U.S. Senator John McCain Olympic Critic, Booster, 81

(ATR) The Senate maverick spoke out on Olympics, drove reforms for USOC. Ed Hula reports.

(ATR) John McCain is being hailed for a life of service as a U.S. Senator, presidential candidate and war hero. His contrariness made him known as a maverick, so much so that it became a trademark. And he applied his style to the Olympics when needed.

McCain died August 25 in Arizona, his home state.

He was critical of IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch in 1999 for not appearing at a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee which McCain chaired. McCain wanted answers from the IOC President to questions about the still-unfolding IOC vote-buying scandal involving the Salt Lake City Olympics.

That maverick approach helped get the attention of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2003 when it foundered in a leadership crisis.

"A Most Unhappy Hearing"

Triggered in part to revelations by then L.A. Times reporter Alan Abrahamson of possible ethics breaches by former CEO Lloyd Ward, McCain called the USOC leadership to a Commerce Committee hearing in January 2003.

After two hours of testimony that exposed dysfunction in the management of the USOC, McCain declared it "a most unhappy hearing".

A five-member task force McCain named to work on USOC reforms drafted changes that gave more oversight power to the board of directors.

Olympian Donna de Varona was a member of the group.

"The focus then was to amend the USOC to include the Paralympics and to downsize the overgrown board in order to streamline the USOC model to make it more responsive and efficient. To also make certain a truly independent athlete ombudsman was on board to protect athlete rights," de Varona tells Around the Rings.

"Senators McCain and Stevens acted responsibly as overseers of the legislation because they felt our athletes were important role models and ambassadors for our country. Known for their willingness and ability to reach across the aisle to find solutions.

"No doubt our sporting community could use their kind of no-nonsense leadership now," she said.

Support by and for Olympians

The late Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, namesake of that law, was a member of McCain’s committee. So was Ben Nighthorse Campbell, then a Senator from Colorado and a judo Olympian from 1964. For a time in the mid 90s, Campbell was one of two Olympians in the U.S. Senate, along with basketball great Bill Bradley.

Mike Moran had been Communications Director for the USOC for more than two decades by the time of the McCain hearing in 2003.

"Over the course of many years, Senator McCain proved, time and time again, that he supported not only several positive USOC endeavors, but most importantly, America's Olympic athletes," Moran tells ATR.

"He could be a harsh critic of the USOC when he felt the organization deserved it, as he did with the Olympic Reform Act of 2003, but he also carried out supportive actions quietly.

"Our numerous meetings with him in Washington, along with Steve Bull (USOC Govt. Relations Director) are among my fondest memories of my times withthe USOC. He had a great sense of humor, a genuine interest in sports, and had a fondness for journalists who covered the Olympic beat," says Moran.

"Taxpayer Shakedown"

McCain drew red circles around the money spent by the U.S. government on security for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Speaking on the senate floor in 2000, McCain went on the attack against what he called "staggering" spending.

"The American taxpayer is being shaken down to the tune of nearly a billion and a half dollars," McCain said.

He pledged to "do everything in my power" to delay or kill "this pork-barrel spending".

"This is preposterous and it must stop," he said.

Federal spending for Salt Lake City remained a sore spot for McCain in the 2008 race for the Republican Party nomination for U.S. President. When opponent Mitt Romney would claim that he helped secure the financial success for Salt Lake City, McCain, the eventual nominee, countered that Romney and the organizing committee he headed received a taxpayer bailout.

Human Rights Watchdog

In 2008 candidate McCain also spoke out on the Beijing Olympics. He said U.S. participation should be linked to human rights improvements in China.

In 2014, McCain said the awarding of the 2018 FIFA World Cup to Russia should be reconsidered. McCain spoke in the wake of Russian actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

"I’d like to see the United States and others — say, the British perhaps and other countries — raise the issue in ordinary meetings, periodic meetings that they have. Say, ‘We need to discuss this issue,’" McCain told ESPN.

"It absolutely should be reconsidered, but I would hasten to add that a unilateral decision by the United States would not bode well," said McCain.

The Last of his Kind

De Varona, once a teenaged Olympic phenom, is now one of the senior voices in the Olympics today. She says the loss of McCain’s unrelenting interest in the Olympics will be missed.

"We have now lost the very last senator who had institutional knowledge of the history and workings of our Olympic community," she laments.

"Time for the USOC and Congress to invite those of us who have worked for the benefit of our athletes to hear from us so we can pave the way together for a productive future," she says.

Indeed, McCain relinquished his chairmanship of the Commerce Committee in 2008. Now under a new leader, the Senate committee as well as House committees are grappling with new problems for the USOC. That would be the sexual abuse scandal that's led to leadership changes at the USOC and USA Gymnastics.

USOC CEO Sarah Hirshland, who took office this month to repair the damage from the abuse scandal saluted McCain’s work for sport.

"Senator McCain positively impacted so many aspects of our society, and Olympic and Paralympic sport is surely included in that rich history. On behalf of the United States Olympic Committee, I offer our deepest condolences and most sincere sympathy to the McCain family."

At the time of his death, McCain was serving his sixth six-year term as a U. S. senator.

Reported by Ed Hula.