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 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 — with the notable exception of snowboarding, BMX and sports of a similar X-Games-inspired ilk.
“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 level. 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.
“Most people don’t see the connection between the quality of mentoring your son or daughter receives in elementary school or middle school or high school and the college program that trains that athlete to be a coach and a teacher,” Moyer says.