DENVER – Even before the coronavirus pandemic wiped the Summer Olympics off the 2020 sports calendar, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee was an organization in peril.
In an online address Thursday, made necessary because the annual assembly cannot go on in person, leaders of the committee paid heed to how much more difficult things have become since the virus started shutting down sports, from the grassroots to elite levels, over the last seven months.
“Last year I talked about evolution and ‘Jurassic Park,’” chair Susanne Lyons said, in a nod to the changes the USOPC had embarked upon, pre-COVID. "I know this year feels a bit more like ‘Apocalypse Now.’”
Both Lyons and CEO Sarah Hirshland spent most of their speeches discussing challenges the USOPC is facing and actions it has taken to change. Underlying it all was the notion that the COVID-19 crisis has placed the future of the USOPC as we know it — and the Olympic movement itself — into question.
“Our collective future ... in many ways depends on” expanding on the reforms the USOPC has made over the past few years, Hirshland said.
The USOPC is an organization that faced a 20% budget shortfall in the aftermath of the postponement of the Tokyo Games — a number that would grow higher and be “devastating," according to Hirshland, if the rescheduled games don't go off as planned next year.
It's an organization facing a groundswell of unease from athletes of color, who want the U.S. to use its position as the world's dominant Olympic nation to press for changes, most notably in longstanding rules that have limited free speech at the games.
It's an organization trying to rebuild and reframe an ethos portrayed as having, for decades, valued medals over the well-being of the athletes who won them.