USOPC election has far-reaching implications

The USOPC held an election earlier this month that was significant for a number of reasons but may have been lost in summer plans. Goldman Sachs executive and former LA28 CEO on July 8th Gene Syke was elected and replaced as the next Chairman of the USOPC Board of Directors Suzanne Lyon, who has held the role since January 2019. This is remarkable for several reasons. This was a rare competitive election for the CEO. Lyons emphasized good corporate governance and proposed a choice, leading to rare open campaigns for the role Dexter Paine, a well-respected former collegiate skier and longtime NGB leader who has received strong support from the athlete and NGB community. Paine won the support of many of those constituencies, but the 15-member board selected Sykes by a razor-thin margin.

Sykes is no newcomer to the Olympic world, but he’s not the veteran insider like Paine and will likely bring a more business-oriented perspective. The other notable aspect of this result, unsurprisingly, is that Sykes’ job won’t be easy. The chairperson’s role is quite thankless, and while Lyons has handled it with grace and will likely never get the credit she deserves for what she inherited in 2019, don’t be surprised if she’s okay with keeping things in to plug the rearview mirror. There’s endless travel, political wrangling and machinations, and so many constituencies to satisfy—it’s virtually impossible. Lyons and USOPC CEO Sarah Hirschland also deserve recognition for a strong working relationship, as their alignment has been critical for USOPC to overcome some major roadblocks such as COVID financial woes and the brutal logistical challenges of Tokyo and Beijing.

Athletes and NGBs were not particularly enthusiastic about Sykes’ election, as many fear he is too close to the LA28 chairman Casey Wasserman and the establishment of the 2028 Summer Games, and the NGBs fear that too much focus, emphasis and resources will be placed on those specific Summer Games. Additionally, the NGBs have been angered since their longstanding USOPC leadership Rick Adams (Chief of Sports Performance and NGB Services) was fired from Hirshland in April and they wanted Paine almost everywhere. Sykes winning the post will not allay those concerns.

Divisions like this are common in the Olympic community because the priorities and needs of different groups are so different. In the end, the NGBs certainly want more money and resources and feel like they can never get enough, so Sykes needs to prove that he hears their concerns and that he and Hirshland are voices for them and that the direction isn’t just Wasserman’s LA28. Sykes also needs to balance the relationship between LA28 and Colorado Springs-based USOPC, who work well together but have different long-term goals. LA28’s focus is clearly on maximizing the opportunities surrounding the Los Angeles Games, and the USOPC certainly wants that, but it also needs to have a long-term vision of the strength of the entire North American Olympic movement and its standing in the community.

There are certainly other big decisions ahead – none more interesting than whether Salt Lake City will host the 2030 or 2034 Winter Games. Many sources believe that Sykes’ win certainly means he will be more focused on 2034, as most Olympic insiders believe a six-year lead up to the US Winter Games in 2034 would be far more successful than an 18- month run. to LA28. There is concern that sponsorship is tiring as the 2026 World Cup, a possible 2027 Women’s World Cup and the 2028 Summer Games are all directly ahead of 2030, while the Utah delegation believes the most successful and cost-effective games will be 2030 the US has announced plans to bid for 2030, but many are secretly hoping Vancouver’s bid will be financially strong and stable enough to win those games, and the US will return to host the 2034 games, which will also be the first games in a new US media deal, as NBCUniversal’s deal with the IOC ends after the 2032 Games in Australia.

But there’s more on Sykes’ plate: Global inflation will surely impact the cost of the Los Angeles Games, and the sponsorship sales market needs to stay alive despite serious economic headwinds. There are also issues with transgender athletes and geopolitical controversies – particularly around Russia and China. At a recent dinner I hosted in New York City, I was surprised by how much the “What happened to the Olympics?” was addressed as if the Games were an afterthought on the global sporting landscape. There’s still time to turn things around – the corporate market needs to be excited at the prospect of buying three games in a row – Paris, Cortina/Milan and Los Angeles – and we need to see a series of Olympic-style events across the US build momentum . For these reasons and more, this vote in July will prove very important for the future of the Olympic movement in this country.

Abraham Madkour can be reached at [email protected]

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