the needs of the athletes as your guide, you would have the best rule by which to guide your reform efforts," said Anita DeFrantz, the U.S. delegate to the IOC and a member of the USOC board of directors.
USOC leaders have formed their own task force to recommend changes to its management structure and expressed interest in attending, but McCain was not convinced their efforts would solve the problems and said "an independent and objective analysis" was needed.
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a 1964 Olympian in judo, said the USOC's management structure sops up too much of the money before it gets to the athletes that are supposed to benefit.
"If the USOC was an athlete and I was a coach, I'd tell them they have to get rid of a lot of fat," the Colorado Republican said Wednesday. "They can't win with that much fat."
He points to nonprofit organizations such as the American Red Cross that spend just 10 percent on management and fund raising, compared with 22 percent of the $127 million spent on overhead at the USOC.
Over the last four years, the 24 percent of the committee's spending has gone to overhead, D'Alessandro said in written testimony to the committee. He urged the committee to require 85 percent of the USOC money to go to athletes and to compete more aggressively for corporate sponsorships, rather than relying on grants from the International Olympic Committee.
"Every dollar that the USOC wastes on its bureaucracy or misguided self-indulgence is a dollar not spent giving a child an opportunity to see what he or she can achieve as an athlete," he said.
The latest USOC blowup stems from accusations that Ward tried to steer Olympic contracts to his brother's company. An ethics investigation ended with Ward being given a light reprimand and denied a $184,000 bonus.
Mankamyer resigned last week rather than face a no-confidence vote from USOC's executive committee.
Calls for Ward's resignation have gone unheeded. Ward has said that despite a lucrative package offered by the Olympic committee to leave his post he plans to ride out the reforms.