The U.S. Olympic Committee Thursday did its best to turn the page on the darkest hour in its history by naming an Olympic outsider as its new CEO. Sarah Hirshland is not an expert on sexual abuse. Nor is she particularly well connected to the political world in Washington that has recently put on display the horrors committed in our Olympic sports.
But what she is just might be good enough: a fresh start for a beleaguered organization desperately in need of some kind of change. Never heard of Hirshland? That’s exactly the point.
At 43, she navigated the often arcane world of golf for seven years, most recently as the U.S. Golf Association’s chief commercial officer. That experience in a sport that recently returned to the Olympic Games is not without value; the USOC could rightly be called a larger, more layered version of her previous employer.
That she is a woman — just the second full-time female CEO in the 68 years the USOC has been led by CEOs or executive directors — is also telling, for it ensures that the USOC will no longer put on news conferences at the Olympic Games led only by white men. This being 2018, that had to end, and it just did.
While not an Olympic athlete herself, Hirshland grew up as millions of American girls who were born in the 1970s (and beyond) have grown up, playing and loving sports their entire lives due to the opportunities that have come from Title IX. She has spent every moment of her working career in sports. And now she is leading the American sports organization best known for creating female sports stars who become role models for generations of U.S. girls and boys.
“It’s a powerful moment for the USOC and for me personally,” Hirshland said on a conference call Thursday. “While I don’t look at this as being a female CEO, I’m proud to be a woman. I’m more proud to be the CEO of the USOC. If I can do both of those things well, then that will be good for the entire community in which we operate.”
Here’s hoping she lasts longer than the only other woman to have the job. Stephanie Streeter was CEO for just seven months in 2009, a particularly turbulent time in USOC history. Streeter was the organization’s fifth CEO in a nine-year span.
Susanne Lyons, a member of the USOC board of directors, has been serving as acting CEO since March, after the resignation of long-time CEO Scott Blackmun, who is battling prostate cancer.
Hirshland arrives at the USOC’s doorstep the way most men have shown up at these kinds of jobs over the years: well-recommended by powerful leaders, with loads of experience in the sports business world. Before she joined the USGA, Hirshland served as a senior vice president in charge of strategic business development at Wasserman Media Group in Los Angeles. That’s Wasserman as in Casey Wasserman, the man who is running the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
The USOC and the L.A. 2028 organizing committee are about to enter into a commercial partnership leading up to the 2028 Games. The undeniable link between the two entities may well be best personified now by the long-time professional connection between Hirshland and Wasserman.
But Hirshland’s highest priority will be trying to make sure that the horrific sex abuse scandals such as those in gymnastics, swimming, taekwondo and figure skating never happen again. To that end, it was no surprise that she used the word “challenge” several times as she spoke.
“I think the most important thing in the world is to be a strong listener,” she said. “I am committed to the practice of being a very good listener and I know that that’s what it takes to be successful in guiding and managing a cultural transformation that we need to continue.”
Much-needed change will not happen overnight. Hirshland will have quite a learning curve, with months of work to be done to begin to repair the USOC’s relationship with the nation’s athletes.
But this much is certain: In years past, picking a CEO without any real connection to the Olympic movement might have been seen as disastrous for the USOC. Now, it’s definitely a plus.