Olympic chief sets gold standard

On a warm February day with snowy Pikes Peak basking under a dazzling sun and towering against deep-blue sky, it was hard for all but the coldest cynic not to be optimistic.

And so it was here earlier this week when the new US Olympic boss, Norman Blake Jr., showed up for his first day of work. He was impressive and inspiring, just like the Rocky Mountains are from a distance; he also was tough and rugged, just like the Rocky Mountains are up close.

On the morning of his first day on the job, he was properly respectful of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC); he was reasonable, thoughtful, and measured in his responses.

And the new chief executive officer and secretary general of the USOC left no doubt that the American Olympic effort is in for restructuring, reorganizing, rethinking, revitalization. In sum, he envisions reform and rebirth. Blake - whose newly created title gives him sweeping powers - is precisely what the USOC needs: A hard-edged realist who at the same time admits to being "completely captivated" by the joy and poetry of the Olympics.

Asked what grade he would give the current USOC for its performance, Blake says he hasn't been around long enough to do that. But he says, tellingly, "I'm a tough grader." The winds of change are blowing.

For the American people, whom he refers to as the "stockholders," this is good news. That's because Blake clearly understands that if Americans are grumbly about the US Olympic effort - unhappy with the bribery scandal involving Salt Lake City and many other cities; discontented with the performance of athletes wearing the red, white, and blue - then they won't care any more. If they don't care, they won't give money.

Should this happen, the Olympic effort in the US will become a bumpy road and, perhaps as the years go by, impassable. Of the need to convince the public, Blake says, "I take this as a challenge."

Blake seems perfect for the job: He doesn't need the money, and he was, he says, a "pathetic athlete" with only a bit of wrestling in his past. Such a combination gives him carte blanche to look at the enterprise as a semidetached observer without having to retreat to cowardly positions because of concern for his own job. He says he took the position "because I want to serve my country." As old-fashioned as that sounds to many, for many others it has a pleasing ring to it.

Blake has rescued, turned around, and/or dramatically improved a variety of corporations, including huge and nearly bankrupt insurer USF&G. Recently, he was boss of Promus Hotel Corp., which has more than 1,300 hotels including Embassy Suites, Hampton Inns, and Doubletree. As he fixed up companies, they in turn merged - which is how Blake has ended up, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette, with $56.5 million in severance packages.

His only near slip-up this week came when he referred to "numerous turnaround situations" he has been involved in. Smoothly, quickly, he said the USOC was not, of course, in that category. So why did he bring it up?

The answer is that Blake sees need for an avalanche of changes. No. 1, he says, is to put all the emphasis on assisting the athletes. That means more money going to this purpose, but then his eyes grow steely: "I don't believe in free rides. There has to be result." For those who don't produce - staff or athlete - Blake promises to "pull the trigger." Based on his past, there's no reason to doubt his resolve or his aim.

So, wonders a questioner, will it be fair to judge him by the number of gold medals won by US athletes? "Absolutely," he says without hesitation.

He wants less bureaucracy and politics. He wants a staff with better skills, more accountability. He says the fund-raising end of the operation lacks "creativity and energy." Whether there'll be staff cuts isn't yet clear. The USOC has 500 full-time employees, up from 350 a decade ago and just 39 in 1978. There's already a faint sound in the background of a chain saw being warmed up.

Blake seems the master of straight talk; his rsum and persona smack of strength. Then he breaks into an optimistic smile as big as Pikes Peak and says, "I'm just thrilled to be here."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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