US Olympic leaders choose former LA28 CEO as chair

Olympics Tokyo
People wearing a face mask walk by the Olympic rings outside Japan Olympic Museum near National Stadium, where opening ceremony and many other events are planned for postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

By Eddie Pells, AP National Writer

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee chose Gene Sykes as its next chairman Friday, elevating the former CEO of the Los Angeles 2028 organizing committee to a role that will shape policy throughout America's Olympic movement for the next four years and beyond.

Details of the board vote were not immediately released. Sykes was vying for the seat against Dexter Paine, a current board member with deep ties to the ski community and the more than 50 national governing bodies that run the individual sports across America.

But the board chose Sykes, who built relationships in the international community during a process that started with LA trying for the 2024 Games, then landing the Olympics for 2028 in a complicated deal with the IOC that reshaped the bid process. Some will view the choice as a way to further intertwine an already symbiotic relationship between the USOPC and the LA bid.

Sykes, a longtime executive at Goldman Sachs who has a seat on the LA28 board, will take over for Susanne Lyons when her term expires at the end of the year.

“I am inspired by the opportunity in front of me, and am grateful to Susanne for leaving the organization so well positioned to achieve holistic success — on and off the field of play," Sykes said in a statement released by the USOPC.

The decision by the 17-person board is expected to be met with trepidation from leaders of the national governing bodies (NGBs), who have recently grown critical of USOPC leadership, mainly because of what they say have been flat revenues and lapses in communication.

Two key groups, athletes and NGBs, overwhelmingly preferred Paine in a handful of informal polls taken last month about who the next chair should be.

Ultimately, the decision came down to current members of the board, and they picked Sykes, who has been highly regarded in Olympic circles thanks to his work with the LA committee. He left that job in 2018 but kept ties in the Olympic world, which he touted in a handful of meetings with different groups at the USOPC assembly last month.

He'll have to overcome some internal political challenges. The management team led by CEO Sarah Hirshland must shuffle the priorities of athlete safety, athlete performance, fundraising, a potential bid for the Winter Games in Salt Lake City and the direction of the LA organizing committee, which now runs sponsorship and revenue initiatives.

The conflicts inherent in all those competing agendas — for instance, the Larry Nassar sex-abuse scandal, which led the USOPC to place increased responsibilities on NGBs despite essentially flat budgets — came to the fore last month at the federation’s annual assembly.

A recurring theme from NGB leaders was that they were being asked to do more with less, and that the USOPC leadership was not squaring with them about how the money is divvied up.

“We didn’t give them extra money to hire a lot of staff,” Lyons told The Associated Press in an interview last month. “So they’re trying to make do with the same money, but they have more things to do. So, you have to grow the pie.”

The marketing for the USOPC is now in the hands of the LA 2028 committee, which makes the former leader of the overall enterprise a seemingly natural fit.

“The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee is an integral partner for the LA28 Games, and I look forward to collaborating with Gene over the coming years to celebrate and strengthen the Olympic and Paralympic movement in the U.S.,” LA28 chair Casey Wasserman said in a statement.

Sykes’ election might draw some loose connections to Peter Ueberroth’s term as chair. But Ueberroth became chair two decades after he shaped the successful LA 1984 Olympics — the games that restored a faltering Olympic movement across the globe.

Nearly four decades later, the Olympics are under pressure again — a reality best illustrated by dismal TV ratings for both last year’s Summer Games in Tokyo and this year’s Winter Games in Beijing.

Everyone at the USOPC is well aware that a shrinking fan base will ultimately spell huge trouble both for the U.S. team and the movement overall. It’s the key issue Sykes will be tasked with when he officially takes the job on Jan. 1.