On thin ice [Chicago Tribune]
(Chicago Tribune (IL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 24--Before they began practice one recent morning in Salt Lake City, Olympic bronze medalist Lana Gehring of Glenview and four other elite speedskaters had to assemble protective pads around the walls of a municipal rink. Working in tandem, the skaters shuttled some 50 pieces of equipment -- each resembling an oversized mattress and weighing about 90 pounds -- from a storage area onto the ice. Then they slid the pads across the ice and against the walls, like puzzle pieces snapping into place.
It was a laborious exercise. But no one else was going to do it.
Until December, these skaters were part of US Speedskating's National Racing Program. That group trains across town at the Utah Olympic Oval, where all the equipment is ready -- the pads installed permanently. The facility is dedicated to them during training time, and athletes practice on what is considered the best ice in the world.
But the members of Gehring's group became the third faction in an already splintered short-track team when they chose to follow their coach after he was suspended in a skate-tampering scandal. The national program was already down to five athletes after the departure of more than a dozen elite skaters protesting the federation, which governs the sport's two disciplines, short-track and long-track skating.
Such a fractured -- and fractious -- situation is the disconcerting place in which the most successful U.S. Winter Olympic sport finds itself less than a year from the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
While some of the division is due to skaters fighting among themselves and with the federation, it also is indicative of more general financial and organizational problems that have long plagued the governing body and have spun the sport into chaos, according to a Tribune examination of records and interviews with more than three dozen people. The speedskating federation walks such a financial tightrope that only a rescue effort by comedian Stephen Colbert bailed it out before the 2010 Games.
"When the wheels come off, I imagine they will come off hard," said 2006 Olympic champion Joey Cheek, a former federation board member.
Each Olympic sport has its own national governing body, with a staff and volunteer board of directors. The Tribune found the U.S. speedskating federation regularly loses money -- more often than other governing bodies -- and fails to raise significant sponsorship revenue to cover its $4.3 million budget. Part of an ongoing deficit, which last year had reached $752,414 according to its most recent tax filing, stems from counting on $350,000 in sponsorships that never materialized.
US Speedskating's consistent medal production, enhanced by the records of icons Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair and Apolo Ohno, has deflected attention from the festering issues that threaten future success.
Athletes are paying the price. The federation struggles to provide adequate support to skaters, such as consistent presence of medical trainers, and it has dramatically reduced skaters' stipends.
Performance is also down. After five short-track World Cup races last season, the women had won 13 individual and three relay medals. At the same point this season, zero medals.
An influx of cash would go only so far for an organization marked by inconsistent leadership and a board of directors that has been accused of impeding progress by meddling with daily operations. Mark Greenwald, hired in 2010 as US Speedskating's fourth executive director in five years, has been criticized for not living full time in the United States, failing to raise enough money and dismissing skaters' concerns as unjustified.
"Mark has made many mistakes, but he has been stonewalled by so many people on the board being selfish and wanting power," said Nancy Swider-Peltz, a four-time member of Olympic skating teams who is from Wheaton and coaches in Milwaukee. "He has had to deal with too many sideshows."
Greenwald, a two-time Olympian from Park Ridge, said changes he tried to implement may have caused friction because they were unpopular with some who have long had power in the sport. He said finances are improving.
"We've shown resilience under fire," Greenwald said.
But, sources say, the USOC is concerned and looking at all options.
U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun has so far rejected using what he called "the nuclear option" of decertifying the federation to force reorganization. The other option, withholding funding, hurts the athletes, Blackmun said.
"If you blow it up, you start over with no membership rules, no income, and it is a pretty steep hill for them to climb," Blackmun said.
In August, 19 skaters filed a grievance against the governing body with a laundry list of allegations, including assertions that it violates the federal law that governs Olympic sports in the U.S. by operating in secret and discriminating on the basis of gender. US Speedskating denies the allegations, and most issues remain unresolved.
"We've dealt with so much stress and so many complaints and so much everything that it's taken a toll on everyone's training this summer when we should be focusing on what we need to do ... leading up to the Olympics," said Jessica Smith, a 29-year-old skater from Michigan who won two World Cup medals last season. She was not among those who filed the grievance. "Nobody has been able to just focus on just skating."
Many Olympic sports struggle to secure long-term funding. They rely primarily on the USOC but also turn to sponsors or members.
Nearly two-thirds of US Speedskating's annual revenue comes from the USOC. Only $115,094 is from fees from its more than 2,000 members, according to its last tax return.
Meanwhile, USA Hockey's 600,000 members accounted for more than half of its $35.5 million budget. USA Bobsled and Skeleton has half the budget of speedskating but stays in the black.
"When you are struggling for money, athletes themselves can't be supported and then have to find extra jobs," said Heiden, winner of five gold medals in 1980 and now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. "They can't focus like they should on their training."
There also are issues in the U.S. long-track program, some related to lack of money, others to a failed attempt to create a program based exclusively in Salt Lake City.
Most importantly, the long-track talent pool could be drying up. The U.S. won just four long-track medals at the 2010 Olympics after taking seven in 2006 and eight in 2002. The women have not won a medal in the last two Olympics.
Some of the current short-track problems started in 2006 when the skaters' training program moved from Colorado Springs, Colo., to the Oval in Utah, a decision encouraged by the USOC, which wanted to cut costs and centralize the long- and short-track programs.
Suddenly, athletes once housed in the Olympic dormitories while devoting their days to training had to find their own means of covering rent and other living expenses. Accepting an invitation to the national racing program meant free ice time, coaching and medical assistance, but it did not guarantee direct athlete support.
Some receive commercial endorsements, but generally skaters hope for stipends, which are based on performance in competitions from the previous year. For the current season, the USOC approved five levels of monthly stipends proposed by the federation, ranging from $2,100 for the top elite athletes to $750 for skaters who did not place in the top 10 at the world championships.
Until 2010, the federation provided additional funding based on performance in domestic competitions. Allison Baver, a three-time Olympian and bronze medalist who is part of the grievance, said she stopped receiving $800 monthly stipends in 2010.
Keith Carroll, in his second year as a short-track skater, said he has a 30-hour-a-week job at Target to pay his rent. Occasionally, the job has forced him to miss practices.
By 2011, problems at the federation had led to fewer trainers at a time when the short-track national program had nearly doubled its number of skaters.
In the middle of the 2011 season, a sponsor stopped providing a trainer. Greenwald, who failed to land another sponsorship, responded by providing temporary and intern trainers who gave bad diagnoses, including missing stress fractures and back issues, according to a report by a law firm used by the federation to investigate some of the allegations raised in the grievance.
"With tight budgets, it's not like we have a ton of extra funds to just go out and make a commitment to another trainer," Greenwald said. "We tried to support where we could. It's possible that it wasn't enough."
The report and Tribune interviews show skaters were concerned that trainers were not familiar with the sport or the athletes' injuries.
The report stated, "Everyone agrees that trainer support, which is critical to recovery, was insufficient."
By the end of the summer, the federation hired a full-time trainer.
When the season finished, many of the short-track skaters met to discuss how to address mounting frustrations with the federation, coaches and funding. US Speedskating, meanwhile, surveyed the skaters' opinions about the program and found "most skaters were frustrated with funding, disappointed with the administration and programs of USS, and felt that USS did not give them an opportunity to express their opinions," according to the law firm's report.
Skaters, including their representatives on the board, reached out to the federation, including writing letters. They eventually met with the board and with federation staff, but talks stalled. Finally, they contacted the USOC, which sent officials to Salt Lake City as part of a mediation effort.
There was no resolution. More than a dozen skaters refused to join the federation's training program and filed the grievance. Among the most explosive charges was that national team head coach Jae Su Chun mentally and physically abused his skaters and at one point ordered world champion Simon Cho to bend the blade of a competitor's skate. The law firm found Chun and his assistant had failed to report the skate tampering but cleared them of the abuse allegations.
Since then, many of the rebelling skaters have trained with a private program, while six skaters loyal to Chun have been training privately with him, whom they credit for their success.
Just five skaters stayed in the short-track national program until earlier this month, when some skaters involved in the grievance started training informally. Among the skaters joining the grievance is J.R. Celski, a 2010 Olympic double bronze medalist. He did not respond to requests for comment.
"It wouldn't appear to be the most effective system to have your athletes and coaches split into three camps and be dividing your resources," said Jim Scherr, the former USOC chief executive. "Nonprofits work best with a strong vision and a sense of cooperation with everyone involved. I just don't think you have had that here."
Speedskating has long operated feudally, with power passed down through family members and friendship among groups of people from the Midwest.
US Speedskating formed in the late 1990s with the USOC-encouraged merger of two rival governing agencies, but little changed to stop the insider culture and involvement in day-to-day operations by its passionate legion of volunteers.
In 2004 the federation -- at the time run out of the CEO's suburban Cleveland home -- split with Mike Cofrin, its marketing consultant since 1994, because board members, including athletes, thought those tasks could be done more efficiently in-house. Multiple interviews show they thought the 20 percent commission paid to Cofrin was too generous and questioned how much money he actually raised.
When he left, Cofrin had secured more than $2 million in revenue, two board members said. Federation members also recalled his talent for pleasing corporate partners beyond the bottom line -- for example, arranging appearances of skaters or selling tables at events.
Cofrin and the federation agreed to part ways. "From a cultural perspective, they wanted a shift," he said. But his contract did not have an expiration date, and they agreed to a buyout worth $315,000, according to tax returns.
After Cofrin left, the federation signed Qwest, the telecommunications company, as a multiyear partner with the help of Neil Cox, then an independent board member and president of Ameritech.
But leading up to the 2006 Games, four long-track skaters -- all Olympic medalists -- clashed with board President Andy Gabel over whether they could wear personal sponsor logos instead of the Qwest logo during competition. The skaters opted to keep their personal logos, even though it cost them federation funding.
Qwest was upset and cut short its sponsorship after the Olympics.
"Normally, after the Olympic years you have a six-figure surplus, and now we had a six-figure deficit," said Carl Cepuran, a coach at a Glen Ellyn skating club and a federation employee at the time.
To cover the buyout and other expenses, the federation received a cash advance of more than $793,000 from its related foundation, established with US Speedskating's share of the operating surplus from the 1984 Los Angeles Games. As of last June, $353,799 remained unrepaid.
Potential sponsors probably are still cautious because of the Qwest controversy, said Cox.
"Companies talk," said Cox. "Once you take money from the sponsors and stab them in the back, they aren't going to give you more."
A board with power
The USOC prefers that the paid staff of governing bodies -- not their volunteer boards -- lead day-to-day operations, a notion reiterated in 2005 guidelines it issued. But that's not how it works in speedskating, despite its own bylaws stating the board "does not manage" the federation.
Records and interviews show that board members have had a hand in choosing coaches, writing contracts for them, deciding competition details and setting stipend amounts for skaters.
"The board should have nothing to do with who US Speedskating sends as a staff to a championship -- absolutely no say in that," said Olympic Gold medalist Derek Parra, a former federation staffer who now works at the Oval.
Additionally, board members, volunteers and others stay involved by sitting on the board's meandering world of 13 committees. The USOC mandates three.
The committees sometimes have overlapping responsibilities and dictate some decisions that should be relegated to staff -- for example, deciding which skaters compete and when coaches should be deployed for races.
"The issue with speedskating is there seems to be more confusion than we normally see in what is the appropriate delineation of responsibilities between board and staff," Blackmun said.
USOC guidelines also suggest governing body boards include at-large members not tied to the sport. US Speedskating, whose board currently numbers 13, has had only three such members since 2005 and none since 2010 -- an anomaly among governing bodies.
Andy Blank, a business owner with no skating ties, joined the board as an at-large member in 2009, enthusiastic about working to raise money for speedskating. But he grew frustrated by the board's infighting and in the summer of 2010, he included the USOC on several emails explaining his displeasure, according to copies obtained by the Tribune.
"It's just a bunch of ex-speedskaters or people who have been involved at the ground floor for years," Blank, who quit after two years, told the Tribune. "They wanted to maintain power."
On July 12, 2010, after the firing of its executive director led to four months with an interim director, the board named Greenwald its new CEO. He came from Calgary, Alberta, where he moved after competing in the 1992 Olympics and eventually became manager of Canada's Olympic Oval. US Speedskating board members knew he would spend some of his time at home in Calgary, but they were optimistic he could turn things around.
New director, little success
There is no doubt Greenwald inherited huge problems. When he arrived, the federation had lost money the previous three years. There were two sponsors, according to the federation; the most significant, BMW, sponsors two winter sports, speedskating and bobsled, as part of a partnership with the USOC. The month after Greenwald started, the federation came within two weeks of missing payroll -- a scenario that repeated itself a year later, according to board meeting minutes and emails.
Under Greenwald, the federation continues to struggle financially. Records show the federation has needed at least two bridge loans totaling $275,000 from its foundation to pay its bills. Greenwald also said part of its ongoing deficit is because he budgeted for $350,000 in sponsorship revenue that failed to materialize. And at a Jan. 7 board meeting, fundraising at the governing body was reported to be "absolutely stationary," according to the minutes.
Federation spokeswoman Tamara Castellano said that since Greenwald was hired, there are nine new sponsors. But the deals do not yield enough money to make up the deficits.
Rob Prazmark, the founder of 21 Marketing who helped develop the IOC's global sponsorship program, said companies invest too much to risk involvement with a sport caught in chaos like speedskating.
"If there is any hint of controversy or impropriety, anything that can hurt the brand, they do a deep dive on why they bought it and whether it is worth staying the course," he said.
Some allege Greenwald has problems beyond finances.
Multiple interviews with former employees, skaters and others said Greenwald is rarely seen in the federation's offices at the Utah Olympic Oval. Also frequently absent is his deputy, Bryce Holbech, whom Greenwald hired in early 2011 as an $85,000-a-year consultant, according to records. A Canadian citizen, Holbech is working in the United States under a visa, Greenwald said. "We want to see more presence in the office, whether Bryce or Mark," board President Tom Frank said.
Records and interviews show that staff and skaters regularly have tried to alert Greenwald about their concerns, only to be rebuffed or dismissed.
Holbech did not respond for comment. Greenwald said he makes himself available to staff or skaters and that how much time is spent in the office is a "nonissue." He said he is out fundraising and developing projects. The federation said it would provide current budget figures showing progress but has not done so.
Greenwald cited a new marketing campaign, asking alumni to promote the sport, and trying to increase member donations. Additionally, records show the federation created a charity in June -- it is different from the one loaning money -- modeled after how the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association successfully generates donations.
"With change comes difficulty," said board member Dave Cruikshank, an Olympic teammate of Greenwald's who supports him.
Vice President Katie Traver, who joined the board a few months before Greenwald's arrival, said he brings new ideas and steadiness, important factors to decrease managerial turnover.
"Sometimes we're our own worst enemies," Traver said.
More than a dozen skaters said that one solution to their own financial problems would be for the federation to provide assistance that meet cost-of-living expenses. Greenwald and board members told the Tribune that there simply isn't the money.
To replace Chun, Greenwald hired Canadian Guy Thibault, a former U.S. coach who had been twice fired by the federation but knows some of the skaters. Still, that the federation has become the enemy of many skaters is likely to have an effect on performance in the 2014 Olympics.
"The team is really not a team," said Dr. Keith Henschen, previously the team's psychologist and now working with US Skiing. "It's a couple of different teams competing with each other to compete for the United States, which kind of seems like a disaster to me."
This season, the women's short-track team has had just two finalists in 25 World Cup events. The men have fared better, thanks to a single skater, Celski, who has collected 10 of the team's 14 individual medals the last two seasons.
In men's relays -- where training together harmoniously is crucial to success -- performances have been in steady decline: a bronze medal in the second of five World Cups, followed by a disqualification and two failures to make the final.
If the friction and instability continue until next fall, when results at two World Cups will determine each country's number of Olympic spots, the U.S. could have a diminished short-track presence in Sochi. But for some who filed the grievance, it's a sacrifice worth making to force changes in the organization.
"If we stayed quiet, we'd probably perform better in 2014," said 2010 Olympic bronze medalist Jordan Malone. "There's so much damage done on the team. Our friends turned into enemies. It really is a very short-term loss, potentially long-term gain kind of thing."
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