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January 27, 2010 at 4:09 PM

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Few tears shed here over USOC's "ambush marketing " woes

Posted by Ron Judd

The U.S. Olympic Committee put out a news release today saying how "disappointed" it is that some bad, bad American opportunists are engaging in "ambush marketing" to profit from Olympic fever heading into the 2010 Games.

The group isn't likely to garner much sympathy in Washington state, where the USOC itself has been engaging in ambush harassment of legitimate small businesses for years.

The USOC, by virtue of the Stevens Amateur Sports Act, has exclusive copyright to the commercial use of the Olympic rings, the names and dates of each Olympics, and so on. It attempts to enforce that copyright not only aggressively, but downright recklessly.

The list of businesses subjected to the USOC's legal-department bullying is long. But who among us can forget how crucial it was for the USOC to protect America's athletes by harassing a part-time park ranger who was publishing a "Best of the Olympic Peninsula" recreation map of the Olympic Mountains (which, we're fairly sure, existed long before the Stevens Act, or even Ted Stevens, although there is some question about the latter). Or the USOC's legal barrage against Olympic Cellars Winery -- clearly a threat to the international Olympic movement's very foundation.

We could go on. You get the idea. What's amazing is that all these legal spitballs have been flung in spite of the fact that the Stevens Act contains a specific exemption from the "Olympic" copyright rule for legitimate, non-Olympic-Games related businesses operating west of the Cascades in Washington state. That's not good enough for the USOC, which has insisted the exemption only works for businesses that never market or sell a single product outside that region.

It's complete nonsense. And it's the sort of activity that makes the public loathe to even support the ongoing existence of this self-important enterprise, let alone donate cash to support the madness.

The point: If the USOC honestly expects the public to support it in policing its copyrights -- and a favorable public response to its constant hand reaching out for public donations -- it needs to get its own house in order first. That includes becoming responsible to the public in a couple of key ways:

-- Slashing the organization's fat bureaucracy that pays far too many top officers a half million or more across the board to run a not-for-profit agency in Colorado Springs. In 2008, the USOC boosted pay of top executives to more than $600,000 -- and in an almost criminal giveaway, paid its since-departed spokesperson in excess of $360,000, while laying off about four-dozen employees. Questioned about it, acting CEO Stephanie Streeter called the salaries "justified." Sort of makes you want to run out and write a check for a "charitable contribution" to Team USA, doesn't it?

-- Becoming truly accountable to the public, for the first time, by conducting its business in meetings open both to the public, and, more important, to those athletes whose support it claims to have foremost in mind at all times.

There's no valid reason the USOC shouldn't be as publicly accountable, in terms of open records, meetings and other business, as government agencies that receive taxpayer money. It is, after all, partially publicly funded in the sense that it constantly has its hand out to the public. If it wants to operate with the secrecy of a private corporation, it should withdraw that hand once and for all. The agency has tried to have it both ways for too long.

Coincidentally, the USOC's latest barrage against ambush marketing comes a day after the new CEO, Scott Blackmun, takes the reins in the Springs. A lot of preemptive praise has been heaped upon Blackmun, who, it is hoped, will right the once-again-foundering organization that can't seem to keep a leader for more than a couple years.

We'll save our huzzahs until Blackmun, whose resume and experience seem both solid and appropriate, actually accomplishes something. At this point, he's just the latest big-promiser and smooth talker.

The organization already has a stable of those. Like Lisa Baird, the head of marketing, who, when questioned recently by The Times about what seemed like outrageous fees being heaped upon Olympic fans by ticket contractor CoSport/Jet Set, reacted witih complete indifference, saying everything CoSport did to the Olympic consumer had the full endorsement of the USOC and the international Olympic movement.

And if fans didn't like that? Tough. They are welcome to file a complaint -- with CoSport itself. The USOC, she said, "has no mechanism" to even accept complaints about the contractor it hires to relate most directly to the most-fervent Olympic fans. It's like a landlord telling a flooded-out tenant to take their gripes to the water department. And it's shameful.

Blackmun, upon his hiring, made it a point to emphasize the USOC's need to become more publicly accountable. Time for him to walk the talk.

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Blog roll and links The official International Olympic Committtee site, with news releases, a searchable Olympic medals database and other archival information. Olympic news site from one of the Games' primary sponsors.
NBC Olympics columnist Alan Abrahamson's column/blog
Chicago Tribune Olympic sports writer Philip Hersh's blog U.S. Olympic Committee's athlete web site. Ed and Sheila Hula's Olympic News Service (subscription). News service with audio, video and text coverage of Olympic sports, during and between Olympics. Free, but charges for live video feed subscriptions. Beijing Organizing Committee Web site. Vancouver Organizing Committee's 2010 Winter Games site. London 2012 Summer Games site. Sochi, Russia's 2014 Winter Games site. Candidate city Chicago's summer 2016 bid committee site.
Olympic swimmer Tara Kirk's highly entertaining WCSN blog
Bellevue Olympian Scott Macartney's WCSN alpine ski-racing blog
Other WCSN Olympic athlete blogs.