USOPC chair heads to Beijing for final Olympics

Susanne Lyons says athlete safety and health more important than results

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USOPC training center Colorado Springs (USOPC)
USOPC training center Colorado Springs (USOPC)

The leader of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) teams to the Beijing Olympics says the health and welfare of athletes has topped performance as the focus of preparations for the Games.

USOPC chair Susanne Lyons spoke to Around the Rings in advance of her travels this week to China. Lyons is in the final months of her four years as USOPC chair, a term that ends under the challenge of preparing an Olympic team in a pandemic.

“In the past the focus was more on performance, making sure our people were physically and mentally prepared. Now an enormous amount of energy and time has gone into the health aspects for both Tokyo and Beijing,” said Lyons about the maze of protocols adopted to prevent the Olympic Games from becoming a super-spreader event.

Lyons acknowledges the Chinese protocols will be “constraining.”

A woman sits in a closed loop "bubble" shuttle bus past the National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, where the opening and closing ceremonies of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics will be held, in Beijing, China January 30, 2022. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
A woman sits in a closed loop "bubble" shuttle bus past the National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, where the opening and closing ceremonies of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics will be held, in Beijing, China January 30, 2022. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

When she arrives in Beijing this week, Lyons will enter a bubble that will separate her and other National Olympic Committee (NOC) leaders direct contact with athletes who will live in a separate bubble. Contact with the general public is out of bounds. Autographs and selfies with athletes won’t happen.

“You can’t go sightseeing. You can’t go out shopping, You can’t go out and explore the culture of the country you are visiting and that’s unfortunate,” Lyons tells Around the Rings.

“This will have a greater impact on the workforce, the volunteers who will have to stay in the bubble and cannot go home until after the Games. That’s different from Tokyo. It’s a very constrained environment,” Lyons says.

“That’s the sacrifice we have agreed to make to allow these athletes still come together with their dreams, and to demonstrate as best they can the ability of people to come together through sport, even in this most difficult of time,” Lyons notes.

For many of the athletes, missing in Beijing will the in-person support of friends and family at the Games. Foreign spectators are not allowed to travel to China for Olympics, as was the case with Tokyo. Lyons says the Tokyo experience shows that team members will step in to take the place of friends and family.

“We have more mental health experts than we’ve ever had at the Games before. We have not only focused on the physical, but also the mental well being of our athletes. This year for someone who may be struggling, there will be a lot of resources for those people,” says Lyons.

Dec 19, 2021; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; From left to right, Corinne Stoddard, Kristen Santos, Julie Letai and Andrew Heo celebrate making the U.S. National Speedskating Team after the U.S. Olympic Trials Short Track Speed Skating competition. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 19, 2021; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; From left to right, Corinne Stoddard, Kristen Santos, Julie Letai and Andrew Heo celebrate making the U.S. National Speedskating Team after the U.S. Olympic Trials Short Track Speed Skating competition. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The U.S. will send a team expected to number 222 athletes. About 100 arrived in a charter from sponsor Delta last weekend. The rest of the U.S. team will reach Beijing by commercial jet in the days ahead.

Lyons is pleased that talk in the U.S. Congress about an athlete boycott of Beijing over human rights issues was cut short when President Joe Biden called instead for a diplomatic boycott. Under that edict, the U.S. is not allowing any official representation at the Olympics, along with Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Denmark and others.

“The diplomatic boycott is far, far better than an athlete boycott,” says Lyons.

“I think our main interest was making sure our athletes will not bear the political burden of speaking out against anything our government was concerned about. So we’re very pleased an athlete boycott was not requested or required. The diplomatic boycott sends the message the U.S. government intends to send,” says Lyons.

Whether athletes in Beijing speak out, Lyons says they need to be mindful of what they say and where they say it.

“We’re a country with freedom of expression and everyone from Team USA has grown up in that environment so it’s different from them to think of a country where it’s not necessarily safe to speak up. We have made sure in all of our athlete training that the delegation understands that the rules of the IOC and laws of the host country are what are enforced. There will be many opportunities for our athletes to express themselves, especially after they return from the Games. And we’ve made them aware of speaking out at the wrong time and place,” she says.

FILE PHOTO: Figure Skater Michelle Kwan of the United States performs her free  skating program at the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games, February 21, 2002. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Figure Skater Michelle Kwan of the United States performs her free skating program at the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games, February 21, 2002. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

Absent from Beijing will be observers working on behalf of the five cities in dialogue with the IOC about staging the Winter Olympics in 2030 and 2034. It’s a group that includes 2002 host Salt Lake City, along with bids from Canada, Spain, Japan and Ukraine. At one time there had been plans to invite small observer teams from the bid cities, but the pandemic protocols in China quashed those visits.

Lyons says she expects the IOC to ramp up it’s dialogue with prospective candidates in the second quarter of this year.

“We have made it clear to our colleagues at the IOC that Salt Lake City is incredibly enthusiastic about hosting a future Games. They have a terrific Games plan that’s quite ready. They don’t have to build any new venues. They’ve made it clear that we are able to host a Winter Games as early as 2030,” Lyons says.

“I think there’s not a lot of questions about the technical abilities of Salt Lake City. I think it will more of a question of what is needed for the movement at any point in time. There are worthy cities who are considering an Olympic bid as well.”

“I haven’t heard any concerns about Salt Lake City, other than, from our point of view, there are complications hosting Games back to back. We have the Summer Games in 2028 in Los Angeles and the Winter Games immediately thereafter. It’s a little more complicated from a commercial and sponsor point of view, but certainly it’s a doable thing if that becomes the right answer for the movement as a whole,” Lyons says.

Lyons association with the Olympics began in 2004 as an executive with sponsor VISA USA. In 2010 she became a member of the USOPC board of directors. She served a stint as USOPC CEO before becoming chair in 2019.

Susanne Lyons from media summit zoom (Team USA)
Susanne Lyons from media summit zoom (Team USA)

She’ll step down from her post this year, prompting a nationwide search now underway for her successor. Lyons says candidates from the current board as well as from outside the board are under consideration. A decision will be made by the middle of this year she says.

As for her own tenure at the world’s biggest privately funded NOC, Lyons says she has seen plenty of change and challenge.

“It’s like a tale of two cities. It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. I have to say I have experienced a number of things I would never envisioned. In the early days it was all about sport performance and getting athletes to the highest levels,” she said.

“In that time period we’ve gotten through and learned tremendously from the sexual abuse situation which really led to transformational change and how we prepare all of our athletes and sports organizations as well as athletes and families, and recognized the signs of abuse and how to prevent it.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time improving mental health services for our athletes. We have spent more attention on the transition from completion. We’ve seen improved gender equality. I’ve been challenged, but incredibly gratified. It’s a great thing to work towards and I’ve been very proud to be a part of it,” Lyons tells Around the Rings.