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Tough sledding?

The Baltimore Sun

Ted Offit has never piloted a bobsled on a bone-rattling run or felt the terror of leading with his face just inches from the ice on a skeleton sled.

But as a lawyer and accountant who has brokered deals for countless companies, Offit is helping guide the once-golden U.S. Olympic bobsled and skeleton team back on track in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

"I'm the one with no background in the sport," the Marylander said, joking, when asked about his qualifications to serve on the eight-member board of directors of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. "I'm just a business lawyer who specializes in mergers and acquisitions."

A sharp business eye is exactly what the U.S. Olympic Committee was looking for when, in 2006, it took control of an organization that had gone from worldbeater to major league embarrassment in four years.

Already, things are looking up. Athletes are back winning medals at World Cup events. Though the American two-man team of Steven Holcomb and Curt Tomasevicz finished 10th at the bobsled world championships over the weekend in Altenberg, Germany, driver Holcomb is among the athletes improving faster than expected. Meanwhile, veterans such as skeleton sliders Zach Lund and Eric Bernotas are re-establishing themselves after the dismal Turin Olympics.

"I'm delighted," said Jay Warwick, director of Sports Partnership at the USOC and a member of its Management and Governance Committee. "The athletes came together and held the program together. Now, we have a new board [that] is making decisions based on best business outcomes rather than what's best for a few individuals."

In two sports built on going downhill fast, the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation might have established a record for reaching bottom - and not one to brag about.

After a stirring performance at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City that garnered six medals, the program disintegrated. With the Turin Olympics on the horizon, the head skeleton coach was fired amid allegations of sexual harassment and the top male athlete was suspended one year for a failed drug test. The federation had four executive directors in six months, and sponsors stayed away.

When the U.S. team won just a silver in women's bobsled in Turin, the USOC cut off the federation's funding and then took control.

Warwick, who was part of the interim management team, said it looked for people who could provide stability, attract new sponsors and raise money.

"We were very impressed with Ted in his interview. When we gave him scenarios to evaluate, his responses were spot on," Warwick said.

Offit, 51, is a co-founder of the law firm Offit Kurman, which has more than 65 staff members with offices stretching from the Washington suburbs to Philadelphia. A graduate of Pikesville High, he earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland in 1977 and received his law degree from the University of Baltimore in 1981. He and his family live in Glyndon.

Despite not knowing the difference between the headfirst skeleton and feet-first luge, Offit said he applied for the federation board at the urging of a friend who had a son in skeleton.

"It took me about two seconds to agree. I put together a resume and sent it in," said Offit, an avid skier with an admitted case of Olympic "five-ring fever."

The new board, consisting of businessmen and present and former athletes, chose Darrin Steele, a former bobsledder, as executive director.

The athletes have noticed a difference.

"As an athlete, you don't have to worry about funding," said Lund, last year's World Cup champion. "The board has a great business sense, and they have great connections and they know what they're doing. That's the biggest thing we've gained. Our board in the past had been the weakest of the federations, and it affected everything else below it. And I think now that we have a great board, it's just going to rub off on everyone else."

Steele said he wants to continue to support the elite athletes while looking for the new generation. Two years out from the next Olympics, he predicted great things.

"When we did well in 2002, a lot of countries thought it was because we had a home-track advantage. Then in Italy, we didn't do well, which reinforced that perception," he said. "I think we're now in a position where we're ready to show the world that 2002 was not a fluke."

Offit smiles when he thinks ahead to the Winter Games in Vancouver.

"Everyone is focused on 2010. I think the USOC has a vested interest in this board. We're hand-picked, and I know they're keeping a close eye on us," he said. "But I really do believe we will turn this thing around and there will be a lot of medals."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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