Probst and Olympics: Another offer he can't refuse

Chicago Tribune

In “The Doctor In Spite of Himself,” a famous comedy by the 17th Century French playwright Moliere, the plot revolves around a woodcutter being passed off as a physician by his wife as revenge for her husband’s indolent lifestyle.  Terrified by the prospect at first, the “doctor” needs to be beaten before accepting his new profession.

Funny how that was the first thing that came to mind Tuesday after learning U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Larry Probst had been nominated to become a member of the International Olympic Committee.

Probst, who built Electronic Arts into a video games giant, had been leaning toward a more leisurely lifestyle when he made the mistake of answering his mobile phone while playing golf in Mexico five years ago.

The call was from Peter Ueberroth, whose term as USOC chairman was to expire in the fall of 2008. Ueberroth, another wealthy Californian, relied on the idea of noblesse oblige to pitch Probst on becoming involved in Olympic affairs.

Then the man who transformed Olympic Games financing as head of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics all but hornswoggled Probst into becoming his successor as chairman.  Ueberroth insisted the job would require about 10 hours of work per week – work that Probst could do from home.

Knowing Ueberroth, you could say he (brow)beat Probst into taking the job.

During his first year in the volunteer position, Probst faced management upheaval in the USOC’s paid leadership, a humiliating defeat for Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid and a revolt by leaders of the national sports federations, who demanded he resign.

Probst certainly might have thought about walking away on his own until the critics backed him into a corner.

"I'm not a person that backs away from a challenge," Probst said then.  "And I'm not a person that runs from a fight. I think I can do this organization a lot of good."

Even after the USOC board overwhelmingly backed him, the idea of his continuing beyond one four-year term as chairman still seemed unlikely.  But he has just started a second term.

Now, at 63, he is about to become an Olympic “lifer,” as his IOC member nomination is tantamount to approval in the September vote.  And there are rumbles of the IOC raising the members’ retirement age from its current 70.

``I am truly honored to be nominated for membership in the IOC and extremely grateful for the potential opportunity to serve the Olympic Movement,” Probst said in a statement.

Probst’s status as an IOC member will depend on his remaining a top official of the USOC.  Since another U.S. member should be of significant benefit to the USOC, Probst would need to stay chairman for at least a third term to assure maximizing the length of his IOC membership.

That home office thing went out the window about three years ago.  Probst has worn out his passport traveling the world to rebuild the USOC’s disintegrated international relations.

Ten hours a week?  How about frequently 10 hours a day, as Probst became a key player in resolving the acrimonious debate over USOC share of both the IOC’s global sponsorship revenues and U.S. television revenues.  He also is running EA as executive chairman as the company searches for a new CEO.

Probst would become one of four U.S. members of the IOC.  One, Jim Easton, has battled ill health.  Another, Angela Ruggiero, has a fixed, 8-year term as an athlete member.  The last, Anita DeFrantz, has made unsuccessful bids for the IOC presidency and executive board.

The big challenge in front of Probst is to build international backing for the almost certain U.S. bid to be host of the 2024 Summer Games.  He will get a chance to work with an IOC president who may be less antipathetic toward the United States than Jacques Rogge, whose successor is to be elected in September.

Unlike Ueberroth, who alienated many IOC members with his sharp-tongued candor, Probst airs disagreements only in private.  Yet it was clear from the way he reacted to the attempt to unseat him as USOC chairman that he will not give in on important matters just to avoid a battle.

Olympic pooh-bah in spite of himself?

Not any more.

Funny the way things work out.



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