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Final questions for Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson explained why the media was excluded

Steve Johnson explained why the media was excluded (Image credit: USOC)

Cyclingnews recently posted a two-part feature interview with the current CEO of USA Cycling Steve Johnson, looking back at his tenure at the helm of the organisation. The interview was conducted back in October and since then our North American Editor Mark Zalewski spoke with him about some more issues — number one of which was the perception of a lack of transparency.

Johnson said he was well aware of this perception and was actively trying to turn it around. He even went so far as to invite us to the then upcoming NRC promoter summit. Unfortunately, when Cyclingnews asked to be included in the NRC summit, USA Cycling representatives denied media access — not exactly a step towards increasing transparency.

When asked about this Johnson said this was not a case for hiding information but an attempt to allow for more of it.

"We wanted to have a frank dialog with the stakeholders and not have it affected by [a media presence,]" said Johnson. "It was a work in progress at that point... talking about things in the rough form that they were in." In other words, people might not be as likely to discuss ideas if they were worried it would show up in the media.

"I'm probably the most sensitive to that of anybody. So I ask people to just bear with us with this one and there was a lot of great dialog and without the media there we were able to have a franker discussion."

"It wasn't closed doors in all respects as it was open to all promoters and really anyone else."

The Olympics were also a major point of our discussion with Johnson, particularly the up-and-down nature of the US results. As Johnson admitted, the Olympics are an important event for sports like cycling, trying to gain awareness and get noticed above the fray amongst all the other sports, usually via medals.

Unfortunately, US cycling got awareness from a different method with what the main-stream media was quick to dub 'Maskgate' — when three American track cyclists arrived in Beijing wearing their officially approved USOC breathing masks to combat pollution. And soon after, US cycling got a lesson in how politically charged the Olympics really are.

"I think it gives us all pause, to never forget that the political umbrella hangs over the Olympic Games. But the reality for us is that on August 8 it becomes the Olympic team and is no longer USA Cycling's team. The coaches and staff go to work for the US Olympic Committee. So it is an environment where obligations of organisations may be a little grey, but in the end the USOC manages and is responsible for the Olympic team."

"That said everyone went into the Games very nervous about pollution and how it would affect performance. I take my hat off to the USOC, they were very proactive in trying to find remedies to that. But the Chinese did a great job of shutting down factories and getting cars off the road. The air was fine, it was the most amazing transformation in air quality I have ever seen."

Unfortunately, the arrival at the airport was the only news the track team garnered. Only weeks after the Olympics were finished, the athletes revealed the treatment they received and demanded an apology from the USOC. Then it was realised how deeply they could have been affected in their events — though Johnson admitted he cannot fathom the impact himself.

"I think only those athletes can answer that question, I don't pretend to understand how they were impacted by that or how it affected their performance. I think it highlights the differences between the sporting environment of the Olympics and the political environment there, it's always a balance. The USOC has cleared the deck on that and apologized to the athletes — they admitted they could have been more sensitive to the athlete's needs, but again it is a tough environment with the world's attention focused."