U.S. Summer Olympic Dominance Threatened by College Program Cuts

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A robust collegiate sports ecosystem has helped the United States dominate the Summer Olympic Games over the last 25 years. “It is why we are a world power,” said Sarah Wilhelmi (senior director of collegiate partnerships, United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee).

But since the onset of the pandemic, more than 100 Division I Olympic sports programs have been dropped by their respective athletic departments (some have since been reinstated), and Wilhelmi suggests there are more at risk. “The space is still recalibrating,” she said. “I’m hearing from [college sports] leaders that it could be [another] three to five years before they are really back in the black and operating the way they need to be.” With the U.S. Olympic pipeline constricting, it is reasonable to wonder if this summer’s Games will be the last with Team USA at the top of the medal count (the U.S. is a heavy favorite in Tokyo).

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Our Take: The NCAA pipeline is critical to the success of the U.S. Olympic team. For perspective, 80% of the U.S. athletes who competed in the Rio 2016 Games took the collegiate route there.

The team going to Tokyo (Opening Ceremonies are tonight) is expected to be around 75% current or former college athletes, a drop explained by the addition of skateboarding, rock climbing and surfing to the Olympic program.

It makes sense that the bulk of U.S. Olympians would have played college sports. As Wilhelmi said, “These young athletes and their parents are often enticed by an athletic scholarship to pursue [the interscholastic sports] trajectory.”

So the recent shuttering of college programs—Iowa, Minnesota and Connecticut have eliminated Olympic sports programs within the last year—could threaten future U.S. performance. Not only would it mean a smaller pool of college athletes to draw from, but fewer programs (and scholarships) could eventually stifle interest at a youth level. “Nobody wants to climb a ladder that is lying on the ground,” said Wilhelmi, who was hired to help Team USA navigate a rapidly changing NCAA ecosystem. “The fact that we have a robust NCAA championship system is something a lot of young people aspire to [reach]. You take that away, and [participation in these] sports can really dwindle nationally. That’s the fear.”

If enough athletic departments eliminate a given sport, it risks losing its NCAA championship designation (50 programs across all divisions are needed to host an NCAA championship, 40 is the threshold for emerging women’s sports). The USOPC executive cited men’s volleyball, men’s and women’s water polo, men’s and women’s gymnastics, women’s ice hockey, women’s bowling, women’s beach volleyball, combined rifle, combined fencing and combined skiing as low sponsored sports. Incidentally, some of these sports (including men’s gymnastics) have generated medals for the U.S. since 2016.

But the purpose behind preserving Olympic sports at the college level is about more than just medals. “There aren’t a lot of tracks [or diving wells] independent of a school,” Wilhelmi pointed out. “The reality is that our [sports] infrastructure is pretty tied to the scholastic sports model.”

The programs lost over the last 16 months should not have a noticeable impact on team performance this summer or even in Paris in 2024. In the short term, the best athletes from those schools will simply transfer to another program, and it will be business as usual.

But while the negative impact on Olympic team performance may still be a “few dominoes away,” Wilhelmi insists the threat of those tiles falling is real. So the USOPC executive is actively working to identify solutions that will “preserve the next chapter of college sports in a sustainable way.”

To help source those ideas, the USOPC put together a 40-person college sports sustainability think tank comprised of administrators, coaches and former athletes. The group identified three problem areas last fall (sport sustainability, sport structure and vertical partnerships) and began to construct actionable recommendations this past spring. The recommendations will be disclosed in August following the Games.

To be clear, the loss of collegiate sports programs does not just hurt the U.S. Olympic team. More than 600 NCAA athletes, representing 100 countries, competed in Rio. The Canadian and Australian teams had the largest non-American contingents of college athletes. “Interestingly, [there wasn’t] as big a footprint from China and Russia,” Wilhelmi said. “[Those countries] tend to identify their talent at a young age and train them in a state-run [development] system.” Of course, they are also two of the biggest threats to dethrone the U.S. as the medal leader.

Considering the critical role collegiate sports plays in Olympic athlete development, it is reasonable to suggest that the USOPC should help schools with the financial burden of carrying Olympic sports. But, Wilhelmi says the organization simply does not have the budget to support the every program (D-I programs spent $5.6 billion on Olympic sports in 2018), and being selective with funding presents problems. “It could actually do more harm than good if we just helped one conference, and then other conferences let go of programs because we didn’t help them,” she said. For the record, Wilhelmi did say the USOPC is “dabbling with some grants to test some types of creative partnerships [discussed in the think tank].”

Wilhelmi is ultimately optimistic the U.S. will find a way to continue its Olympic dominance. “We’re a resilient bunch,” she said. “I have full faith that we’re going to work with our college administrators to keep our sports strong.”