For 17 days this summer, much of the nation will set aside its economic angst and election-year acrimony to rally behind the U.S. Olympians competing at the 2012 London Games. But come fall, many of the sports in which these athletes compete — swimming, wrestling and gymnastics, among them — will be fighting for survival on college campuses around the country.

Olympic sports have become an endangered species at many major universities, where athletic departments are dropping varsity teams to remedy deficits and invest more heavily in the revenue-generating sports of football and men’s basketball.

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.

Moreover, just as the prospect of winning a gold medal inspires budding Olympians to work harder every four years, the prospect of winning a college scholarship inspires many parents to sign their children up for swim lessons, gymnastics class and tennis camp.

Bob Bowman, coach of 16-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps, can attest to that as chief executive and head coach of the North Baltimore Aquatics Club, which has placed a swimmer on the U.S. Olympic team in every Summer Games since 1984.

“We have 100 little guys right now who think they’re going to make it,” said Bowman, a former college swimmer for Florida State who coached at Michigan from 2005 to ’08. “These kids believe anything is possible.

“Having worked in a college environment, I understand how they operate. And as someone who [runs] a feeder program for the colleges, our club has young kids whose dream is to get a college scholarship. [Eliminating college swim teams] really hurts us because it takes away an incentive for people to get involved at a grassroots level.”

In-school training

Some U.S. Olympians are sufficiently gifted and driven to excel without competing in college. And female gymnasts train almost exclusively in private clubs, often reaching the height of their competitive powers before reaching college age.

But in other cases, there’s a direct correlation between the coaching on college playing fields and Olympic glory. It’s particularly strong in women’s team sports, which exploded in the decades following the passing of Title IX, the federal law mandating equal opportunity in educational settings.

Since women’s soccer was added to the Olympics at the 1996 Atlanta Games, the United States has won three gold medals and one silver — all with rosters dominated by college standouts.

Women’s rowing is another beneficiary. After winning gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, the U.S. women’s eight-oared shell (the sport’s most prestigious class) failed to distinguish itself at the Olympics. But in 1997 the NCAA made women’s rowing a varsity sport, and a new generation of world-class rowers followed two Olympic cycles later.

Mary Whipple, who helped Washington to two NCAA championships as a scholarship rower, was coxswain on the women’s eight at the 2004 Athens Games. That boat won silver, ending a 20-year medal drought by the U.S. women. At the 2008 Beijing Games, the U.S. women’s eight won gold. And they did it with five women who hadn’t learned to row until college.

So it grieved Whipple to learn that California-Davis recently dropped women’s rowing and that Rutgers dropped its men’s team.

“I would definitely not have been an Olympian had I not gone to the University of Washington and rowed in college,” said Whipple, who’s seeking a spot on the 2012 Olympic team. “The University of Washington got me to win the NCAAsm, and that got me the tryout for the national team. . . . It’s unfortunate that athletes have to get their sports taken away because the budget has to balance.”

Spending priorities

It’s not that the money has dried up in big-time college sports. The problem is the vast majority of NCAA Division I athletic departments spend more money than they generate. According to USA Today’s annual survey of revenue expenses in NCAA Division I public universities, published in May, just 22 of 227 schools earned more than they spent.

Texas led all schools in revenue and expenses, taking in $150.3 million and spending $133.7 million to field 20 varsity teams.

Ohio State generated $131.8 million but stretched its $122.3 operating expenses among 36 varsity teams, including synchronized swimming and men’s and women’s fencing, gymnastics, ice hockey, tennis and volleyball.

In both cases, wildly successful football teams pay the freight for Olympic teams. But that’s rare. More often, Division I schools spend as much on football as they earn (in some cases more), fearing that paring back would undercut the squad’s competitiveness.

That’s no way to sustain a broad-based athletic department, as Maryland officials learned after five consecutive years in which revenue from football, men’s basketball and fundraising declined.

For years Maryland masked its deficit-spending by tapping a reserve fund to cover shortfalls. But the fund ran dry, and the department had to borrow to pays its bills.

With the deficit projected to top $17 million by 2017, President Wallace D. Loh announced in November that Maryland would cut eight of its 27 varsity teams: all three men’s track teams (indoor track and field, outdoor track and field, cross-country); men’s and women’s swimming and diving; men’s tennis; women’s water polo and acrobatics and tumbling (formerly known as competitive cheer).

“The Division I business model is broken; it’s not sustainable,” says Moyer, of the National Wrestling Coaches Association. “And unfortunately, a lot of Olympic sports are being mortgaged to keep fueling something that isn’t sustainable. The easy thing to do is just drop sports. It used to be where schools dropped a sport or two. Now, it’s eight to 10.”

Common goals

In recent years, Olympic sports have started fighting back. Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, has been particularly proactive in working with the NCAA and college athletic directors to develop ways to spare gymnastics — as well as other Olympic sports that have been identified as “at risk” (swimming, synchronized swimming, diving, volleyball, wrestling and water polo) — from further cuts.

“My perception is that these days, no sport is safe from the economic challenges schools are facing,” Penny says. “We all recognize there is a greater danger today than there was 20 years ago.”

Relations between the NCAA and USOC have historically been icy. But on this issue, both groups appear to see the wisdom of working together to prevent further erosion of Olympic sports.

“It definitely does matter to us,” says Joni Comstock, the NCAA’s senior vice president for championships. “We want to support our NCAA student-athletes, particularly if their experiences and their dreams include the Olympics. Having said that, we all have to acknowledge that each of our individual member institutions have the right to define their mission as it relates to their intercollegiate athletic programs.”

In Penny’s view, Olympic sports must figure out how to be financially self-sustaining — or something close to it — if they’re to survive as varsity teams. That means developing savvy marketing and fundraising programs and targeting deep-pocketed donors among business leaders, alumni and former Olympians who’ve made good.

“That’s the biggest drum that needs to be beaten,” Penny says. “There are potential donors that are completely untapped. It’s like oil waiting to be drilled.”

The wrestling coaches’ association is pursuing the same tack, investing $850,000 in a CEO leadership academy in which young college coaches learn fundraising and marketing skills. It has launched the Greater Washington Wrestlers and Business Network, which pulls together corporate CEOs with wrestling backgrounds to help coaches at American, Maryland and George Mason develop business plans that should steel them against future budget cutbacks.

The end game for all Olympic sports is to raise enough money to fund endowments capable of covering the costs of scholarships, travel and coaches’ salaries.

“There are some intercollegiate programs that generate a lot of money, and that’s great.” Moyer says. “But there has to be a balance. It’s just unfortunate when we get to a point where we think the student-athlete experience in one sport is more meaningful than another. The fact is, they all matter.”