On the trail of display errors at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum | U.S. Olympics

On the trail of display errors at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum | U.S. Olympics
Written by Publishing Team

When Howard Gorrell, a Deaflympian from Maryland, first toured the US Olympic and Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs last year, he wasn’t looking to pick a fight.

OK, so, maybe that’s not technically 100% true.

“The main reason that I flew to Colorado Springs was I wanted to do some research on what was wrong with I call it the USO(P)C … why the Deaflympics hadn’t been included with the regular Olympics program,” said Gorrell, a lifelong crusader for disabled athletes who competed in javelin and hammer throw and brought home medals in the World Games for the Deaf in 1969 and 1973.

He arrived for a month-long stay in the Springs in May, 2021, but because of COVID-19 both the USOPC’s downtown offices and the training center off East Boulder Street were closed to the public.

So Gorrell found himself at the gleaming new $96 million structure on South Sierra Madre, for a state-of-the-art tour through a “five-star museum (with) beautiful displays” that left him simmering with frustration, and more questions than answer.

Chief among those questions was why a 60,000 square foot museum “dedicated to US Olympic and Paralympic athletes and their compelling stories” had only one small exhibit devoted to the history of the Amateur Sports Act. He’d had to double back just to find it — in an artifact display case at the end of a jetty off the top floor’s main space. The information had been whittled down to just two sentences, fewer than 50 words total.

The President’s Commission on Olympic Sports wasn’t mentioned, which to anyone familiar with the movement’s evolution in the US was like a blurb about the Gettysburg Address leaving out Lincoln and the Civil War.

Worse, though, the first sentence contained an error, crediting the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 with creating the US Olympic Committee, when in fact it was founded in 1894 in Colorado Springs by the authority of the International Olympic Committee.

“I didn’t say anything. I left. For months it really bugged me,” said Gorrell, 77, who spoke with The Gazette by video conference call in December, using a sign-language interpreter.

Six months after his first museum tour, he returned to the Springs and its world-class destination, a grand vision made real thanks to private donations, state money and a local bond initiative. This time, he did say something. First to the museum, which Gorrell said initially stuck by the language in the display, which he was told had been written and approved by museum designers and verified by “established expert panels and the USOPC.” Gorrell emailed photos and the story to everyone else who might care and be able to help.

Seventy-nine year old Mike Harrigan was one of those people, and he couldn’t believe what he saw in Gorrell’s images. Omissions are a given when writing so short. This abbreviated text, however, seemed to stumble with every step.

The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act didn’t replace the Amateur Sports Act in 1998, it amended it. The Act also had “ZERO” to do with changing eligibility standards for athletes participating in the games.

“It seems to me that whomever put it together had absolutely no idea of ​​what they were doing,” wrote back Harrigan, the founding force and former director of the President’s Commission on Olympic Sports in the 1970s.

The campaign to truly honor history, by getting history right, had another torch-bearer.

Their mission is one the museum says it fully supports, if what’s in the display is in fact wrong.

“Our number one goal as a museum is to ensure our content is accurate and informative,” said the museum’s director of communications and marketing, Tommy Schield. “It was brought to our attention by Mike and Howard that a few displays may be inaccurate. We are continuing our dialogue, exploration and fact checking and will make all necessary amendments.”

To be fair, there are probably only a handful of people on the planet who would have caught the errors. That’s kind of the point.

“I’m the only one still alive probably who was involved with all of this, soup to nuts,” Harrigan said.

Both he and Gorrell know what they’re talking about because they lived it.

In 1979, Gorrell was hand-picked to serve on behalf of the then-known USOC as an at-large member of the Handicapped in Sports Committee, which represented five organizations for athletes with disabilities. As an advocate for disabled athletes in sports, he is testified before the Congressional Committee Harrigan headed, pushing for the inclusion of “handicapped” athletes in any Olympic dreams or plans, going forward.

“Howie is a wonderful guy, and he was very helpful in helping us get the Sports Act originally passed,” Harrigan said. “He’s the kind of guy who will go through that wall, God bless him. He’s tough, he has no hesitation.”

Aside from incidentally bearing the same name as Danny Glover’s character in “Predator 2,” Harrigan is a retired Marine Corps colonel who served in Vietnam before turning his influence to Washington, where he conceived of then spearheaded the creation of the President’s Commission on Olympic Sports — a bi-partisan commission whose report was the foundation of The Amateur Sports Act of 1978.

That act amended the federal charter granted to the USOC, giving it power to work with and coordinate most (but not all) of the nation’s amateur athletic organizations, said Harrigan, who lives outside DC

“I can argue that the Commission and the Act are the most important things ever to have happened to the US Olympic Committee in its entire history, in terms of positive effects on things, and I think the museum should reflect that,” he said. “There’s no question that the Commission and the Act together completely transformed the Olympic Committee. They were then nothing but a travel agency that functioned every four years, pick-the-teams and go. It wasn’t their mission to do other things.”

After engaging with Gorrell by email late last year, Harrigan found himself in the Springs for a different reason, in his role as president of the Marine Corps Youth Foundation. He hit the museum to confirm what he’d seen in the photos. He especially took issue with the fact those errors were attributed to a statement from the family of the late Sen. Ted Stevens, a linchpin in the legislation that now bears his name.

“It doesn’t do Ted justice. You don’t have to cover everything, but you sure as hell ought to cover in my opinion the most important thing that ever happened to the USOC in 126 years. And you better get it right,” he said.

Harrigan, like Gorrell, began this journey with some pretty firm opinions about the USOPC.

Harrigan argues the root of many of the organization’s current problems stem from “a fundamental misapplication and misunderstanding” of its relationship to the Amateur Sports Act, which “transformed the US Olympic Committee and required it to assume new responsibilities and mandates.”

“The US Olympic Committee has never once held a seminar for its member organizations on the letter, spirit and intent of the act under which they operate. Which is incredible, when you think about it,” said Harrigan, who wrote in detail about the topic in a 2018 piece for Sports Business Journal. “So it’s no surprise then that people get it wrong. They have no sense of history.”

That said, the museum responded pretty quickly when Harrigan followed up on Gorrell’s complaints, to let them know corrections were in order.

“They all agree with me that it needs to be changed,” said Harrigan, who said he has submitted a proposal for new wording that gets it right, and still keeps it brief.

Things are in the discussion/editing phase still, but making such a change to a donation-funded display — assuming that’s the ultimate decision — certainly will cost money. The museum, like many across the country, has struggled financially during the pandemic as visitor rolls dwindled to a fraction of projections.

And the war against misinformation isn’t one that’s fought in a single battle, on a single front.

“I’d also really like to know where they got their information. That’s the real question: How did it happen? And how do we go about fixing whatever incorrect source they got their information from?” Harrigan said.

Without that, the historical error will continue to have an endless traction.

“There’s just so much you see on the internet that’s totally false,” he said.

According to Schield, content creation for the museum’s displays was handled by Barrie Projects, a company that “specializes in content development for museums across the country” and whose other projects include a Mob Museum in Las Vegas and Spy Museum in Washington, DC

As to where they got their info?

“BP consulted a panel of experts who specialize in Olympic and Paralympic history to fact check all content,” Schield said.

Those experts appear to have dropped the baton on at least a fact or two.

“Howie deserves so much credit for bringing this to everyone’s attention … and helping set the historical record straight,” Harrigan said.

One historical record, at least.

A similarly-worded error to one on the museum display exists in the entry for the Amateur Sports Act on Wikipedia, the user-generated online encyclopedia created, edited and maintained by a global community of “volunteers.” Thus the entry has read since 2007, leaking into history via news stories, class reports, speeches and more — and thus it will, until someone with the knowledge, savvy and gumption steps up to champion a change.


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