Cutbacks in College Sports
Risk U.S. Olympic Future
By CHRISTOPHER RHOADS
BEIJING — The U.S. won more medals here than it has in any nonboycotted Olympics, but even with that haul, its days of dominance may be numbered.
That is in part because U.S. colleges, the primary breeding ground for the country’s Olympians, have eliminated hundreds of teams in Olympic sports in recent years.
“We used to have a lot of kids going for the Olympic dream, “says Scott Barclay, coach of the men’s gymnastics team at Arizona State University. “Without the carrot of a college scholarship, a lot of kids give up, or their parents won’t support them as much, “he says. Mr. Barclay took out a personal loan several years ago to build a private gym as a way to keep his team alive as a club sport after ASU cut the varsity program.
Rutgers University in New Jersey last year eliminated six teams in Olympic sports, including fencing and rowing, programs that over the years generated more than a score of Olympians. In 2006, James Madison University in Virginia eliminated 10 teams at once in a handful of Olympic sports, including swimming, gymnastics and wrestling.
The retreat stems from everything from the dominance of college football, according to some, to the implementation of a 1972 gender-equity law known as Title IX, according to others. All agree that budgets are tighter.
Some of the decline has been offset by the increase in women participating in Olympic sports, and winning medals, in recent decades. The genders split the U.S. medals won here, each with 53. Four were in mixed sports.
The U.S. Olympic Committee “is going to have to be smarter and better funded “to help subsidize prospective Olympians directly, says its chairman, Peter Ueberroth.
China leapfrogged the U.S. in gold medals, winning the most of any country here with 51, compared with the U.S.’s 36. The U.K., host of the 2012 Summer Games, poured resources into its Olympic program and jumped to fourth in gold medals this year, with 19. More countries are also getting onto the podium, with a record 86 countries having won medals in Beijing.
In the overall medal count, the U.S. finished ahead of China, 110 to 100. Russia was third with 72, the U.K. fourth with 47.
While the budgets of sports-governing bodies in the U.S. have increased in recent years because of more sponsorship money, opportunities to pursue sports that are less visible in non-Olympic years are declining.
Losing college-scholarship programs in these sports narrows the pool of athletes. To help fill the void, private clubs have emerged.
But while Chinese athletes rely on state sports schools, Mr. Barclay’s gymnasts who train at his gym about 10 miles from ASU depend on their own fund-raising. “We were never going to let money stand in the way of doing the right thing, “says Mr. Barclay, 51 years old.
Even so, he acknowledges that promising gymnasts in many cases opt for higher-visibility sports with scholarships, such as baseball and basketball.
In May, on the day Mr. Barclay and team supporters mailed a proposal to the ASU athletic director on reinstating the team, the university eliminated men’s swimming, wrestling and tennis. Those teams were in or near the top 20 in the nation for years, producing a host of Olympians.
“It comes down to what the market wants, “said Linda Love, the ASU athletic director, in her office, fronted by large windows overlooking ASU’s football stadium, which seats 75,000.
The department cut the three teams because of unexpected increases in the past year in the costs of travel, including airfare, gasoline and hotels, she says.
The department chose those three Olympic sports because, unlike the football program, they don’t generate much revenue. The department’s $41 million budget depends on ticket sales, team souvenirs, event parking and other game-related revenue, about half of which comes from football.
The university saved $1 million a year by cutting the three sports.
But not only ASU football was off the table from the budget ax. All women’s sports were as well, says Ms. Love, the ASU athletic director.
The reason is Title IX, a law that came to be used to make athletic opportunities at schools and colleges more equal between the sexes.
Title IX’s success over the years in increasing female participation in sports is undeniable. The number of girls playing high-school sports has grown by nearly ninefold since the 1970s. The problem, according to critics, is how the law has been implemented in more recent years. Colleges now have to meet largely one criterion or be clearly heading toward it: The ratio of female-to-male athletes should reflect the ratio of female-to-male undergraduates.
But female student enrollment on average at Division I NCAA institutions now exceeds male enrollment, while female athletes at these institutions on average are still a smaller percentage of the total than male athletes. That means colleges still have a ways to go under the law.
And that inevitably makes men’s teams more vulnerable when budgets tighten.
The Women’s Sports Foundation, a lobbying group, rejects the notion. “The number, competitive level and quality of sports programs are individual institutional decisions, just as are academic programs, “the foundation said in a statement.
The ASU men’s swimming and wrestling teams were reinstated later in May, after wealthy donors emerged. Mr. Barclay doesn’t count on any similar rescue for the men’s gymnastics team.