WASHINGTON - Prompted by the U.S. Olympic Committee's leadership crisis, an influential U.S. Senate panel made it plain Tuesday that Congress intends to take a far more direct role in overseeing USOC operations with the aim of fixing a structure and culture that panel members said too often diverts attention from athletes.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, said that Congress, which in 1978 gave the USOC authority in this country for Olympic sports, has - if belatedly - recognized that the USOC in recent years has become a "big-money organization," and that a 25-year-old model may no longer suit the interests of U.S. athletes, sponsors and other Olympic stakeholders.
McCain said he intends to call another hearing within the month to "look beyond the organization's current leadership woes." Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), a 1964 U.S. Olympian in judo, said the next hearing could come as soon as two weeks. And Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), architect of the 1978 Amateur Sports Act, pointedly warned USOC officials summoned Tuesday to Washington, "The USOC is chartered by Congress, and Congress has the power to revoke that charter."
The remarks came amid a three-hour hearing punctuated by invective and rancorous exchanges and at least a dozen uses of the word "dysfunctional" and left the USOC's direction, near and long term, marked with uncertainties. International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, in his first public comments on what he called "recent developments" involving the USOC, on Tuesday called the matter "worrying."
The hearing was called in the aftermath of an ethics inquiry into USOC chief executive Lloyd Ward that has since prompted the resignations of five USOC officials, a demand for President Marty Mankamyer's resignation, a call by a top Olympic sponsor for a full audit of the USOC's books - and induced institutional paralysis within the USOC's top leadership, with the management tumult superseding virtually all other meaningful activity for the past several weeks, and no clear end in sight.
"A very, very unpleasant situation," McCain said.
"Scandal seems to follow the United States Olympic Committee like dogs follow a meat wagon," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said, calling for "top-to-bottom restructuring."
Campbell said the "whole sordid mess," which he also called an "Olympic-sized food fight," has left the Olympic motto - citius, altius, fortius - in danger of being subverted, changed to "citius, altius, fortius and devious." Though he had long resisted congressional oversight, he said "a little more governmental oversight may not be a bad idea."
Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) urged the USOC to follow up, and soon, on a proposal to appoint a special independent panel to review all the circumstances of the ethics inquiry into Ward's conduct, and the aftermath.
The ethics inquiry was sparked by Ward's move last year to direct USOC staff to make introductions in the Dominican Republic, site of the 2003 Pan American Games, on behalf of a Detroit company, Energy Management Technologies, with ties to his brother and a friend.
A USOC ethics board found that Ward had committed two violations of the USOC ethics code, including the creation of the "appearance of a conflict of interest," but its report did not recommend any disciplinary action, and on Jan. 13 the executive committee took none.
An "error in judgment," Ward called it again Tuesday.
At the same time, he also said, "I wasn't as clear then as I am now that the USOC culture is one of 'I gotcha,"' adding that "at no point" did anyone within the USOC advise him he might be in ethical peril.
Patrick Rodgers, the USOC's former ethics officer, one of the five who has resigned since Jan. 13, testified that "in the ethics business, individuals who violate ethical standards historically blame everybody else. I think this is an absolute classic case of 'it's everybody else's fault, not Mr. Ward's.''
Ward and Rodgers engaged in a number of exchanges Tuesday, with Ward saying at one point that Rodgers was spreading "half-truths, misrepresentations (and) innuendoes," and engaging in a "personal vendetta."
Ward also said in a written statement that he "was offered the opportunity to walk away from all of this emotional turmoil with a very attractive financial statement if I would simply go quietly," adding, "I refused." He was not available after the hearing for elaboration.
Beyond the prospect of another hearing before Congress, the most immediate concern for the USOC is last week's call, issued by seven members of the executive committee, five vice presidents and others, for Mankamyer's resignation. She reiterated Tuesday her vow to stay on, suggesting that those seven had acted with "sort of a mob mentality" and noting that if she stepped down "one of the seven would take my place."
A Feb. 8 executive committee meeting in Chicago is still scheduled. The lead item on the agenda: Mankamyer's future.