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Saturday, April 15, 2000
Fewer fears by Olympic sports after Blake assures help


 BOSTON (AP) -- Sheri Pittman, president of USA Table Tennis, was flying to the U.S. Olympic Committee board meeting when she saw a newspaper article that listed her sport among those that could face steep budget cuts under USOC boss Norm Blake's new funding plan.

 That plan, which ties money to medal performance, suggested that sports like table tennis that never produce Olympic medals for Americans would be hard hit, while funding would be shifted to more successful sports like swimming.

 Yet by the time Blake won approval for his vision from the executive committee Saturday, and after he massaged the national governing bodies of the sports with reassurances that he would "not cut them off at the knees," Pittman and her colleagues were far less worried.

 "There was a little bit of hysteria coming into this weekend," Pittman said. "I was coming here thinking I'm going to have come up with some brilliant thoughts. But it was very comforting. His new vision is to have greater accountability. We're looking to the USOC for guidance of how we can get to where we need to go. And he's given us reassurances that they'll give us that guidance.

 "I feel really confident that things will go much better under his plan and that we'll get more support. We're not going to lose money. He made an oral commitment about a minimum level of funding, and there will be other opportunities and other resources that they'll be helping us with."

 Though table tennis hasn't produced any Olympic medals for the United States, it might have the kind of potential Blake is seeking. At the last Pan Am Games, U.S. table tennis players swept the golds in men's and women's singles and doubles. Equally important, the sport has been installing its own performance plan and developing coaches, two other criteria that Blake has emphasized.

 "The sports that should be most frightened are ones that don't have their plan together," Pittman said. "The ones who will get hurt are the people who are getting funding in excess of the minimum he is shooting for giving us.

 "I don't want to sugarcoat it and say every person from an NGB is a happy camper today. But from what I heard and saw, and the direction I think we're moving in, I'm confident."

 Michael Massik, executive director of U.S. Fencing, acknowledged that friction could develop among the sports over the reallocation of money, despite Blake's emphasis on sharing funds to help one another as part of a family.

 "Everyone fears change," Massik said. "The unknown is scary. Until the plan is revealed, everyone is going to be afraid."

 The impact of the plan on individual sports will become clearer over the coming months as they assess their programs and meet with USOC officials to determine the level of support they might expect.

 "There's been an us vs. them mentality," said Sandy Knapp, president of USA Gymnastics. "Some NGBs felt they had to dig in and protect their turf. Now it's like a business. What a concept!

 "We've been talking about this issue for 20 to 25 years. When I heard Norm speak, all I could think was, 'Now we're going to do something.' Finally, we've got a guy who wants to lead us."

 Jim Scherr, executive director of USA Wrestling, said his initial reaction to Blake's plan was one of amazement at its breadth and scope just two months after Blake was hired as chief executive officer.

 "I thought it was remarkable, the broad, sweeping principles he had captured over a short period of time," Scherr said. "It was incredibly bold in the proposed changes. Most of the items have been discussed numerous times, and to see them all formulated, put into a proposed action plan in that short a period of time is really incredible."

 He said that working with the USOC in the way that Blake wants would allow wrestling to boost its marketing programs and improve its management system. But Scherr didn't think that his sport would have to cut its support of Greco-Roman wrestling in favor of the much more popular and successful freestyle wrestling.

 "We'll continue to support each discipline, both women's wrestling, men's freestyle and men's Greco equally," Scherr said.

 More likely to change, he said, was the funding in favor of certain wrestlers with better prospects.

 Wrestling is less reliant on USOC support than most other sports, receiving only about 10 percent of its budget from the committee. Other national governing bodies receive up to 80 percent of their budget from the USOC.

 "We've made a pretty concerted effort to work in a fiscally responsible manner, with the emphasis on the elite athlete," said Scherr, who has seen the wrestling federation rebound from more than $1 million in debt a decade ago to a net worth of more than $4 million today.

 "In past 10 years we've made some radical strides," Scherr said. "Things that Norm is talking about, making sure you have an infrastructure that develops coaches, giving athletes incentives for medal performance, providing athletes direct living and training expenses, providing the right competition and training opportunities, we're doing all those things at USA wrestling."

 Yet, despite the hope all the sports have that Blake's plan will ultimately benefit them and the U.S. Olympic effort, there are worries that Blake may try to micromanage too much and that the USOC will meddle too much in their affairs.

 "I think that's a concern that the NGBs share," Scherr said. "There's a balance of power that weighs heavily on the USOC side. On the other hand, the USOC for a long time has been funding and supporting the NGBs with really no accountability on the NGB side. Everyone knows the easiest way to affect account ability is to control the purse strings."
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