Hula’s Talks: USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland says Team USA “accomplished what we came here to accomplish”

Hirshland adds “we’ve had a lot of conversations over the last few days” in Tokyo concerning a possible Salt Lake City Winter Olympics bid.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 23, 2021. Flag bearers Sue Bird of the United States and Eddy Alvarez of the United States lead their contingent during the athletes parade at the opening ceremony REUTERS/Mike Blake
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 23, 2021. Flag bearers Sue Bird of the United States and Eddy Alvarez of the United States lead their contingent during the athletes parade at the opening ceremony REUTERS/Mike Blake

Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) since 2018, views the ongoing Games in Tokyo as a success on multiple fronts for Team USA – and shared that conversations are ongoing about a potential Salt Lake City 2030 Winter Olympic bid.

Interviewed by Around the Rings founder Ed Hula on his ‘Tokyo Report’ podcast, Hirshland asserted that the U.S. team’s performance in Tokyo met the expectations of the USOPC. Despite being in danger of not winning the Summer Olympic medal table for the first time since 2008, Hirshland commended Team USA’s athletes for being able to achieve peak performances during a season filled with pandemic restrictions and uncertainty.

“The performances of Team USA have been extraordinary by all measures and we have a couple that are not quite done yet... Frankly we’ve accomplished what we came here to accomplish and that feels terrific. The goal for us as an organization is always to support athletes and their ability to achieve their full potential. And we have seen so many Team USA athletes probably achieve things even they weren’t sure they could accomplish”, Hirshland said.

Besides athlete performances, Hirshland believes that the Tokyo Games also represented progress for the U.S. in a number of other areas. For instance, she sees the USOPC’s recent efforts to elevate Paralympic athletes as a major step forward, noting that Paralympians more than ever felt “the resources and the energy of our organization behind them”, and that “Team USA is one integrated team”.

Hirshland likewise commended USOPC’s “incredibly effective” integration of new Olympic sports into its framework, which led to American athletes winning medals in all four debut sports at Tokyo (karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing).

Her biggest takeaway, however, was that Tokyo marked a turning point in how the U.S. addresses mental health in sport, prompted by star gymnast Simone Biles’ abrupt withdrawal from most of her events due to mental pressures. Applauding the strong support Biles received from teammates and officials alike, Hirshland hopes that the episode can help destigmatize mental health issues and normalize internal self-care “as a foundational part of well-being”

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Gymnastics - Artistic - Women's Beam - Final - Ariake Gymnastics Centre, Tokyo, Japan - August 3, 2021. Simone Biles of the United States in action on the balance beam REUTERS/Mike Blake
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Gymnastics - Artistic - Women's Beam - Final - Ariake Gymnastics Centre, Tokyo, Japan - August 3, 2021. Simone Biles of the United States in action on the balance beam REUTERS/Mike Blake

“Simone felt comfortable enough to step back and be brave enough to say ‘I’m not OK’, and it’s a great compliment to our organization and to the environment that she competes in that she felt comfortable enough and safe enough to acknowledge that”, Hirshland reflected. “I think for many years to come we will all reflect back on that as a pivotal moment in changing the trajectory of how we as a country think about mental health”.

Looking ahead to future Games, Hirshland told Hula that the USOPC remains in a good position financially; though acknowledged that holding the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics half a year after Tokyo has been a significant logistical challenge, with the inability to physically visit the venues in China presenting the main concern.

“The challenge for us at this point is most of us from around the world have not had much opportunity to get into China to do the planning work on the ground that needs to be done”, Hirshland said. “We certainly will have a lot to do in the last few months of this year, and then going into these Games an equal amount of uncertainty of what the environment on the ground will be like. But we had that uncertainty coming into Tokyo and everybody worked really well together to figure out how to navigate [it]”.

Hirshland also appealed to members of the U.S. Congress and the general American public, who have been critical of the 2022 Games due to accusations of genocide against host nation China, to focus on the positives of what the Games can bring.

“I think it’s a conversation we’ll continue to have, and I hope that members of Congress and members of U.S. society broadly have been able to watch the moments in these Games and the sportsmanship in these Games. And understand the power and impact of what this is and what it does in bringing the world together outside of political differences, outside of the number of very hard issues that exist in our world”, she stated on the topic.

With the United States preparing to host the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles, and weighing a bid for Salt Lake City to stage the 2030 Winter Games, Hirshland is set to play a key role in both efforts going forward. While she is pleased with LA 2028′s progress, she also revealed discussions about Salt Lake City 2030 were picking up steam in recent days, despite the likely challenge of convincing the IOC to award two successive Games to the same country.

Sara Hirshland - CEO of USOPC
Sara Hirshland - CEO of USOPC

“[LA 2028] has had the benefit of a few years of work that that most in the past have not had, and they’ve taken great advantage of that to start to build a strong foundation and some good infrastructure in building an organizing committee, getting people put in place, getting plans put in place and I do think we’ll start to see them emerge in a very real way here as we come out of these Games”, Hirshland assessed.

“[Salt Lake City 2030] has been a topic of conversation for both Susanne [Lyons, Chair of USOPC’s Board of Directors] and myself for the last couple of weeks, and we will continue to have conversations. It’s important for us that [the sporting] community understands that Salt Lake is a wonderful city that is ready, willing and able to host a really outstanding Winter Games and that we’d like to do so. The timing of that is still to be determined, but we’ve had a lot of conversations over the last few days”.

“We will continue the process of having those conversations and when the moment and the time is right to officially throw our name in the hat around a specific date, we’ll do that. We’ve not done that yet, but the energy is there and the conversations are absolutely happening.”

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