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U.S. Speedskating poised to turn page on its troubles in big way

Published May 14, 2013 11:18 pm

After scandals and factions, interim president forges deals for televised trials, new structure.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The dark days might just be over for U.S. Speedskating.

Officials are expected to unveil in the coming days a new deal for unprecedented television coverage of their Olympic trials in Utah later this year, then approve sweeping organizational reforms at a board meeting this weekend that could help finally put an end to long-standing troubles within the federation.

"We've done a lot in a short period of time," interim president Mike Plant said.

The 53-year-old Plant is the executive vice president for Major League Baseball's Atlanta Braves (and former speedskater) who took over as interim president in March, amid a wave of embarrassing complaints and scandals that rocked U.S. Speedskating. The problems — including a skate-tampering scandal, allegations of abuse by a former short-track coach and sexual-abuse charges against Andy Gabel, a four-time Olympian and former federation president — splintered athletes into bitter factions and jeopardized the federation's medal hopes at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia.

In just two months, though, Plant has engineered what could wind up being one of the most impressive turnarounds in Olympic sport history.

Not only will speedskaters enjoy more than 13 hours of broadcast coverage on NBC and NBC Sports Network during 11 days of their Olympic trials in December and January — more than any other winter Olympic sport — but the federation will also overhaul its governance structure to afford athletes greater freedom and avoid meddling by its volunteer board, something widely viewed as one of the biggest problems in the past.

"No good corporate board can operate that way," Plant said.

The board will shrink from 14 to 10 members, and will include four independent members for the first time. Its new structure will ensure that board members do not overstep their bounds and attempt to influence day-to-day operations, Plant said.

U.S. Speedskating also will adopt a new and "much more balanced" athlete agreement that will, among other things, allow skaters greater latitude in finding their own personal sponsors, a long-standing issue for many skaters. The federation also will alter the way skaters earn financial support — many viewed the existing system as often unfair — with all of the changes having emerged from working groups within the federation that included athletes.

"We're going to transform the organization," Plant said.

Plant was recruited by the U.S. Olympic Committee to help steer U.S. Speedskating away from its troubles, and his connections within sports and broadcasting helped make the broadcast deal with NBC a reality. Never has a winter sport's Olympic trials been featured so extensively on a major network, and Plant believes the exposure will help grow speedskating as well as help fans become familiar with skaters in advance of Sochi.

"Just about every day of our competition schedule, athletes will be making the team," he said.

The trials for long-track speedskating are scheduled from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, with the short-track trials following from Jan. 2-5. All of the trials will be held at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, part of a vast schedule of elite-level winter Olympic sports on tap next season.

Meanwhile, U.S. Speedskating has tried to clean up the rest of its messes.

It says it's investigating the sex-abuse claims made by two former skaters against Gabel, who resigned from a high-ranking position with the International Skating Union in the wake of them in March. Officials also have been working on determining a punishment for short-track skater Simon Cho, who last year admitted to tampering with a rival's skate at the 2011 world championships and accused former national short-track coach Jae Su Chun of ordering him to do so.

An announcement is expected soon.

Cho, along with nearly a dozen fellow skaters, also accused Chun and one of his assistants of verbal, physical and mental abuse, though an investigation by an outside law firm did not find any "pattern" of abuse or proof that Chun ordered the tampering.

Still, Chun and assistant Jun Hyung Yeo resigned in October. Former U.S. long-track coach Guy Thibault was later named to replace Chun, and try to rebuild the fractured short-track team. —

U.S. Speedskating gets a boost

• NBC and NBC Sports Network will televise more than 13 hours of U.S. Olympic Trials for speedskating.

• U.S. Speedskating will overhaul governance structure to improve its use of resources and relations with athletes.

• Long-track trials will run Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, with short-track trials Jan. 2-5, all at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns.