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USOPC working on plan to improve life for Olympic athletes

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    Then U.S. Olympic Committee Acting Chief Executive Officer Susanne Lyons speaks during a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on “Strengthening and Empowering U.S. Amateur Athletes,” on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2018.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. >> The leaders of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee will introduce a five-year strategic plan to a world measured in four-year increments — as telling a sign as any about the challenges still facing America’s Olympic leaders in the post-Larry Nassar landscape.

At their annual address to the USOPC Assembly on Thursday, CEO Sarah Hirshland and chairwoman Susanne Lyons spent ample time acknowledging the shortcomings of the USOPC that were exposed by the federation’s handling of a series of sex-abuse cases — how they got there and what they’re doing to fix it.

Among their most notable sound bites: “We don’t have to wait for anyone else to make rules for us. We can best do that for ourselves,” Lyons said, in what could be viewed as a thinly veiled brushback to Congress, which has proposed a bill that would reset the law that created the USOPC and, among other things, give lawmakers authority to fire Lyons and the rest of the board.

And Hirshland addressed the crux of the movement’s troubles over the span of this sex-abuse scandal: “If our community is going to address the abuse crisis in this country, then we must start by believing those who tell us when it occurs,” she said, drawing loud applause.

In years past, the applause lines at these events were about gold medals and world records, with the spirit especially amped up at a time like this — only 10 months away from the next Olympics.

But this presentation, in front of about 300 people in a jam-packed conference room, had a different feel.

A Q&A session with board members that traditionally has been greeted by near-silence in years past instead produced 70 minutes’ worth of pointed questioning on a wide range of topics — from honoring the 1980 U.S. Olympic team to the role of Paralympics in the movement to the USOPC’s strategy to put athlete welfare, not athlete performance, at the center of its mission.

“I think we’re woke, if you will,” Lyons said in response to a question about who at the USOPC has been replaced since the Nassar scandal triggered reforms at the federation and the 50 national governing bodies that run Olympic sports in the U.S. “You peel back the onion and find places where things were a little uglier than they appeared on the surface.”

The federation recently proposed a number of changes to its bylaws that would add more athletes to the board and give the athletes more say in how they choose their leaders. Hirshland said the changes are only one step, then previewed a five-year strategic plan to be rolled out by the end of the year.

“You’ll see us invest and make substantive change in the coming years … focused around how we create a better experience for our athletes, on and off the field of play,” she said.

Also on display was some tension between the USOPC leadership and that of the Athletes Advisory Council, which wants more say, more money and more people, and was also taken by surprise last month when the bylaw proposals were announced.

“Contrary to what you might have heard, the AAC doesn’t want to burn the whole house down,” AAC chairman Han Xiao said during his own presentation.

But there was a spirited debate about the amount of time volunteers such as Han can spend on the intricacies of the Olympic movement, and how, given those time restraints, they can identify athlete-related issues before they become big problems.

There’s a proposal to create a new entity that would give the AAC access to professional staff to manage some of the issues.

But in a sign of how complex that is, board member Robbie Bach urged proponents of that plan to read through the proposed bylaw changes, which also would provide staffing help to the AAC.

“Read the details. The details matter a lot,” he said. “It’s not clear the two sets of proposals work together. The devil is in the details.”

That challenge was met with some nervous laughter, then a quick attempt to smooth it over — a faintly uncomfortable moment at an event that has more often than not, in years past, been filled more with platitudes and back-slapping.

Hirshland ended her speech in the same fashion as last year, choking back tears as she got to the reason everyone was there in the first place. It is, she said, to give U.S. athletes an experience to cherish, “not only in the moments of achievement, but for the positive impact this experience has on the rest of their lives.”

“That won’t be easy, or perfect,” Hirshland said. “But when, not if, we are successful, we will enable our athletes to reach their dreams, their greatest potential. And in turn, they will inspire the best in all of us, and our country.”

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