Roush rushes in when Olympic teams need help
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — When leaders of Brazil's Olympic Committee decided they needed to ramp up their program for a good showing at home in 2016, they knew where to go.
When leaders in Saudi Arabia wanted a new commitment to winning more medals, they looked to the same place.
And when Russia flamed out at the Vancouver Olympics earlier this year — well, that country also called on the Olympic fixer, Steve Roush.
He's the same person who spent the better part of his career trying to make the U.S. Olympic team the best in the world, at the expense of every other nation, including his new clients.
"Yeah, I'm a little surprised," Roush said. "But at the same time, I thought it was something that could be very useful for a variety of clients, all shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of talent levels."
Roush, who rose to become chief of sport performance at the U.S. Olympic Committee for six years, is building a new career based on one of the strange ironies of Olympic life. Despite the billions spent on staging the world's largest sports festival, the thousands of athletes who compete and millions of fans who watch, the majority of the countries that send competitors to the games don't have anything close to a state-of-the-art, 21st-century training program in place.
Roush helped build such a machine in the United States, which has won more medals — winter and summer — than any country since the former Soviet Union and its once-amazing Olympic program stopped competing as a unified team in 1996.
Oddly, it was Russia that came calling most recently. The Russians were reeling from an awful Olympics, during which they won only 15 medals — 11th on the medals table for a country that used to dominate the games. The result led to the resignations of four key executives in the country's Olympic program.
On Thursday, the Russian Olympic Committee elected deputy prime minister Alexander Zhukov as its new chairman.
Zhukov has received a report that Roush turned in earlier this month — an unflinching look at the state of Russia's Winter Olympic system. Whether Roush stays on as an adviser will be determined soon.
"They still have some of the remnants of the byproduct of the Soviet program, but each year, you lose a little bit more," Roush said. "A coach retires and athletes retire and before you know it, you're going to be without a lot of those byproducts."
As the recent spate of retirements shows, Russia isn't afraid of getting rid of people who aren't serving the movement well. Roush realizes this, and says he took on the job to be as open and honest as he can with the government, not to tell them what they want to hear.
"Ultimately, my credibility is very much on the line," he said. "To go there and tell them, 'Hey, you don't have a problem, life's good, just throw a little more money at it,' I don't think that's why they hired me. They could've done that a lot cheaper and easier than bringing me on board."
Roush brought his expertise to a company called TSE Consulting, which added the sports performance piece to a group that focuses largely on public relations and communications for cities trying to put on large sporting events.
Hiring him is not cheap. Most countries pay at least six figures for Roush's services, and the price fluctuates depending on the size of the client, the kind of work they're asking for and the time frame.
In Saudi Arabia, he is trying to help a country that has won a grand total of nine Olympic medals find more opportunities in track and equestrian events.
Another client, Turkey, is considering a bid to host the 2020 Games and wants to build a program worthy of an Olympic host. Roush helps the countries focus on their strengths and identify sports where lots of medals are available.
He's also doing that for Brazil, which is strong in sports such as gymnastics and soccer, but wants more for when Rio de Janeiro hosts in 2016.
Roush's decision to work for Russia — one of America's key rivals — has raised some eyebrows among those in the U.S. Olympic community.
"It's a little funky because, I think, you hate to think that someone who's done so much for sport in the United States is working with other countries to help elevate their program," USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny said. "But when you look at how much we pull from other countries, it's not all that unusual."
The USOC itself has no problems with Roush moving into a field that could put him in direct competition with the American team.
"Our approach to sport performance has been very effective and Steve certainly had a role in our teams' successes," USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said. "He understands the complexities and will make a meaningful contribution to the programs he supports."
Roush's departure from the USOC at the end of 2008 was part of a yearlong intrigue that resulted in the flushing out of top executives, including CEO Jim Scherr. Roush's unexpected resignation was startling mainly because the United States performed so well at the Beijing Olympics, winning a games-high 110 medals despite the hundreds of logistical issues involved with traveling and competing half a world away. Roush traveled to China more than 20 times in the six years leading up to the Beijing Games.
"I think I would've liked it to conclude in a different fashion, but we don't always get to pick and choose that," Roush said. "But I will say, I'm probably one of the USOC's biggest advocates worldwide now. I know what a lot of their strategic efforts are on international relations and I can help them and work with different countries strengthening their relations across the Olympic world."
Roush, who is still closely identified with the United States in international circles, believes the U.S. template for success is being supplemented — maybe even slowly supplanted — by programs the likes of which Canada ran in the buildup to Vancouver. The host country's "Own the Podium" program poured about $117 million into efforts that spanned training, facilities and technology, and the results were impressive: Canada won 26 medals and led everyone with 14 gold.
Roush is trying to blend the new with what he helped develop during his time at the USOC.
Some clients, he said, are actually disappointed when they learn that one thing he won't do is simply walk in a room and throw down the book of U.S. secrets for the new client to adopt.
"It really is just a matter of taking standard business practices and applying them more to sport management," he said. "It's more that than necessarily saying, 'Well, the U.S. did this, the U.S. did that.'"