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On Olympics

USOC’s new boss is an old boss

In shrewd move, Blackmun is back

By John Powers
Globe Staff / January 7, 2010

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The last time Scott Blackmun got the job as the US Olympic Committee’s chief executive officer was on Halloween a decade ago. Norman Blake, the former turnaround artiste, had resigned less than a month after the Sydney Games and Blackmun, a senior managing director, was named as interim.

Blackmun was an obvious and popular choice. He knew how the committee worked and had good relationships with the national sports bodies and the athletes. But when the USOC board members had the chance to keep him on a year later they opted instead for Lloyd Ward, the former Maytag chairman whose only experience running anything in sports was as point guard for Michigan State’s basketball varsity. Ward lasted less than a year and a half and it nearly took an act of Congress to get rid of him.

Yesterday, after yet another failed experiment with a corporate type, the board went back to the 52-year-old Blackmun for what chairman Larry Probst hopes will be “many, many years to come.’’ In Colorado Springs, of course, they measure years the way a June bug measures days.

Blackmun, who will take over for acting CEO Stephanie Streeter Jan. 26, will be the seventh person (counting himself twice) to hold the position in 10 years, and Probst is the committee’s sixth president/chair during that time. Jim Scherr, who was pushed out as CEO last March, had held the job for six years. By USOC standards, that’s up there with the Han Dynasty.

Blackmun was an excellent pick, just as USA Swimming CEO Chuck Wielgus, the other finalist, would have been. Besides his previous USOC duties as legal counsel and the man in charge of sports funding, Blackmun was chief operating officer for the Anschutz Entertainment Group, where he learned about marketing and venue development. His résumé was as ideal as the board could have hoped for.

The key Olympic stakeholders - from International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge to NBC Universal Sports & Olympics chairman Dick Ebersol to the domestic National Governing Bodies Council - pronounced themselves delighted with the selection. Now, all the USOC board has to do is let Blackmun do the job - whatever that is these days.

The reason the revolving door keeps spitting out CEOs at the foot of Pikes Peak is that the board can’t decide what it wants: a hard-driving, power-suited top gun or an Olympic family member who knows how the five rings interlock and who understands that the athletes come first. When the most recent hunt began, Probst said that the board essentially wanted both: someone with corner-office skills, an international sports background, multiple languages, and frequent overseas travel.

Though the search committee considered more than 150 people, only a handful would have met those qualifications, and Blackmun came closer than any of them.

“This is a dream come true for me,’’ he said, after signing on for four years at a base salary of $450,000.

That’s substantially less than the $560,000 Streeter reportedly has been earning during her 10-month tenure, and Blackmun is arriving at a more difficult time, with a rougher economy and a decidedly worse relationship with the IOC, with which the Americans now have about as much clout as the Bulgarians.

Blackmun’s first order of business will be to schmooze the Lords of the Rings for three weeks during next month’s Winter Games in Vancouver, then get himself a Swiss guidebook and arrange a frequent-guest deal with the lakeside Beau-Rivage Palace near the IOC headquarters in Lausanne.

“Just being present is going to be an improvement,’’ he said, declaring that “we intend to be a much more regular visitor over there.’’

The Olympic family is all about person-to-person, and for too long the USOC has come off as the rich, ham-handed, and clueless American uncle. Odds are that Rio de Janeiro would have gotten the nod for 2016 anyway, since it clearly was South America’s time, but the first-round smackdown of Chicago was an unmistakable message.

That’s why it was important that the USOC a) choose a new chief executive before Vancouver and b) make sure that it’s someone who knows that Rogge isn’t pronounced “Rogue.’’ For the last decade the board has made a habit of hiring the wrong person and running off the right one and it has made Colorado Springs look like Dysfunction Junction.

Probst said bringing Blackmun back was a “spectacular outcome.’’ If he’s still there four years from now, it may well be.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.