AUDIO & TRANSCRIPT: USOPC LEADERSHIP PRESS BRIEFING
Below is the audio recording and transcript from the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s leadership press briefing on Thursday, March 16, following the board meeting via teleconference.
Good day and welcome to today's USOPC Board briefing. At this time all participants are in a listen only mode. Later, you will have the opportunity to ask questions during the question and answer session. You may register to ask a question at any time by pressing the star and 1 on your touchstone phone. You may withdraw yourself from the queue by pressing star and 2. Please note this call may be recorded. I will be standing by if you should need any assistance. It is now my pleasure to turn the conference over to Kate Hartman. Please go ahead, ma'am.
Thanks Travis, and good afternoon everyone. We appreciate you joining us in between watching the opening games of March Madness. We're joining you today from Atlanta where our partners at Coca-Cola, the longest-standing partner of the Olympic movement, graciously hosted our first board meeting of 2023. Today you'll hear from Sarah Hirshland, our CEO, and you'll also hear from Gene Sykes, our president and board chair who presided over his first USOPC meeting today. Before I turn things over to Gene, just a few housekeeping reminders. Please introduce your name and outlet when it's your turn, and we ask that you limit to one question per turn. We'll accommodate additional questions at the end if time allows. So with that, Gene, the floor is yours.
Great. Thank you, Kate, and welcome this afternoon. Thank you for joining us. First, I want to begin with a brief tribute to the life of a great Olympic champion, Dick Fosbury, who just passed this week. He was the most recent president of USOPA, which is the US Olympic and Paralympic Alumni Association. Very dedicated to the sport as a great athlete. If you will, the person who innovated the high jump many years ago, but stayed very active in the movement. We mourn his passing and honor the memory of his great impact on the movement.
I'd also like to take a moment just to introduce myself, as this is my first meeting as chair or as president. It's also my first meeting as a board member, since I just joined as a board member as well this year. Many of you may know me from my background with LA '24 and ultimately LA '28. I was the CEO of the bid committee that began its work in 2015 and was awarded the 2028 games, and then I stayed on to help with the organizing committee. I've been a member of the LA '28 board ever since then. I want to give you my enthusiasm and my sense of where we're headed.
I am remarkably honored and privileged to have this position. I think that our movement in the United States is poised for just a tremendous future. We have so many good things going for us with a tremendous team that we've been building both for the Summer Games coming up next year, and then the Winter Games thereafter. And we have some tremendous opportunities with the partnerships that we've been developing with people who've been part of the movement. I'll come in to explain some of that as I speak.
It was great to be together in person as a board this week in Atlanta, spending time to celebrate our first meeting in 2023 and diving into what is a very important year in the Olympic and Paralympic movements. The board spent a lot of quality time together, learning about each other, from each other. I'm truly impressed and heartened by the commitment and direction of this group. There are many different perspectives that our board members bring to the table, but everyone is completely aligned on our mission to support and guide the USOPC. I'll start off today providing you with an overview of what we discussed and then turn things over to our CEO Sarah Hirshland.
First, let me talk about the board. The board's evolved somewhat. We have several new members of the board. Besides myself, we have Elana Meyers Taylor. Many of you know her. She was a gold medalist in Beijing in bobsled. She brings tremendous athlete experience and the voice of the athletes to the board. She represents the Athletes Commission. Virginia Sung, who represents the NGB Council, she is the executive director of USA Table Tennis. She brings a new and unique NGB perspective to our board. Bubba Cunningham, who is a new independent board member, is well known as the esteemed athletic director from UNC Chapel Hill. He brings critical collegiate experience. As you know, the university and college athletic system in this country is a tremendous partner for the Olympic movement in the United States.
Several existing members were reelected. Rich Bender, who's the head of wrestling, was reelected by the NGB Council. Beth Brooke was reelected to a second term as an independent director. Brad Snyder was reelected by the Athletes Council. Brad, as you know, is a Paralympian, a medal winner, a veteran, an educator, and one of the great and accomplished representatives of Team USA. And John Naber, a great Olympic champion himself also representing USOPA. As a reminder, because it can't be stressed enough that with our new membership, nearly half the board positions are held by current or alumni athletes.
So one topic I want to address directly is the question of Russian athletes in international sports and potentially in the Olympic and Paralympic games in Paris. It's obviously an important and much discussed topic, and though the conversation has shifted over time, our position has not. Above all else, we stand in solidarity with the people and athletes of Ukraine. We're proud to be a small part of the incredible support offered to the Ukrainian Olympic Committee and the athletes of Ukraine. Today, actually, we recounted in several ways work that we are doing with various sports in the country to support Ukrainian athletes. The commitment to the principles of Olympism is reflected in the strength of the sanctions that were put in place nearly a year ago against Russia and Belarus. We support these sanctions and believe they must continue to be upheld.
We've listened to and continue to gather feedback from athletes, sports, and other constituents around the United States. Many have told us it's their desire to compete against all of the world's best athletes, but only if that can happen in a way that ensures safe and fair play. There's a very real concern, even skepticism, and we continue to hear the skepticism about whether that condition can be met. There's also a question as to how the strong sanctions that are in place will be upheld as athletes return to the competition environment. What will neutrality really mean? What will the conditions for neutrality be?
As such, we encourage the IOC to continue exploring a process that would preserve the existing sanctions, ensuring only truly neutral athletes who are clean are welcome to compete. This process will continue to require very careful management and will demand extra effort to earn the confidence and trust of our community. We're pleased to have the support and partnership of the US Department of State as we navigate this issue. Only if these conditions of neutrality and clean fair competition can be met, do we believe that spirit of the Olympic Games can prevail.
Let me take the next topic, which is Salt Lake City, 2030 or 2034. Our friends in Salt Lake continue to meet the prospect and process of welcoming the world for a Olympic Winter Games head-on. Sarah Hirshland and I visited in late February and spent time at the Utah State Legislature with the leadership and their body, as well as with Governor Cox, Salt Lake City Mayor Mendenhall, and other local leaders in Salt Lake City. It was a great visit. The commitment to supporting winter sport through venue updating and investment and access pathways at all levels, as of course its support for returning the games to Utah, it's remarkable.
The Salt Lake City team continues to share the story of sport culture in Salt Lake and across the state of Utah. It's a story that everyone who loves the games and Winters sports should embrace. It's truly a legacy in action, and as they made us understand, 82% local support for the games. And in fact, that visit to the state legislature, both houses of the state legislature in our presence voted unanimously to accept the responsibility to host the games either in 2030 or 2034. We of course, stand ready to support Salt Lake City in their effort and we're happy to be partners with them. They have really got their act together and we're very, very pleased with where they stand. With that, I'm happy to pass a line over to my great friend Sarah to give an organizational update.
Terrific. Thanks Gene, and good afternoon everyone. As you can tell, our new chair and president has joined and is diving right in to presiding over the organization, and been a great partner to me thus far. We had a really productive meeting here and it came at an important time for us. As we think about our efforts on the road to Santiago 2023 and Paris 2024, our work is ramping up quickly and the clock is ticking rapidly. And of course, we have our sights set on the future, on the long road to LA '28. I know our staff, like NGB staff, are really relishing a return back to a "normal" games cadence, and I can tell you that all of us, the USOPC and the national governing bodies, are diving back into the work to make sure that Santiago, Paris, Milan-Cortina, and ultimately LA '28 are wildly successful for Team USA.
As you know, Team USA athletes are training and competing all over the world as they always do, and we love to talk about them. So let me take just a minute to highlight a few amazing things that Team USA athletes are doing on and off the field of play. One has to start with Mikaela Shiffrin, who just this past weekend broke Ingemar Stenmark's all time World Cup victory record. She is a model of consistency and drive, and this record is a testament to that. Mikaela's been in the spotlight for a long time already and has had unbelievable success, and she's also an incredible human being and a wonderfully sincere person all at the same time. She's a role model, she's a superb representative of Team USA, and she has a long career ahead. And we certainly hope that she'll stay and contribute to the movement long after her competition career is over. So let me offer my congratulations to Mikaela.
An equally inspiring and amazing athlete in Oksana Masters, who has set really an incredible standard athletically across both Summer and Winter Games. But I want to mention her breathtaking book, the Hard Parts, that was just released in February. It is incredibly timely and it chronicles a journey that I don't think any of us could imagine. It speaks to her as an athlete and it speaks to her as an individual at a moment in time where her history and her story is immensely relevant. Many of you know her already, and those who may be hearing her name for the first time, I highly encourage you to get to know Oksana and invest in her story. You will not be disappointed.
And of course, never shy and never shying away from a challenge is Jessie Diggins. She captured our heart and has done it again, winning the first ever individual world title in cross-country skiing for the US when she won the 10 kilometer World Championship event in Slovenia. Jessie was inspirational back in 2018. She is a force on the snow and a forceful voice of empowerment and support for her fellow athletes, and as a person who we've never seen without a smile on her face. So thank you to all of these wonderful women of Team USA for their inspiration and their optimism and continuing to remind us why we love the Olympic and Paralympic movement so much.
I also want to comment on the Russian figure skating process. In December, many of you know WADA progressed the Russian figure skating case to CAS. This was, as you might imagine for us, very welcome news. And you've seen the appeals against the decision of RUSADA come in both from [inaudible 00:12:39] and WADA, as well as those bodies urging CAS to move expeditiously forward. I really want to stress that while we can't force action at CAS, it is so important that the figure skating team athletes who competed in Beijing get resolution with no delay. We will continue to reiterate the importance of this. We keep these athletes in our thoughts every day. Many of them have been out competing over the course of this winter. We've enjoyed and loved watching their amazing performances and we continue to anxiously await the day they get their medals and the celebration that comes with it.
Speaking of celebrations, we are immensely grateful for Yucca and Gary Rieschel's $10 million gift to the US Olympic and Paralympic Foundation, and their generosity specifically in support of the holistic wellbeing of Team USA athletes. The Rieschel family has allowed us to continue to transform our already world-class mental health service offerings to better meet the needs of athletes. Our commitment to supporting athletes' entire wellbeing, not just their physical health but also their mental and emotional health, remains a long-term focus. And we believe that competitive excellence and wellbeing work hand in hand, and at their best reinforce one another, and frankly, we believe this is Team USA's competitive advantage.
I also want to touch quickly on the Congressional Commission, which many of you know has just started working. The Commission members are set, an executive director is in place, and the work of the Commission has begun. We are fully supportive of this work, have already started working with the Commission and helping to support their efforts. In fact, we've also sent a letter to the congressional leadership asking for an extension as the Commission works to meet deadlines. As it stands now, their timeline is quite short to cover a very complex and broad look at our movement and we hope that they will be granted that extension and have the ability to do a really complete and thorough process, and we stand ready to help them along the way.
One more item we want to comment on and celebrate that we're incredibly excited about, we are thrilled, as you know, to partner with the NCAA, and specifically around raising awareness for Paralympic sport, and frankly, celebrating the role that collegiate sport plays as a pathway for Team USA Paralympians. You will see this come to life with activation of three adaptive sport programming initiatives within the college sports landscape. The first coming up quite soon at the Women's Final Four, the next at the Drake Relays, and finally at the ITA Fall National Championships.
The announcement of these three sport activations builds on the existing work with the NCAA, and also on a recent partnership with the Pac-12 Conference that introduced a new policy giving para athletes access to athletic department facilities and coaching at Pac-12 conference schools. This added layer of support is incredible and we are supremely gracious and grateful to the Pac-12 for their efforts to do this. The goal of all of this work is to give athletes support to train for the Paralympics and other elite para competitions, but it also adds up to increased opportunity and increased awareness for adaptive sport overall. And this is central to our goals and our motivations.
And finally, let me just touch on our overall annual process. I've previously referenced our promise to focus on three core pillars in our work, athlete excellence, sport advancement, and community growth. These pillars remain our focus and it helps us organize our work and implement our plans. They're driving our partnership with the national governing bodies, keeping athlete engagement at the forefront of our actions, and creating a pathway by which we engage our fans and increase their interest in the Olympic and Paralympic movements. So we've established a new organizational planning process that allows us to better deploy our human and financial resources against the most impactful programs and activities within those three pillars, and then allows us to measure our impact and share those outcomes with our community.
So with our annual plan in place, we'll take time each quarter to review our progress with our stakeholders, including our board of directors, to ensure we're aligned, informed and working together to achieve optimal results. As we sit here at the end of the first quarter reviewing our progress, I'm happy to say we're on track, on track with all of the initiatives that we committed to at the beginning of the year. And as we look at our organizational key performance indicators, if you will, we're feeling very, very optimistic about what the year has in store for us and what the long-term future holds as we begin on this journey toward the LA '28 Games, and ideally a Salt Lake Winter Games in the next 10 to 12 years.
So overall, we're incredibly happy with our progress, where we are as an organization in our service to Team USA athletes, and thrilled with the community support that continues to be at our backs as we push forward as an organization. With that, Kate, I'll turn it back to you. Thank you.
Thanks Sarah. Thanks Gene. That was a lot. Great updates. With that, Operator, we're ready to open the line of questions.
Thank you. At this time, if you would like to ask a question, please press the star and 1 on your touchstone phone. You may remove yourself from the queue at any time by pressing star and 2. Once again, that is star 1 to ask a question. We will pause just for a moment to allow questions to queue. Our first question comes from Lisa Roche, Deseret News.
Hi Gene and Sarah. I understand from the IOC they've confirmed that there are six places that are in confidential discussions about hosting a future Winter Games. We of course know of four publicly, Salt Lake, Sapporo, Vancouver, and potentially Sweden. Is it fair that there are cities and competition that we don't know about, and how did you see that impacting Salt Lake City's chances of hosting a future Games, whether it's 2030 or 2034? Thank you.
I'll take that one. Thanks very much, Lisa, for the question. I think it's fair to say there will not be bids from any other host which will be more attractive to the IOC than a bid from Salt Lake City, just given how well prepared Salt Lake City is and the local support, which is absolutely critical and I think very, very differentiating. So I don't imagine that any bid will be more attractive on its face than the Salt Lake City opportunity. As you know, we have always looked at the possibility of either 2030 or 2034. Our preference is to host 2034 due to the proximity and dates to Los Angeles 2028. But we remain committed to whichever year best suits the Olympic and Paralympic movement.
Operator, next question.
Okay. Our next question, caller, your name was not recorded, from AP.
Oh, hey, this is the AP caller, Eddie Pells. Sarah, since you brought it up, you said you'd sent a letter to the congressional leaders about that commission. They've pretty much been blowing off the commission itself. Have you gotten any response from them?
Hey Eddie, it is great to hear your voice. We have not gotten a response from our letter. Gene and I were in Washington-
Two weeks ago.
... about two weeks ago. We spent most of our time with the National Security Council and the Department of State. We did spend a little bit of time on Capitol Hill and had a couple of conversations, so we were able to verbalize our support for that extension. We did not get any affirmation or confirmation one way or another, so no, I can't provide any substance around a response. But I am confident that we've made our position clear and I know others are supportive of the extension as well.
Just a reminder, if you would like to ask a question, please press star 1. Our next question comes from Ed Hula, Hula Sport Communications.
Good afternoon, everybody. Good to hear all of you. Question for Gene Sykes about the situation with Russian athletes. Can you talk further about how the State Department might get involved in the question about whether United States athletes will participate? Will there be any kind of input from the State Department as to how the USOPC positions itself heading into Paris 2024, especially if there's a lot of diplomatic to and fro, which I think we're expecting over the next 12 months or so?
Ed, it's nice to hear from you and I look forward to seeing you again soon. Thanks for the question. We've had a very, very good relationship and very direct and comprehensive dialogue with the State Department at senior levels now for some time, and we'll continue to do that. And it's very open. The most important thing is that we're communicating with each other in a way that helps both the USOPC and the State Department hear from each other and understand what we're hearing from the various parties that we talk to, either in the Olympic movement or the diplomatic community. And we believe that relationship will continue to be quite close and will be highly coordinated.
Great. Thanks, Ed. Operator, next question.
Yes, ma'am. We have a follow-up from Lisa Roche, Deseret News.
Hi. Gene, I wonder if we could go back to my previous question about there being at least two unnamed bids for a future Winter Games. Could you address the fairness of that? There are cities that are publicly advocating to host again, and apparently there are cities that are not. Thank you.
Lisa, I think the question about which cities or communities are really capable of being host for the Winter Games is a big question that the IOC has to deal with very, very thoroughly. They have been looking to find a city that would offer a good alternative to Salt Lake City for 2030. They understand our preference. They have the same preference we do for 2034, if possible. But almost every other city has some limitation, either by capability or local support or something else. And so I think that there's no issue of fairness, it's really just a matter of understanding what their options are. And I believe very strongly they understand the advantages that Salt Lake City has to every other potential host.
Just a reminder, if you'd like to ask a question, please press star 1. We do have a follow-up from Ed Hula, Hula Sport Communications.
Yeah, a question for Sarah. Two international federations, boxing and weightlifting, have been under pretty heavy scrutiny by the IOC and they're trying to get their houses in order. How is that affecting USA Boxing and USA Weightlifting? What kind of future are you expecting for those sports?
Hi Ed. Thanks, it's a great question. And as you can imagine, I would say there are dual efforts underway. One is, how do we continue to support the elite boxers and elite weightlifters here in our country in their training and in their competition where that's appropriate? That will and is a focus for us, as you can imagine. As we await the inevitable outcome of what that looks like long-term, we're continuing to be quite committed to both. The second pathway is, what role can we play as the United States in helping to influence and improve the governance in those two sports? The scrutiny comes largely from a governance perspective and we want to help create great governance, both at our national federation level, but also where we can help and influence at the international federation level, we have a duty and an obligation to try to do that.
And so our teams are quite engaged, and individuals from our country are quite engaged at the global level in the governance of both sports, and we're hopeful and optimistic that we'll see progress and reform that will put both sports in good stead on the global stage. But I think there's a lot of work yet to be done in both cases before we can declare victory there.
We have no further questions in the queue at this time. I would like to throw the call back over to Kate Hartman for closing remarks.
Thanks so much. As always, we will be posting the transcript to this call on TeamUSA.org/media. Our next media availability will be at the end of June. Thank you all for joining us and we look forward to talking to you all soon.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. This does conclude today's program. Thank you for your participation. You may disconnect at any time.