A Conversation with Bill Martin
Bill Martin has served as Michigan's director of athletics since March 2000. With what is normally considered a more-than full-time job, he still manages to stay involved with such things as the United States Olympic Committee and sailing. His boat, Stripes, recently won the 100th Chicago to Mackinac race, the oldest and longest fresh-water race in the world. As a former USOC president immersed in collegiate athletics, he has a unique perspective on the Olympic Games. Here's what he had to say about a variety of topics: some controversial, some light-hearted; some Olympic-related, some not.
By Barbara Cossman
For starters, there are many different sides of Bill Martin. Are there any we don't know about? And which one do you find most satisfying? I can tell you that my business days ended, my entrepreneurial days ended, nine years ago when I came here. There simply isn't time to be active in the business world. Do you miss it? You know, at times, a little bit but I'm so engaged in the challenges in Michigan athletics I don't have time to think about it. So I'm happy doing what I am. I'm in a great place with great people. What aspect is more satisfying? Everything is different, every challenge and every position you have is unique. I always, in anything I do, kind of want to be an additive as opposed to subtractive. At the point in time where you can't add anything, it's time to hang up your sneakers and move on. Today I'm very, very happy at Michigan ... I don't do anywhere near the amount of sailing I used to do, it's extremely limited, but I still enjoy it when I can get on a boat. Olympic-wise, I'd say my energies are in two areas. One is serving on the Board of Directors of the United States Olympic Foundation. We oversee all of the endowment for the USOC and for many of the 45 national governing bodies and Olympic sports. We meet usually three times a year for one day, and there'll be a few phone calls in between. I'm also involved in helping Chicago in its efforts to secure the Olympic 2016 Summer Games.
How exactly did you get involved with the USOC? My sport was sailing and I was asked in 1981 if I would serve on the committee of the national governing body for the sport of sailing. And I said I would for a couple of years. That led to nine years later being president of the sport of sailing. That led to being sailing's representative to the U.S. Olympic Committee. Every one of the 45 Olympic sports has a board member of the U.S. Olympic Committee. That led a few years later to, I had two roles as an officer, I was vice president/secretary, and then I was president.
So were you at the Athens Games? No, because my term ended literally at the Games. I did everything to prepare the team for the Games that the president should and would do. But I felt it was better that my successor go, Peter Ueberroth.
Heading into the Games in Athens, there were some concerns, including security and drug use. The Games themselves were amazing, went off I would say essentially without a hitch. The big concern was, leading up to it, was Athens going to be ready? Were the facilities going to be completed? That was the biggest concern because the International Olympic Committee was looking at a contingency plan, what do we do if they really aren't ready? That was the big issue.
Do you think Beijing is having security concerns? No, I don't. Remember, Athens had one of the largest undefended borders with multiple other countries compared to China. Beijing is essentially plopped down in the middle of an extremely well-controlled country and they're not next door to the Middle East where most of the terrorism originates. Supposedly there was talk of the U.S. boycotting the 2004 Olympics because of terrorism. Not at all true. No talk whatsoever, I wouldn't have seen any part of it. You have to separate sports from politics.
Going back to the drug issues and the regulations, were you involved in that at all? Throughout my watch at the USOC, yes I was involved, and it started with the BALCO investigation which really started through the USOC. I dealt with the Olympic athletes, but it got the whole thing started with THG, a designer steroid. We got a brown paper bag with a needle in it and we had to figure out what was in it so we sent it to our UCLA lab. They figured it out and bingo, the dominos started to fall on athletes, professional and amateur. What we started doing is, No. 1, as soon as we got that, we determined that it was a designer steroid, a performance enhancing drug. At that time, we turned it over to USADA, the United States Anti-Doping Agency, and cooperated with them and their investigation as it related to Olympic athletes. Likewise, Major League Baseball and any other sports would have had to do the same thing. So we fully cooperated, we funded our research for identifying performance enhancing drugs. We needed to make certain that our Olympic athletes are held to the highest standards. I believe in our country we should have a national drug policy for all athletes, from high school on up, you have to adhere to the same standard.
Let's move on from the serious stuff. What's your favorite Olympic event or sport? There are so many that are so exciting, the drama surrounding them. It's hard to pick any one in particular. I'm just an Olympic junky, I love watching it all. I get excited about some of the sports you never see. It's fun to see that, and I think that's part of the magic of the Olympics. Now there are some sports that maybe we should look at from a global perspective and say 'I'm not certain that they really should be Olympic sports, and maybe we should put some others in.' Okay, so what do you think about baseball and softball? I think they should both be in. Dominant portions of the world play those sports. Were you surprised they were eliminated from Olympic competition (effective after 2008)? I was surprised, particularly softball being a women's sport. You have to understand that of the some 125 IOC voting members, more than half of them are in Europe. They play soccer, 7-8 man rugby.
What's your favorite Olympic memory? On my watch I reorganized the entire structure of the USOC. I took it from a board of 120 down to a board of eight. I really felt a sense of accomplishment. People have to remember that the USOC is a creature of Congress, formed in 1976 by an act of Congress to bring some order and stability to amateur sports, in particular the Olympic sports in our country. Prior to 1976, there were disputes between organizations as to who had the right to identify our Olympic team. For instance, the AAU and the NCAA were fighting with each other over who was going to pick track and field.
Best part about being an athletic director? Seeing these young men and women grow up while they're here. Seeing them from freshmen to when they're seniors and seeing what not only their athletic, but their academic experience, and their social experience have done for them. I wish I could get around meeting more of them and knowing them better.
What's your fondest moment as athletic director? There are a few of them. Marcia Pankratz winning our first women's national championship (field hockey). I was there watching Hutch (coach Carol Hutchins) win that softball title. Watching Lloyd (Carr) win his final game. I was so happy for him and for that team. What a way to end a 28-year career here.
Describe your personality in one word. Committed.
Who's your favorite historical figure and why? I never thought of that. There's a lot so you can name, any one of a whole bunch. One guy who stood out and I've read most of the biographies on him is Winston Churchill. Here's a guy that got beat up, and lost, and came back and rallied a country at an incredibly difficult time and held them together. I remember one of the speeches that he gave as an old, old man at a grade school where he's asked to get up and talk to this class and he was in his 80s and he just stood there forever and ever and didn't say anything. He finally looks up and he says to this class, "Never, never, never give up." And he sits down. ... He's just an amazing guy. When you stop and think about it, he wrote the history of England, he wrote the history of civilization. This guy was in many senses a renaissance man. He was a painter, he was the real deal.
So what's next? What's next for me? I'm focusing 120 percent of my energies on Michigan athletics and being able to improve all aspects - staffing, student-athletes, academic and athletic performance, facilities. So right now, you're just all about Michigan. All Michigan and very happy doing it. There's a lot of work to do here that's challenging and I've embraced the challenges.