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ADs say help out for developing Olympians

by The Associated Press | April 8, 2021 at 2:08 a.m.
Florida Athletic Director Scott Stricklin (right), shown talking to former University of Arkansas quarterback Feleipe Franks before the Gators’ game against the Razorbacks on Nov. 14, is chairing a task force that includes about two dozen leaders of major college programs and conferences who are looking for ways to keep funding available for college and universities that compete in Olympic sports. (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's a point of pride that stretches across dozens of universities, many of them rivals, and all the college sports leagues, many of which compete for the same dollars and the same talent. As one banner on the Pac-12 Conference's website puts it: "Olympians made here."

The coronavirus pandemic, along with the substantial changes in the college-sports business model that will come into play as soon as this year, have led many leaders in both the college and Olympic worlds to wonder if that will still be true a decade from now.

In one question from a survey sent by The Associated Press to Division I college athletic directors across the country, nearly 65% of those who responded said "Yes" when asked whether the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee should pay part of the bill to the universities that run sports programs that, in turn, feed the U.S. Olympic pipeline.

At stake is a stretch of Olympic dominance that has seen the U.S. win a world-leading 678 medals in both Summer and Winter Olympics since 2000. A huge portion of that success is underwritten by a college industry that, according to one estimate, spends $5 billion a year on Olympic sports programs. At the Rio Games in 2016, nearly 80% of America's 558 athletes competed in a college program.

"The fact that we're one of the few countries that competes at the level we do on the Olympic stage without having government fund the program is because of college athletics and what it does to develop Olympic athletes," Florida Athletic Director Scott Stricklin said.

Stricklin is chairing a task force that includes about two dozen leaders of major programs and conferences who are looking for ways to keep the pipeline running. The mission takes on an even greater sense of urgency with the United States poised to host its first Summer Olympics in a generation in 2028. A key question looming over those home games is whether America's colleges will be able to produce world-class athletes at the same clip they have over the past several decades.

The AP sent its survey to all 357 ADs in Division I, and received 99 responses to multiple-choice questions about their views of how upcoming changes will affect the college-sports landscape. The ADs were also given a chance to add comments, and they were granted anonymity in exchange for candor.

The Olympics question received a high number of "Yes" answers to a proposal that might not be a true reflection of what's possible -- the USOPC depends on the largesse of the colleges to develop talent more than the other way around -- but rather, on how concerned the universities are about their ability to keep operating business as usual.

"I think it's important to get the conversation going because NCAA is a vital piece in the Olympic process," said gymnast Shane Wiskus, an Olympic hopeful who moved to the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs after his college program, Minnesota, announced it would be shutting down its program.

"NCAA gymnastics has done a lot for me and I do fear that if changes aren't made, that could go away and maybe even affect the Olympic process."

While Wiskus and other athletes who are good enough have an option to train at OTC and other centers paid for by their individual sports' national governing bodies, a cut in college programs could strain that system. Before most athletes even reach that elite level, they're invested in years of expensive training and see limited opportunities for a payoff. A college scholarship has long been one of the key gateways for the fencers, gymnasts, rowers and others with an Olympic dream looming but a lack of resources to take that final step.

But most of the 85 programs cut by Division I universities since the coronavirus pandemic hit last year have involved Olympic sports. Next on the horizon are proposals being debated by the NCAA and in Congress that would allow players to cut sponsorship deals and make money off their names, likeness and images (NIL). A more far-reaching bill proposes revenue sharing between the sports programs and athletes.

Once any of these proposals go into play, it's likely that the billions of dollars generated by the two biggest sports on most campuses, football and men's basketball, will be further divvied up. That will leave less to be used to underwrite the dozens of Olympic sports that aren't self-sustaining.

In a related question in the AP survey, 73% of the ADs answered "Yes" to the question: "If your school were to offer compensation beyond scholarships to students, are there any sports that would lose funding or be cut by your school?"

Most of those sports feed the Olympic team.

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