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Subject: Robert Helmick, 66; Ex-President of U.S. Olympic Committee

Des Moines
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Date Posted: April 16, 2003 5:10:09 EDT

Robert Helmick, one of the most influential figures in U.S. Olympic history, an Iowa lawyer who aspired to the presidency of the International Olympic Committee but whose Olympic dreams ended abruptly when he was confronted in 1991 with conflict of interest charges, died Tuesday. He was 66.

Helmick died of cardiac failure at Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines. He had suffered a stroke last weekend.

Helmick served as president of the U.S. Olympic Committee and as a member of the IOC from 1985 to 1991. From 1989 to 1991, he was on the IOC's ruling executive board, wielding influence internationally. During those years, Atlanta was selected as host city of the 1996 Summer Games.

In 1991, however, allegations surfaced that Helmick had used his position for personal gain. He maintained then -- and through the years -- that he had done nothing wrong but he resigned as USOC president and then from the IOC.

"He was a complex and misunderstood man, as shrewd and adept as anyone who has ever led the USOC," said Mike Moran, from 1979 through January 2003 the USOC's spokesman. "He was remarkable."

A lifelong resident of Des Moines, Helmick was a 1957 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Drake University. He graduated in 1960 from Drake's law school as valedictorian and editor of the law review.

In high school, he played water polo, which served as his entry to sports administration and politics. In 1972, he got his first taste of the Olympics, serving as manager of the U.S. water polo team that won bronze in Munich.

In 1976, he was named secretary of the international swimming federation, which goes by the acronym FINA, and in 1984 was elected its president, serving until 1988. From 1978 to 1980, he was president of the Amateur Athletic Union, a period of change during which Congress chartered the USOC with Olympic responsibilities in the United States.

In 1985 Helmick became president of the USOC, then an IOC member.

As USOC president, Helmick was known as an innovator. He pushed for a change in the rules so athletes could receive financial support while training, "a very significant contribution to the U.S. Olympic Committee," recalled IOC member Anita DeFrantz of L.A.

And, by the force of his first-rate mind, considerable personality and fluidity in both hardball negotiation and social pleasantries, he managed -- almost single-handedly -- to transform the USOC from an organization driven by its paid professional staff to one directed by its elected volunteer leaders. The USOC has wrestled since with the tension between the paid staff and the volunteer leadership.

As an IOC member, Helmick made no secret of his presidential aspirations, and in 1989, he positioned himself by being elected to the IOC's executive board.

As president of the powerful swimming federation and as head of the most important of the world's national Olympic committees, Helmick could draw on support from both of the key constituencies within the movement -- the international federations and the NOCs, as they are called.

The next year, Atlanta got the 1996 Games. The script seemed set: Helmick for president in 1996, to be elected in his own country. By then, Juan Antonio Samaranch, IOC president since 1980, would have been 76.

In 1991, however, Helmick's Olympic career came to a crashing halt amid reports that he had business relationships with groups that either had or were seeking associations with the Olympic movement. He and two law firms he had represented had received $325,000 from those groups since 1987, according to published reports.

A USOC investigation found no evidence that he had tried to influence the USOC on behalf of his clients. But it also said Helmick had "repeatedly violated the conflict of interest provisions" of the USOC bylaws.

That Sept. 18, Helmick resigned as USOC president, and on Dec. 3 he stepped down from the IOC.

In a story that Samaranch loved to recount, Helmick's IOC resignation letter was delivered to the president at night, appearing under the door to Samaranch's room in a hotel at the IOC's base, in Lausanne, Switzerland. Samaranch was reelected to a final term in 1996 and stepped down as IOC president in 2001, having dispatched or outlasted every challenger -- Helmick among them -- for 21 years.

Helmick maintained his association with the USOC, but his extraordinary influence, particularly internationally, was gone.

In 2001, Sandra Baldwin, then the USOC president -- who like Helmick had come up through the U.S. swimming federation -- appointed him to a post linked to the USOC's international relations committee. A few days later, Jacques Rogge, the IOC's new president, told the Chicago Tribune, "Quite frankly, we do not want to deal on international affairs with Mr. Helmick. We want to deal with Mrs. Baldwin."

Harvey Schiller, a former USOC executive director, said, "Here was a guy who really understood sport and tried do the best thing. Unfortunately, people make some bad decisions along the way. But I really did think the world of him."

Helmick is survived by his wife, Georgia; and four children: John Helmick of Eugene, Ore.; Robert M. Helmick of Greenwood Village, Colo.; Stephanie Ormsby of Crystal Lake, Ill.; and Suzanne Book of Englewood, Colo. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

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