Olympic Sports: Friend or Foe?

The relationship between Olympic sports and collegiate athletics is characterized by both cooperation and conflict. The following is a look at what the future holds in this arena.

By David Hill

David Hill is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 14.4, June/July 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1404/olympic.htm

If you haven't already heard from Bob Djokovich, you probably will.

A basketball player at the U.S. Air Force Academy in the '70s, Djokovich competed in the 1984 Olympic Games in another sport: team handball, the fast-paced indoor game sometimes described as "water polo without the water." Now, he's President of USA Team Handball, the sport's national governing body.

Faced with the daunting task of growing team handball--one of the organization's major goals is for five percent of the American public to even know what the sport is--he says he's prepared to offer athletic departments a slew of help. This includes training coaches, transporting them to clinics, assigning referees, scheduling games with other teams, and even providing tape for court lines.

Having failed to contend for a medal through several Olympiads, USA Team Handball is attempting a new approach. It has largely abandoned trying to turn ex-basketball players in their mid-20s into handball players, and instead plans to attract college-age athletes by offering the chance to represent their country on a medals podium. That would not only enlarge the pool of potential national team members, but it could also lead to a much higher profile for the sport.

"If I can get 40 clubs in the universities playing team handball, I can then petition the NCAA for varsity status," Djokovich says. That would lead to scholarships for players. "And once I've got handball as a scholarship program, we start winning medals. That's why the universities are very important to us in terms of the long-term growth and exposure of our sport."

Once often at odds, the American Olympic movement and athletics in college--and to a lesser extent, high schools--have entered a new era in relations. Instead of viewing each other with a disdainful eye, they are now seeing each other as potential resources.

There are still occasional points of conflict and competition: A few high-profile student-athletes have abandoned college eligibility to cash in on the fame of an Olympic medal, both sides are often chasing the same entertainment and marketing dollars, and athletes from other countries frequently train at American universities only to push classmates off podiums while competing for their home nations. But cooperation is becoming the norm because both sides realize they gain from the relationship.

"It's a tremendous win-win for everyone," says Western Michigan University Athletic Director Kathy Beauregard, chair of the NCAA Olympic Sports Liaison Committee, which was created in 1991. "When you've had student-athletes who have represented your country in international competition, it's a really positive reflection on your institution and the opportunities that have been provided for that student-athlete. It think it's definitely a positive situation for the institutions and for the U.S. national teams."

The Olympic movement certainly realizes how important the relationship is. Beauregard, by virtue of her position with the Liaison Committee, is on the United States Olympic Committee, and the NCAA President, Cedric Dempsey, has a seat on the USOC Executive Board. What follows is an examination of how the relationship has changed in the past several years, and what that means for those who direct college and high school athletics.

Colleges Provide Talent Pool
In 1994, United States Water Polo established a collegiate office specifically to grow the sport on the college level and to support existing programs. It had to. Every one of the national team members came from a college program, yet, with 39 NCAA teams, the sport was in danger of losing championship status.

This reflects a key difference between the American system in many sports and most of the rest of the world, where athletes are developed through clubs with no school or university affiliation. To be sure, American athletes in many sports bypass college, peak before their college years, or participate in what simply aren't college sports. But just as with professional athletics, colleges are the de facto developmental area for many Olympic sports.

"We don't have a system in water polo where the kids are going to train on outside clubs and gain their experience and competitive ability that way," says Dan Sharadin, Director of College and Senior Programs for United States Water Polo. "Everybody who plays on our Olympic teams goes through college. So college is critical."

United States Water Polo, joined by a few other national governing bodies, pushed successfully for an NCAA rule change that ended the automatic cancellation of a collegiate championship when the number of programs falls below 40. And it began offering help and incentives for schools to add the sport.

"We will help a school find a coach, we'll help train that coach, we'll help that coach recruit, we'll give that coach or institution a schedule to play, and we'll assign officials for that particular program," Sharadin says. "And then, lastly, we'll provide money to the schools when they add the sport. If a school adds a men's and women's varsity program, we'll give them $15,000."

United States Water Polo also offers help for high schools, though not cash grants. "It's called a 'club kit,' where they can potentially get the balls, caps, rule book, coaching manual, videos, and other items at about one-fourth of the retail price," Sharadin says. "Then we provide them the same kind of support services as the colleges. We help them with clinics, educate their coaches, get them plugged into a competitive structure, and find the referees."

Several other Olympic sports have recently followed suit. In 1997, when the USOC designated $8 million through the NCAA for grants to conferences, women's ice hockey, cycling, and team handball were among the sports benefiting.

For women's ice hockey, the support has worked quickly and to near perfection. Coupled with the fact that it has been designated an "emerging" sport by the NCAA, it has expanded from its East Coast roots to include 69 NCAA teams, with separate championships in both Division I and Division III.

One beneficiary of the grants was the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which used the $485,000 it got to help elevate women's ice hockey to varsity status. "I would say it was critical to the development of women's ice hockey across the conference," says Al Molde, Director of Athletics at Gustavus Adolphus College, whose team has participated in the 2001 and '02 Division III Frozen Fours. "When you're starting a program, you have to buy the complete equipment inventory and you have to fund a new position for a coach. It made it less painful for us."

Meanwhile, the grant seems to have indirectly stimulated the growth of the sport in Minnesota high schools. "It works up and down," says Molde. "They look at what opportunities are available for young women in sports, and colleges sponsoring intercollegiate ice hockey gives them incentive to add the sport."

USA Team Handball, although facing a steeper slope to climb, is following a similar path. With a $500,000 USOC conference grant, Djokovich's organization helped create the Southeastern Team Handball Conference, a league of college club teams in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

"I'm confident that if we can get our sport in front of the American public, they will take to it," Djokovich says. "And I'm confident that if we can get into the colleges, I can attract the athletes that we need to be internationally competitive.

"The universities help us build the infrastructure that we can then use to reach farther down into our developmental programs--the high schools, the junior highs, the youth activities--and actually build a pipeline and establish leagues that produce world class handball players."

Program Cuts Create Conflicts
While many sports governing bodies cozy up to college programs, tensions remain in the overall relationship, mostly over the elimination of certain sports on campuses. From 775 collegiate programs in 1980, when the NCAA, NAIA, and junior colleges are counted, wrestling programs now total about 300, says Gary Abbott, Special Projects Director for USA Wrestling.

The sport remains strong, with the NCAA championships selling out its venues each year, high school participation rising, American athletes winning world titles, and women's competition set for the 2004 Olympic Games. But dropped college teams alarm USA Wrestling because it is concerned with promoting the sport at all levels and wants to help wrestlers chase a rapidly shrinking pool of athletic grants-in-aid.

"It's not just about developing athletes," Abbott says. "We're concerned with the loss of educational opportunities for wrestlers."

The organization blames the reduction on schools that choose to eliminate men's Olympic-sport teams in order to comply with the gender-proportionality prong of Title IX. For that reason, it has established an ad-hoc committee and assigned staff members to deal with Title IX implications. USA Wrestling has also provided funding to groups trying to change the application of the law through legislation, the courts, and influence with administration, Abbott says. In this way, USA Wrestling conflicts with emerging-sport groups, who can cite the lure of a new women's sport in their sales pitches to colleges.

One person who's heard plenty from Olympic-sport national governing bodies is Jeff Bourne, Executive Director of Athletics at James Madison University. In the spring of 2001, JMU announced it was restructuring intercollegiate athletics into four tiers. Football and men's and women's basketball would be at the top, getting full support. Wrestling would be in Tier III, receiving not much beyond a coaching stipend and some travel expenses, just enough to be regionally competitive.

Olympic ties were considered when assigning each sport to a tier, Bourne says. But more important were participation interest, alumni involvement, competitiveness, and athletics' role in spreading JMU's name nationwide--something offered by Olympic sports, Bourne says, but not to the degree offered by other sports, especially basketball.

"We've been fortunate in the past to have a lot of our athletes do extremely well both at the team level and individually," Bourne says. "In our track program, I look back at people who've competed for spots on the Olympic team and received a lot of national attention. But to say that attention is equal to the exposure of the basketball team making it to the NCAA tournament--they're not the same. And I don't know that I can produce enough Olympians in those sports to make up for that difference."

In the end, JMU kept wrestling, as well as other Olympic sports that many schools nationwide have eliminated, including archery, fencing, and men's and women's gymnastics. But they are all in the lower two tiers.

New Ideas In New Places
Preserving programs is the top issue when Beauregard's Liaison Committee meets each year and hears from national governing boards, she says. And while she won't reveal details, Beauregard says the panel is discussing some ways to help.

"Each institution has its own issues," Beauregard says. "Nobody makes a decision to cut a sport easily. But we believe our task is to look at creative ways of assisting institutions from discontinuing sports and to address those sports that they do have. We are in the process of looking at four different proposals that can help institutions not have to make some of those decisions."

Whether the options include more grant money is unclear, but there are reasons to not expect future financial commitments from the American Olympic movement. The $8 million conference grant program installed in 1997 followed the record contract the USOC entered with NBC for American television rights in 1995. But that contract expires in 2008 following the Beijing Games, and with no domestic Games definitely in sight, the next TV deal may not be as lucrative, says University of Alabama-Birmingham Athletic Director Herman Frazier. A 1976 gold-medal winner in track and field, Frazier is a USOC Vice President.

"If you go back historically and look at the USOC budgets, they always have a spike when the games are coming here," Frazier says. "Unless one of our cities is successful in obtaining the 2012 games there will be no games here for a while."

Even if the USOC realizes a glut of cash from this year's Winter Olympics, it's unlikely it would go far, Frazier adds. "The money from Salt Lake was committed before the games even started," he explains. "X amount goes to the USOC, X amount goes to the IOC, X amount goes to pay the bills, and then X amount stays in Salt Lake to maintain those facilities with some kind of legacy."

Whether or not future grants will be available to colleges to help Olympic sports grow, some national governing bodies are peering down the opposite road. They are looking at starting developmental programs in which athletes bypass college or combine full-time training with an educational component.

USA Volleyball has begun such a program, albeit with a grand total of one athlete so far. Last October, Tracy Stalls, a middle blocker from Lakewood High School in Arvada, Colo., decided to train with the national team in Colorado Springs rather than take a college scholarship. She joined the USA National Team Development Program, which was designed to allow college-age athletes to train with USA Volleyball while maintaining NCAA eligibility. USA Volleyball will pay for her to take classes part-time at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, but her primary responsibility is to train.

"I am going to get a college degree," she told the Denver Post. "It may not be in four years, but I am going to get one." Although other players were invited, only Stalls accepted.

Women's volleyball is one of the most popular sports to sponsor on both the high school and college level, and the college game continues to keep up with the international one--it implemented rally scoring last year and will introduce the libero player this fall. But the national squad has not lived up to its expectations in recent Olympics, frustrating many officials in the sport. How many other athletes will join the new developmental program is a big question mark.

"In no way do we want to have a whole bunch of players in this program," says Tom Pingel, Director of High-Performance National Programs for USA Volleyball. "For one, we can't afford it. And the program isn't necessarily set up for that. We would entertain maybe another player or two coming in, but we want to take it slow.

"As it stands right now," Pingel continues, "the colleges are for sure still our primary training ground between the high schools and the clubs and then the professional leagues. By no means do we want to get into recruiting wars with the colleges."

Potential Template:
Carolina Connection
So what will become the new relationship between college athletics and college-dependent Olympic sports? Is there a middle way?

The University of South Carolina exemplifies how a school can build on Olympic connections in multiple ways. Head Baseball Coach Ray Tanner has twice served as an assistant coach with the Olympic team, in Atlanta in 1996 and in Sydney in 2000. Head Track and Field Coach Curtis Frye accompanied 12 current or former South Carolina athletes and coaches to the 2000 Sydney Games, and they came back with four medals, including a silver in the 110-meter hurdles for then-junior Terrence Trammell. The swimming and diving team was also represented, by senior Zsolt Gaspar and freshman Istvan Bathazi, who competed for their home country of Hungary. It was such a large group that administrators decided to send a member of the sports information staff down under.

"We anticipated it to be an unusual circumstance in that we had some numbers," says Senior Associate Athletic Director Laurie Massa. "We have a strong media relations person in Michelle Schmitt, who isn't afraid to approach people and talk to them about our programs. I think we did get some positive recognition, and when you have that kind of venue, it's all positive, even if they don't win."

The involvement still pays dividends. "In our media guides, we have pages showing medals and pictures of athletes with the flag around their shoulders and things like that," Massa says. "For recruits to see that potential exists, or that we have those kinds of athletes they can train with, is a huge plus."

Similar connections can be made with alumni in major professional team sports, of course, but the Olympics carry a different cachet. "I think that there's limited scope with professional sports. It's a business," Massa says. "The Olympics isn't bottom-line money oriented. It's bottom-line achievement oriented. And that's much more the way college sports is. I think that we expect excellence from student-athletes from a performance standpoint, whether it's in an athletic venue or in a classroom. I think in professional sports it's, 'We pay you and you produce.' It's a different kind of relationship."

Tanner says the time away from his program is far outweighed by the plusses. "When recruits know that a coach has that kind of involvement and his players may have the opportunity to be on one of the national teams, it's certainly a little more attractive," Tanner says. "It can have a direct effect on your recruiting efforts at the institution you're coming from."

Frye has utilized his program's Olympic connections even further. He has four former Olympians on his staff as volunteer assistant coaches. Among them are Allen Johnson, a 1996 gold medalist in the 110-meter hurdles; Melissa Morrison, an Olympic bronze medalist in the same event in 2000; and Monique Hennagan, a member of the American gold-winning 4 x400-meter relay team in 2000. They gain coaching and access to facilities in exchange for mentoring and example-setting, Frye explains.

"Our kids see what it takes to be a world-class athlete, and in turn, [the volunteer coaches] get the energy and enthusiasm from an 18- to 22-year-old," Frye says. "Our staff gets a chance to heighten their careers by helping to assist in developing Olympians. I think our sport and community win because we have athletes who make a contribution to their country."

Not that there aren't drawbacks--or at least complications. Frye lost his best athlete when Trammel gave up his senior year of NCAA eligibility to pursue prize money and endorsements, though he remains in school and trains with the team. And Frye and his paid coaching staff must take extra care in balancing the training, competitive, and motivational needs of a wide range of athletes, from internationally competitive sprinters to non-scholarship cross country runners (see Sidebar, "Elite & Everyman" at the end of this article). But Frye says the trouble is worthwhile, and not just for the top athletes.

"Athletics in general provide an extreme opportunity for a college student that other students don't get--it's a real-life pressure situation," Frye says. "And there's nothing higher than the Olympics. We show that it can be obtained. It sends a message to other athletes that, 'You can attain the utmost while you're still a college student.'"

Washington Weighs In
The drive to help collegiate Olympic sports has reached the United States Senate, where Sen. Paul Wellstone introduced a bill calling for spending up to $10 million on financial aid for student-athletes in Olympic sports.

There's a string attached, however. Wellstone's bill would require any school accepting such money to provide a written justification and an appeal process if it terminates an affected sport. For that reason, the bill is opposed by the NCAA Division I Championships/Competition Cabinet, Committee on Women's Athletics, and Olympic Sport Liaison Committee. The committees see the requirements as too large an intrusion on institutions' decision making.

The bill, called the Olympic Sports Revitalization Act, also calls for grants to the U.S. Olympic Committee and sport national governing bodies to boost participation, particularly in declining sports and in underprivileged areas. Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat who wrestled at the University of North Carolina in the early '60s, introduced the bill last June. It was referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and hasn't been acted on since. Wellstone, along with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican and former collegiate wrestler and high school coach, had previously proposed similar measures but without funding, though they were later withdrawn.

Elite & Everyman
Sure, it's great to have an Olympian in your program, creating favorable publicity, boosting recruiting, and inspiring other athletes. But how do administrators and coaches work people who've competed at the highest levels back into those unique social organizations known as college teams?

Curtis Frye, Head Track and Field Coach at the University of South Carolina, has 85 athletes on his combined men's and women's squads, ranging from those already on the international stage to non-scholarship walk-ons. He also includes in his program several internationally competitive post-college athletes as volunteer coaches who train with the team. Balancing the diverse needs of the athletes is a constant management issue for Frye and his full-time assistant coaches, he says, but they've found ways to cope.

Frye's strategies concentrate on making every team member feel valued. "We try to include people in feeling as though they're making a contribution to the greater cause," he says. For example, when the Gamecocks enter the annual state meet, the elite athletes usually don't take part. "This gives people who may not be as athletically gifted a chance to compete when we're depending on them to win," Frye says.

The team also sets a goal of finishing in the top five of the NCAA dual-meet rankings each year. These rankings include the top performers in each event from each team.

"You can't just sweep it by having five quarter-milers," Frye says. "Your triple jumper who may not be as good counts toward your team trophy from the NCAA. We announce each week where our rankings are and how the person in second place in the long jump, high jump, or 5,000 meters has to improve three or four seconds so that we can win this title."

Inclusion involves more than competition. "We give T-shirts and other awards to everybody on the team for 3.0, 3.5, and 4.0 GPAs, and we keep a plaque with names of people who accomplish other things," Frye says. "If you don't recognize people for their accomplishments, they can become a problem."

Community service also figures in. Team members have helped build homes for Habitat for Humanity, for example. "Some of the kids understand that they are part of a larger community," Frye says, "that there's another way to contribute to society, to be a hero, besides winning medals. We try to keep a wholesomeness so people don't feel less self-worth because they don't have equal athletic ability."