For 17 days this summer, much of the nation will set aside its economic angst and election-year acrimony to rally behind the U.S. Olympians competing at the 2012 London Games. But come fall, many of the sports in which these athletes compete — swimming, wrestling and gymnastics, among them — will be fighting for survival on college campuses.
Olympic sports have become an endangered species at many major universities, where athletic departments are dropping varsity teams to remedy deficits and invest more heavily in the revenue-generating sports of football and men’s basketball.
This retreat from higher education’s traditional model of offering a broad array of sports stands to undercut the nation’s Olympic prospects in the future.
“It remains to be seen what the long-term impact of the situation is,” says Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association. “But it’s safe to say — whether it’s wrestling or any other Olympic sport — that it’s not a good thing for our farm system, if you will, to be eroding.”
Over the past 30 years, college wrestling has lost 45 percent of its NCAA Division I teams — down from 146 in 1981-82 to 80 in 2010-11, according to figures compiled by the NCAA.
Men’s gymnastics has been hit even harder, with just 16 Division I teams remaining from the 59 that existed in 1981-82. That’s a drop of nearly 73 percent.
“It’s dying fast, and I hate it,” says Jonathan Horton, 26, who won five NCAA titles at Oklahoma before going on to win the silver medal on the high bar at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “I hate to see it go. … Going to Oklahoma and doing college gymnastics was one of the best things I ever did. Knowing that (college gymnastics) is on a downward slope is tough.”
The shifting priorities of college athletic departments are a particular concern to the U.S. Olympic Committee, according to Alan Ashley, the USOC’s chief of sport performance. While most nations rely on government funding to train prospective Olympians, the USOC receives no federal money for that purpose. As a result, it has traditionally turned to colleges and universities as a feeder system for many of the sports in which the country has excelled internationally.
“It definitely is a concern because it’s an important part of our system,” Ashley says. “Without government funding, we need to have those sustaining pipelines.”
It’s not only the USOC that looks to college sports for its talent.
College wrestling has traditionally supplied the bulk of the nation’s wrestling coaches at the middle-school and high-school levels. As colleges curtail scholarships or drop programs altogether, it not only constricts the pipeline for prospective Olympians but also undercuts those sports at the grassroots level.
Just as the prospect of winning a gold medal inspires budding Olympians to work harder every four years, the prospect of winning a college scholarship inspires many parents to sign up their children for swim lessons, gymnastics classes and tennis camp.
Bob Bowman, coach of 16-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps, can attest to that as chief executive and head coach of the North Baltimore Aquatics Club, which has placed a swimmer on the U.S. Olympic team in every Summer Games since 1984.
“Having worked in a college environment, I understand how they operate. And as someone who (runs) a feeder program for the colleges, our club has young kids whose dream is to get a college scholarship. (Eliminating college swim teams) really hurts us because it takes away an incentive for people to get involved at a grass-roots level.”
Some U.S. Olympians are sufficiently gifted without competing in college. And female gymnasts train almost exclusively in private clubs, often reaching the height of their competitive powers before reaching college age.
But in other cases, there’s a direct correlation between the coaching on college playing fields and Olympic glory. It’s particularly strong in women’s team sports, which exploded in the decades following the passing of Title IX, the federal law mandating equal opportunity in educational settings.
Women’s rowing is one beneficiary. After winning gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, the U.S. women’s eight-oared shell (the sport’s most prestigious class) failed to distinguish itself at the Olympics. But in 1997 the NCAA made women’s rowing a varsity sport, and a new generation of world-class rowers followed two Olympic cycles later.
Mary Whipple, who helped the Washington Huskies to two NCAA titles as a scholarship rower, was coxswain on the women’s eight at the 2004 Athens Games. That boat won silver, ending a 20-year medal drought by the U.S. women. At the 2008 Beijing Games, the U.S. women’s eight won gold. And they did it with five women who hadn’t learned to row until college.
So it grieved Whipple to learn that California-Davis recently dropped women’s rowing and that Rutgers dropped its men’s team.
“I would definitely not have been an Olympian had I not gone to the University of Washington and rowed in college,” said Whipple. “The University of Washington got me to win the NCAAs, and that got me the tryout for the national team. … It’s unfortunate that athletes have to get their sports taken away because the budget has to balance.”
It’s not that the money has dried up in big-time college sports. The problem is the vast majority of NCAA Division I athletic departments spend more money than they generate. According to USA Today’s annual survey of revenue expenses in NCAA Division I public universities, published in May, just 22 of 227 schools earned more than they spent.
In the cases of Texas and Ohio State, wildly successful football teams can pay the freight for Olympic teams. But that’s rare. More often, Division I schools spend as much on football as they earn (in some cases more), fearing that paring back would undercut the squad’s competitiveness.
That’s a hard way to sustain a broad-based athletic department.
“There are some intercollegiate programs that generate a lot of money, and that’s great,” Moyer says. “But there has to be a balance. It’s just unfortunate when we get to a point where we think the student-athlete experience in one sport is more meaningful than another. The fact is, they all matter.”