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Six months in, USOC chief works to evaluate post-Nassar and still make change

The United States Olympic training center in Colorado Springs. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Six months into her job as chief executive of the United States Olympic Committee, Sarah Hirshland is engaged in a balancing act. The challenge, as she describes it, is learning as much as possible about the organization to feel confident in her decision-making, while responding to the urgency surrounding the USOC at a time of uncertainty and heightened congressional scrutiny over its failure to protect athletes from abuse.

This week, Hirshland made her second trip to Washington since starting work in August to meet with key senators and representatives — something she intends to do quarterly in the aftermath of the Larry Nassar sexual-abuse scandal.

A 1997 Duke graduate who was previously chief commercial officer for the U.S. Golf Association, Hirshland met Monday with a group of Washington Post editors and reporters to discuss her role and vision for leading the organization. Some of what she shared follows.

On USOC morale when she arrived: “As you might expect, the staff of the organization was largely paralyzed by fear. Afraid to take a step for fear that it would be doing the wrong thing. That has been an interesting challenge for me as a leader: To figure out how to properly leverage that for the right reason. . . . There is an incredible amount of really good work happening in our organization every day, and we don’t want to get in the way of that. And there are some new things that we need to do and new ways we need to be thinking.”

On taking over at such a tumultuous time: “I would describe my first six months as really deep evaluation. Fundamentally, this organization hired me to make change. So, I walked in the door with the motive and motivation to make change. I did not come into this organization to the status quo; that is neither interesting nor in my DNA, quite frankly. So, my job is to make change.”

On who is responsible for preventing another Larry Nassar scandal: “Everybody. Every one of us. That’s not to say no one is. We are all going to have to play an active role to protect athletes and, by the way, protect all of us from sexual predators. We have a responsibility.

As an organization, we have to put the right structures and, more importantly, right training in place, so that we figure out how to identify bad actors early, and have systems of reporting early that have absolutely no friction. And we have to be able to handle those situations adequately and appropriately to make sure that when there are problems, we’re dealing with them very swiftly but appropriately in respecting the due process that needs to happen.”

On whether the USOC’s largely private financing model is sustainable: “There is no question we don’t have the resources to do everything we’d like to do. I would love to be in a position to where every athlete who had the talent to compete in the Olympics or Paralympic level had the full resources to do that. We’re not there. I can’t tell you what revenue gap is, but it’s significant.

“Part of our job as an organization under the current [financial] structure, we were given tools but not a house. So we have to take the tools we were given — the intellectual property, the [trade-] marks — and we have to go generate the revenue for the organization. Our job is to continue to try to grow that pie. That means growing the value of the product – for sponsors, for broadcasters, for media outlets — and growing the private funding from donors. . . . That said, I don’t foresee a time when we say, ‘Boy, we’ve got enough money. We’re good!’”

On how to provide athletes more of a voice in the Olympic movement: “There is no question that the Athletes’ Advisory Council as a concept really has merit. And it’s really important for us as an organization to get relatively timely feedback from the athletes’ perspective. [It’s] hard for them to do today — a group of volunteers, not a lot of infrastructure in place to support that. . . . It probably needs some level of professional coordination or leadership that says someone wakes up every morning and goes to bed every night thinking about how to make sure we’re getting that [athlete] voice at the table.”

On the future bid process for hosting Olympic Games: “There is no question that the future of the bid process looks different than it has historically. It has to. When you go to Salt Lake City and see what has happened in that city and surrounding area since 2002, it’s incredible and it makes it very clear how easy it is [for a city] to be the right answer to host when you have the infrastructure in place, and that infrastructure is maintained for the good of sport on an ongoing basis. When it works, it’s brilliant. But there are only so many cities in the world that have that infrastructure in place or are putting that infrastructure in place for the betterment of their community, regardless of the Olympics. So I’d think the number of cities who are going to be in a position to bid in this ‘new norm’ is going to be a smaller subset.”

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