Passages: Harold Cliff, Engine Behind Omaha Olympic Trials

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Passages: Harold Cliff, Engine Behind Omaha Olympic Trials

Harold Cliff, the Canadian sports administrator who helped turn U.S. Olympic team trials in Omaha into a whirlwind success, has died.

Cliff’s passing was first reported by Swimming Canada, for which that native of Victoria, British Columbia had worked for 12 years.

Cliff arrived in Nebraska just before the city was due to host its first of what would become four Olympic Trials in 2008. He was a big reason for their success, and his work with the Omaha Sports Commission solidified the city’s place as a premier destination for amateur sports. It also raised the level, in terms of spectator experience and commercial appeal, of the selection event for the U.S. Olympic swim team.

Cliff was recommended to the city by former USA Swimming assistant executive director Mike Unger in 2006. Cliff passed on the chance to run his third straight FINA World Championships, in Rome in 2009, to help Omaha get Trials off the ground.

The success continued for Omaha, with ticket sales exceeding 150,000 for the week-long event and an economic impact in the tens of millions of dollars becoming the norm. He stayed on through the 2016 Trials, which required Omaha to outbid several new cities, before at age 65 saying he was retiring to Ottawa, where his wife lived. But he was so drawn to the area that he stayed, becoming president of the Nebraska Multisport Complex, a $125 million project in La Vista. (That decade-long construction is still underway, with an opening slated in 2023.)

His work at the nonprofit OSC was widely hailed by people in Nebraska, also helping land the 2015 FIVB World Grand Prix Volleyball Championships and the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Omaha.

Cliff has filled a variety of roles in swimming. He was a four-year member of the FINA Technical Committee and worked for 12 years with Swimming Canada, including seven as the CEO from 1993-2000. He had previously served as the organization’s vice president for marketing. Canada’s international performances hit a low ebb under his leadership, following just three medals at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta with a solitary medal (Curtis Myden’s bronze in the men’s 400 individual medley) at the Sydney Games in 2000. Cliff was dismissed that fall.

Cliff helped organize the FINA World Championships in Montreal in 2005, as the Vice President of Competitions, and Melbourne in 2007, as the General Manager of Sport.

Cliff was one of the experts drawn into the investigation after the death of Fran Crippen in an open-water event in 2010. He served on a four-member USA Swimming Open Water Swimming Safety Task Force investigative committee that offered recommendations on safety improvements to FINA, which the FINA Bureau accepted in 2012.