July 13, 2018 / 1:14 AM / 9 months ago

Dream job brings nightmare challenge for new U.S. Olympics chief

(Reuters) - Sarah Hirshland landed her dream job when she was named chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) on Thursday but she faces a nightmare situation in her new role dealing with the aftermath of a massive sex abuse scandal.

Sarah Hirshland is pictured during the 2018 USGA Annual Meeting in Miami Beach, Florida, U.S., February 2, 2018 in this handout picture released by U.S. Olympic Committee on July 12, 2018. Courtesy Chris Keane/USGA via USOC/Handout via REUTERS

Currently chief commercial officer of the U.S. Golf Association (USGA), Hirshland becomes the first woman to be hired as the USOC’s permanent CEO.

She fills the post previously held by Scott Blackmun, who resigned for medical reasons amid criticism stemming from the sex abuse scandal involving ex-USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.

Described as passionate, innovative and a skilled negotiator, Hirshland’s ability to make deals will be a huge asset with sponsorship and marketing rights to be put in place for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

But job No. 1 for the wife and mother of three will be restoring confidence in an embattled USOC that is facing lawsuits from several former gymnasts, including gold medallists Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney.

“In terms of roles females have in our country in sport there is none bigger than the one she is jumping into and it is role I think she will thrive in,” USGA CEO Mike Davis told Reuters.

“Sarah, when I hired her in 2011 she did not necessarily have the experience for the position I was hiring her for but at the same time we saw something in her that you just knew she was going to be a super star,” he said.

“She is focussed, she is incredibly innovative, strategic and just smart.”

At the USGA, Hirshland oversaw global media and content distribution, corporate partnerships, merchandise and licensing, marketing, communications and community outreach.

Prior to joining the USGA she worked for the Wasserman Media Group and Casey Wasserman, the man who led the successful Los Angeles 2028 Olympic bid.

She also served in key executive positions with sports and entertainment firm OnSport, and sports news and technology company Total Sports.

None of these job experiences, however, will have prepared Hirshland for the challenge of pushing forward with efforts to implement safeguards for athletes in the wake of sexual abuse scandals involving gymnastics, swimming and taekwondo.

Nassar last year pleaded guilty to molesting female athletes under the guise of medical treatment in incidents dating back to the 1990s and was sentenced to life in prison. The scandal drew widespread condemnation.

Authorities said Nassar victimized more than 260 women and girls, including several Olympic gold medalists. Nearly 200 of them gave often emotional testimonies during sentencing hearings in Michigan earlier this year.

“To be associated with Team USA and to have the privilege of serving America’s athletes is an absolute dream come true for me,” Hirshland, who will start her new job at the end of August, said on a conference call.

“I recognise the challenges ahead, we have a critical moment in time in the USOC’s history that must be navigated, we must protect, support and empower all athletes, those elite athletes as well as beginners.

“Olympics and Paralympic sport must set the example, we must provide athletes with the benefits of participating in an environment free from abuse and one in which they can truly achieve the best versions of themselves.”

Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Tom Brown

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