By Kent McDill
There was a time, almost half a century ago now, that U.S. Olympic teams were selected in a myriad of manners.
One year, there were two U.S. Olympic hockey teams selected. Some sports didn’t have Olympic trials; teams were selected by unwritten agreements. A constant state of disagreement between the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) put club athletes and school athletes at odds.
The disparity in preparation for the Olympics from sport to sport began to have an effect on the U.S. performance in the games themselves. In short, we were being beaten regularly in some sports by teams from Eastern Europe. The cold war was on, and battles were being fought on playing fields rather than fields of grain.
Amidst that atmosphere came the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, which in effect, created the U.S. Olympic Committee, which in turn created governing bodies for all Olympic sports. Only those governing bodies would determine the athletes that would represent the United States in Olympic competitions.
President Gerald R. Ford created the President’s Commission on Olympic Sports in 1975. From that study came the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, sponsored by Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska.
Although the act had numerous tenets, the greatest result was the creation of the United States Olympic Committee, and the creation of USOC- sponsored and sanctioned governing bodies for every Olympic sport. That included figure skating.
“It was determined that the United States Figure Skating Association would be the governing body for figure skating,” said former PSA president David Shulman, who was president in 1978. “The purpose of the Act was to show America had a way of doing business which was better than anybody else, especially the Eastern bloc countries. We were trying to show their way of life was not as good.”
While the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 straightened out issues for sports like hockey, basketball, and volleyball, its effect on figure skating was a bit more meddlesome.
“We didn’t need the Act,” said skating historian Ben Wright, a former President of the USFSA. “Figure skating didn’t support it. We were subject to the International Skating Union and that was enough. We didn’t need a separate body controlling us.”
“It was good for two things,” Shulman said. “There was a direct infusion of money on the federal level, and the production of medals was what they expected. Secondarily, it brought together and solidified the general control of the figure skating association, which was probably OK. They came up with rules and judge procedures that were loosely organized until the Sports Act came along.”
Wright was quick to point out that the federal funding did not last.
“We ended up getting less money,” Wright said. “We were prosperous in those days from television revenue. We were a rich sport.”
Shulman said the Sports Act did level the playing field with the Eastern European bloc countries, and proved the American way of competition could produce champions on an international scale.
“We believed everybody should have an opportunity to compete,” he said, adding that the Soviet bloc would determine its athletes at a very early age rather than let competitions decide its competitors. “We wanted to show that democracy was the way to go.”