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Shifting College Sports Landscape May Bring End To US Olympic Dominance

By Steve Dittmore, PhD

When the long-awaited Tokyo Olympics finally get underway, American television viewers will be fixated, as they usually are, on the sports which NBC tells us we want to see. As NBC’s day-by-day highlights suggest, it will be heavy, as always, on swimming, track and field, gymnastics, and basketball, events in which Team USA should do well and compete for medals.


But these Games may represent an inflection point both in terms of Team USA success, and the influence of college athletics in the creation of Olympic heroes. Last month, under a headline that read, “Will this be the last time Americans dominate the Olympics?” David Wharton wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “A smaller talent pool means fewer athletes to choose from, fewer chances to strike gold. If the trend continues, Americans could soon be knocked off their perch atop the medals table, the unofficial scorecard that fans watch so closely at every Games.”


Wharton was referring to the perceived growing number of Olympic sport programs being cut at colleges and universities due to the pandemic. There is no evidence to support the idea that one or two fewer water polo teams means a smaller talent pool. The fear, as U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) executives would suggest, without saying it directly, is that absent university athletic departments subsidizing the development of Team USA, the USOPC will not be as competitive.


USOPC executive Sarah Wilhelmi told Wharton, “Eighty percent of our Summer Olympics teams come from college. When college programs are cut, there are dominoes related to those cuts.”


Those two sentences are both false. Let’s explain.


By the USOPC’s own data released last week, 463 of 613 (75.5%) of US athletes at the Tokyo Games will have competed collegiately. I mean I guess you could round up to 80%, but that would be a bigger error term than even most academics would be willing to admit. 


In fact, as the USOPC acknowledged, the number of athletes participating in varsity athletics could be less than 75%. Its news release included a throw-away line that read, “College athlete representation on the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team spans all three NCAA Divisions (I, II and III), as well as junior colleges and collegiate club programs.” I am guessing many students on college campuses could not name three sports club programs their institution offers. Club sport athlete experiences are dramatically different from those of varsity athletes.


At the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, the USOPC and NCAA boasted that student-athletes made up “most of Team USA.” According to their figures, 417 of 555 members (75.1%) of Team USA competed in college. So, yeah, 75% (or lower) seems like a less-embellished number.


However, it is the alleged “dominoes” on which I would like to focus here. If the percentage of USA athletes who have college athletic experiences declines in the future, it has nothing to do with universities cutting programs. Instead, it has everything to do with the changing nature of the Olympic Games programme and the evolving college athletic space. 


First, as it relates to this year’s Olympic team, the USOPC bragged it will field rosters of “11 teams that are comprised 100% of collegiate athletes: men’s and women’s basketball, women’s 3×3 basketball, men’s and women’s water polo, diving, beach volleyball, men’s and women’s indoor volleyball, rowing and softball.” These numbers sound impressive, but further examination of the makeup of Team USA suggests these percentages will go down in future games for reasons other than sports being cut.


Let’s look at men’s basketball. Yes, all 12 players listed on the roster as of July 19 participated in college athletics. Seven of the 12 were one-and-done athletes and only two – Damian Lillard and Draymond Green – played four years in college. Absent the NBA’s player age limit, it is likely a significant number of Team USA would have skipped college altogether. This is already happening as high school basketball players are jumping straight to the NBA’s G League. Additionally, The Professional Collegiate League recently announced a television deal, and Overtime Elite is scheduled to launch this fall.


The window for the University of Kentucky being able to trumpet having three of its one-and-dones as Olympic men’s basketball players may soon be closing.


Next, let’s consider the Team USA roster for diving, another one of the sports the USOPC claims to have representation of 100% collegiate athletes. Eleven athletes, six women and five men, comprise the diving roster. They range in age from 18 (Hailey Hernandez and Tyler Downs) to 29 (Krysta Palmer and Katrina Young).


Hernandez graduated high school this spring, and has not yet competed collegiately, though she did commit to dive for the University of Texas beginning this fall. Clearly, she did not need college sports to help her become an Olympian as the USOPC would want you to believe. Similarly, Downs made the Olympic team in the same year he completed high school, at Laurel Springs Online, and has committed to dive at Purdue University, which is already promoting Downs. So, in reality, only nine of 11 members, 81.8% not 100%, of Team USA in diving will have competed in college athletics at the time of the Olympic Games.


Another interesting fact regarding Team USA roster makeup is the concentration of schools where athletes attended college. Only six universities are represented on the diving roster, with University of Texas (counting Hernandez) and Indiana University each placing three. According to my research, seven NCAA Division I swimming and diving programs have been cut since March 2020. No one on Team USA in swimming or diving hails from any of those schools which were cut. Five female swimmers competing in Tokyo have not yet attended a college course, although the USOPC does not assert swimming is one of the 100% sports. 


Similar clustering occurs in men’s and women’s water polo, two more sports which are made up of 100% college athletes. Nineteen of 24 athletes on both teams played at either Stanford, USC or UCLA. And that is not really surprising. 


Thirty-four NCAA Division I schools offer women’s water polo. Since 2001, only five schools have reached the NCAA women’s championship. One of those schools, Loyola Marymount, made just one appearance. The story is similar on the men’s side where five schools have appeared in each championship since 2001, none outside of California. Eleven of the 12 male Olympians hail from one of three schools – Stanford, USC, and UCLA. The only two Division I water polo teams cut since the pandemic were the women’s program at George Washington and the men’s program at LaSalle. No real threat to the California-focused dominance of collegiate water polo. The talent pool is not getting smaller, it is being redistributed.


According to USA Water Polo’s own 2020 audited financial statement, just $128,241 was spent on direct women’s national team athlete support. USC reported spending $149,273 on operating expenses related to its women’s team in its most recent Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act report. Without a doubt, those select universities are subsidizing the development of U.S. Olympic athletes at no cost to the USOPC or USA Water Polo.


The real, and not existential, threat for the USOPC related to athlete development will come not from colleges and universities dropping sports, but from the changing face of the Olympic Games. The Tokyo Games feature the Olympic debuts of skateboarding, sport climbing, and surfing as the IOC attempts to court the X Games-type audience. 


The Paris Games in 2024 will continue those sports while also showcasing breakdancing. Quoting the Paris organizing committee’s own language, “The IOC is keen to set a new standard for inclusive, gender-balanced and youth-centred games. Paris 2024 submitted its proposal to the IOC to integrate four new sports that are closely associated with youth and reward creativity and athletic performance.”


What the IOC appears to longer be keen on are the traditional Olympic sports. Over the last two decades, boxing and wrestling have both decreased the number of weight classes in which athletes compete. And this spells trouble for Team USA and its reliance on college sports.


By 2024, half of the 32 sports at the Olympic Games will be sports in which the NCAA does not sanction championships. This summer alone, 121 members of Team USA, nearly 20% of the roster, compete in sports which are not sponsored by the NCAA, meaning those athletes have no direct connection to varsity college athletics.


That does not mean the USOPC and NCAA won’t claim them. Consider rugby (a non-NCAA sport) athlete Brett Thompson who, according to his bio, played football (a non-Olympic sport) at the University of Arizona for two years before quitting once rugby was admitted into the Olympics. In this case, two “nons” make a right in the eyes of the USOPC and the NCAA.


I understand why the USOPC is nervous about losing its free support system and having to find ways to develop Olympic athletes without the benefit of university athletic departments. It is a great system for the USOPC, but does it work for college athletics? That was the purpose of the “think tank” which delivered a scripted public report on the status of USOPC-college athletics relationships last February. Remember that? I have not heard anything about it since.


Nor have we heard anything further about Public Law 116-189, signed into law last October and better known as the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act (EOPAAA) of 2020? An independent commission was to study 10 specific areas ranging from licensing and diversity to proposed reforms and goal achievements. Rich Perelman of The Sports Examiner reported in May that despite legal requirements to meet within 30 days of the committee’s formation, and hold a hearing within 270 days of October 30, 2020, the commission still has not been funded and not met. 


This is where the USOPC, or more correctly, the United States broadly, should be focused. The EOPAAA provides a legislative avenue to reform the USOPC and better position the organization for success in an evolving Olympic landscape. Doubling down on a system in which forces two independent actors with competing agendas – the USOPC and college athletics – to work collaboratively is not a process to ensure long-term success.


A better system might be similar to the process in which USA Triathlon is engaged. USAT allocated $2.6 million through a grant program to support the creation of varsity collegiate programs in line with the NCAA’s emerging sports program. The result? Four new programs across D2 and D3 since March 2020, and zero programs cut.


Tim Yount, USAT’s chief development officer, told me via email this past December that USAT’s small sport feel and appeal to outdoorsy demographics have helped it gain traction in certain markets. 


“Many institutions like that small sport match with their community. Wichita and the MW…think of bowling; East coast – think of lacrosse and field hockey. There are programs that have sharpened their teeth on success in these sports. Programs don’t have to support that sport and many don’t but those that do can leverage that. Think too how little our sports impact the bottom line of a program. Our program will cost $50K a year but drive 10 or so new athletes a year to the institution if they recruit well. Does that really impact a program? Not from the financial perspective. But if you are an outdoor community with an institution that has a certain culture they wish to create relevance around, it could be important,” Yount wrote to me.


Instead of bullying college athletic administrations into making business decisions, the USOPC should enable more productive and collaborative ideas similar to USAT. Programs which have mutual benefit for Team USA and college athletics. 


Perhaps the EOPAAA or the Think Tank will consider that. If they ever meet.