AP Sports Writer
Atlanta Braves Vice President Mike Plant was appointed president of the U.S. Speedskating board on Tuesday, taking a lead role in the troubled organization with the Winter Olympics less than a year away.
Plant is a former speedskater and member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team. He will step in immediately as interim president and expects to be confirmed at the organization's next board meeting in May.
U.S. Speedskating decided to hand the job to Plant right away as it deals with the fallout from an athlete mutiny against the former national short track coach, who was accused of physically abusing athletes, and separate claims of improper sexual relationships with underage athletes against Andy Gabel, the group's former president and an Olympic medalist and Hall of Famer.
The breakaway athletes recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Olympic Committee, contending the governing body was incapable of carrying out its duties amid reports of financial woes and organizational infighting.
"This is a crucial time for U.S. Speedskating and I hope to be able to help propel this great sport forward," Plant said. "My focus for the organization will be on building a support and service system for our elite level athletes, and working on developing our athlete pipeline. Another priority is to tackle our governance and management reform. These are the two key pillars I am going to zero in on immediately."
Plant's appointment was met with approval from both Mark Greenwald, the organization's embattled executive director, and the athletes who took their complaints to the USOC.
"We have certainly had our ups and downs over the last several months, but having someone with Mike's experience on board will go a long way to putting us back on the right track," Greenwald said in a statement. "Mike brings years of leadership experience and a proven track record of success and that is exactly what we need."
The skaters, who call themselves Athletes for a Positive Training Environment (APTE), released a statement praising Plant and noting his long-standing ties to the Olympic movement.
He served a 10-year term on the USOC board, and his resume includes leadership positions at U.S. Speedskating, USA Cycling and USA Canoe-Kayak. Plant has been in his position with the Braves for nearly a decade, overseeing all business operations of the major league club and its minor-league affiliates.
"Mr. Plant is very familiar with the requirements that national governing bodies, such as U.S. Speedskating, must comply with to demonstrate that they have the managerial and financial capability to carry out their obligations as an NGB," the athletes said. "We believe this is a positive step to changes needed in U.S. Speedskating and look forward to working with Mr. Plant to bring U.S. Speedskating into compliance."
Despite being one of the top medal-producing sports for the U.S. Winter Olympic program, speedskating has long struggled to provide necessary funding to its athletes. Before the 2010 Vancouver Games, TV star Stephen Colbert stepped in to provide the program with a financial boost and raise its profile.
Once the Olympics were over, Colbert moved on to other comic fodder and speedskating ran up against many of the same issues.
While the long track program, led by four-time Olympic medalist Shani Davis, has continued to produce solid results, the short track side is in disarray.
The sport already had to deal with the loss of Apolo Anton Ohno, who hasn't competed since Vancouver, and Katherine Reutter, a rising star forced to quit at age 24 because of injuries.
Then, last fall, head coach Jae Su Chun was accused by a dozen national team members of physical, emotional and verbal abuse. He also was alleged to have ordered speedskater Simon Cho to sabotage the skates of a Canadian rival.
Chun denied all allegations, and other members of the team came to his defense. The coach and his top assistant agreed to resign from the organization and accept a suspension through the Sochi Games, but the opposing factions have struggled to come together. Cho is still awaiting possible disciplinary action, depriving the team of another promising skater.
A couple of weeks ago, APTE filed the grievance claiming U.S. Speedskating was incapable of carrying out its financial and managerial requirements as a governing body. The skaters asked the USOC to provide close oversight of the organization until a hearing is held before a panel that includes board member Mary McCagg, USA Cycling president and CEO Steve Johnson, and snowboarder Andrew Johnson, a member of the Athletes Advisory Council.