The United States and the Olympics

I am pretty sure that I have written this article somewhere roughly 3 years ago after attending a USOC-sponsored coaching conference and realizing that most of the people were sycophants and basically nuts. However, the issue continues to gain momentum, and because nobody wants to argue a realistic position, here we go:

In an article titled “Why is America so bad at the Olympics”, author Nico Hines wrote, “At London 2012, the U.S. could be found languishing in 48th place if you adjusted the medal table to account for country size.”

My first response is, “Who cares?” Honestly, why do people care about the Olympics? Nationalism? Why is the Olympics more important than World Championships? Because everyone gathers in a single city that sold its soul and sold out its residents for the pride of hosting the Olympics? Honestly, who cares? Every tweet that I have read this week has criticized the Olympic ideal and the IOC and its hoarding of all revenue for its directors. Why even support it?

My second response is, “Well, sure, but that’s not the entire story.”

In boxing, as one example, there were 13 weight classes at the 2012 Olympics (10 male, 3 female), which represent 39 possible medals. In basketball, there were two divisions (men and women), and six possible medals (with the ability to win only 2 medals).

Look at Jamaica. Jamaica can dominate one thing (a single event in a single sport) at the Olympics and hope to win 8 medals (3 medals in the men’s 100m, 3 medals in the women’s 100m, and 2 4×100 relay medals). They would need 8 exceptional athletes (4 males and 4 females) to win 8 medals.

Meanwhile, USA Basketball features 12 exceptional athletes on its men’s team, and 12 exceptional athletes on its women’s team, in order to win 2 medals. That does not count the other outstanding athletes in the NBA and WNBA that did not make the team. If USA Basketball sent multiple men’s and women’s teams, it would be very possible to win all 3 medals in men’s and women’s basketball.

If the U.S. sports system was designed to win Olympic medals, it was designed incorrectly. The sports that lead to professional salaries, appear on television, and have the greatest participation contribute few potential medals to the USOC because they are (1) team sports with only two potential medals and (2) often are not contested in the Olympics.

Also, when comparing USA to Australia and Britain, the U.S. won 28 medals at the 2014 Winter Olympics compared to 4 for GB and 3 for Australia. Many of the best athlete in the U.S. play ice hockey, ski, snowboard, etc., which further removes potential Olympic medalists at the 2012 Summer Games. A more accurate representation of the U.S.’s suckiness at the Olympics, compared to other countries, would combine the Summer and Winer Games.

Where do great athletes gravitate in the U.S.? Football (0), basketball (2), baseball (0), volleyball (6), softball (0), soccer (2), and lacrosse (0). If the U.S. swept all of the potential medals from these sports, it would barely be more than Jamaica’s 100m runners although it would require roughly 92 athletes to fill out men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s beach volleyball (two teams each), and men’s and women’s soccer (of course, the USMNT did not qualify, reducing the potential medal haul by one before the Games start).

Let’s also not forget the difficulty in making the U.S. Olympic team. Keni Harrison will not be representing the U.S. in Rio, although she broke the world record in the 100 meter hurdles two weeks ago. She peaked a week or two late for the U.S. Olympic trials; if Jamaica followed the U.S. system, Usain Bolt would not be in Rio to participate. Because of the U.S. trials system, and the depth in many events, the U.S. often leaves behind athletes who could medal, especially in track & field and swimming.

The problem is not, as the article suggests a lack of sports science:

“I think where Britain leads the way along with others like the Australian Institute of Sport is that the funding allows full-time dedicated sports scientists to work with the sports,” says Greg Whyte, a double Olympian and former Director of Research for the British Olympic Association.

Sure, having greater funding for Olympic athletes might be nice, but I am sure people in Britain might debate whether or not funding for elite athletes, at the expense of youth and developmental athletes, is the proper allocation of funds. Personally, I think it is a huge waste of money for USA Basketball to spend a huge proportion of its budget to send an Olympic team to win a gold medal in basketball, a near certainty that would require a monumental collapse not to win, rather than improving grassroots funding for all basketball participants. What’s the point? To win a medal? Everyone knows that the U.S. is the best nation in the world for basketball; winning a gold medal will not add anything to the argument or debate, because no rational person will debate against it, and losing will not really change anything either.

That doesn’t mean they [U.S.] can compete on an equal footing with the well-funded national programs in other countries, however. Some countries have nationwide systems to identify talent earlier and are able to tailor personal development plans that are more concerned with maximizing long-term potential than ensuring the student’s school or college beats its deadly division rival in an end of season match-up.

Wait, is that even a positive? I spoke about this in my presentation on Long Term Athlete Development at GAIN IX in June. What if the USOC decided that it wanted to maximize its medal output. Rather than enabling the second best 12 in the NBA to play basketball, a state-sponsored USOC would force these athletes to play Team Handball, and a team featuring players like John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Andre Drummond, Paul Milsap, etc. would be identified at 16-18 years old and siphoned off to Team Handball to win a gold medal for Team USA. Would anyone care? Would these athletes prefer to win a Team Handball gold medal in obscurity or to make millions of dollars playing professional basketball? Is the U.S. wrong to sacrifice a few medals to allow these athletes to pursue professional basketball careers?

Similarly, as I stated at the USOC conference in 2013, if the USOC wanted to maximize its chances of winning medals at the Olympics, it would require NCAA schools to start Field Hockey programs rather than Lacrosse programs. After all, lacrosse is not an Olympic sport, and it attracts larger and larger number of participants each year, whereas field hockey is not a big participation sport, but it is an Olympic sport. Many children in the U.S. participate in non-Olympic sports. This may cost the U.S. in the medal tables every four years, but it is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.

Truthfully, the best way to win more Olympic medals would be for the U.S. to eliminate football, not to add sports science and talent ID programs. Imagine what would happen if football was eliminated. First, tens of thousands of top athletes now playing HS, NCAA, and pro football would disperse into other sports. Many would participate in track & field, deepening the talent pool in a sport that awards over 120 medals at the Olympics. Others might spend more time in boxing, weightlifting (8 weight classes/24 medals just for men), or wrestling (6 weight classes in freestyle wrestling; 6 weight classes in Greco Roman wrestling; 36 total medals just for men). Of course others would pursue basketball and baseball and add nothing to the medal possibilities. Others might transition to winter sports such as ice hockey or bobsled.

Would these athletes be better off competing in boxing, wrestling, or weightlifting than playing college and potentially pro football? If the USOC identified high school football players who could win Olympic medals in boxing, wrestling, or weightlifting, and paid them to train for 8-12 years for the Olympics, would the U.S. win more medals? Should we expend our resources trying to win these extra 20-30 medals or should we spend the money creating more programs for all youth athletes to play whatever sport they choose, regardless of whether or not there is an Olympic medal possibility at the end of the career?

Look, Britain and Australia have smaller populations and have to maximize every potential athlete to win medals. Good for them. The U.S. has an embarrassment of riches. But, please do not blame this “poor” performance of the U.S. on bad training or a lack of sports science. Again, it can be argued that the U.S., on the men’s side, will not be sending say 1000 of its best 1100 athletes in the entire country because they are playing professional football or basketball (not to mention the winter athletes), and the other 100 athletes who will be at the Olympics will be favored to win medals in track and field, swimming, basketball, volleyball, beach volleyball, etc.

U.S. coaching expert Gilbert knows Team USA has little chance of emulating that kind of nationwide thinking and scientific planning. The current collegiate sporting development system is too deeply entrenched, socially and financially, and anyway, most Americans think they are doing well enough so there’s no impetus to tear up the system and start again.

“We’re around 50th in per capita but the attitude is ‘We’re first or second in overall medals—we’re still winning so who cares, right?’” he said.

If China, Russia and countries like South Korea and Japan start following Britain and Australia’s lead, U.S. sports fans are going to be worrying pretty soon.

They will be worried only if they really care. However, once the NFL season kick offs, do we really believe that U.S. sports fans will sit around bemoaning the fact that China swept the table tennis medals or that Bulgaria won more weight lifting medals or Britain dominated cycling? No. The only way U.S. sports fans will be upset at the Olympics is if USA Basketball loses a game or USWNT Soccer loses a game, or Simone Biles doesn’t win all-around gold, or Michael Phelps doesn’t dominate his event. There are 120+ track & field medals, and 2 basketball medals. It’s a distorted argument.

In every sport that the U.S. participates heavily, it wins. Now, should the USOC invest heavily in all sports? Maybe, although I would suggest that it only should invest if those dollars are used to increase participation of young athletes in these sports. Find the athletes that quit basketball, baseball, soccer, football, gymnastics, etc. in adolescence and have them participate in USOC-funded rowing, fencing, table tennis, wrestling, boxing, judo, etc. Who cares if they win medals or not? The goal should be to increase participation of young athletes in sports – any sport – and more of the budget should be spent on growing the number of youth participants. If the U.S. ever gets a critical mass of young athletes participating in judo or table tennis or fencing or cycling or whatever, the U.S. will find ways to win medals at the Olympics.

It is more about funding ways to get more young athletes participating, not more funding for sports science for the elites. Every sport that has high numbers of participation in the U.S. (basketball, volleyball, women’s soccer, track and field, swimming) will have good results at the Olympics, with the exception of men’s soccer.

Look, to simplify for the Brits: If you want to argue that the U.S. is bad at the Olympics, acknowledge that football, and its billion dollar television deals that attract huge audience and a high proportion of elite athletes, is the absolute number one reason.

To put it another way: Ashton Eaton is the best athlete in the U.S. (world?) right now. Is his income and fame anywhere close to that of Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, JJ Watt, etc? No. Is there any incentive for athletes such as Watt to forsake football for Greco-Roman Wrestling or for Luck to bypass football for archery?

To answer the question directly: Why is America so bad at the Olympics? Football. NFL.

This is not to suggest there are no problems in the U.S. or that we could not improve our methods or that it is correct or appropriate not to care about sports like cycling or fencing or table tennis. However, to suggest that the U.S. struggles in these sports because of sports science or a full-time sports institute, without mentioning the huge attraction of professional sports in the U.S., especially football, is disingenuous at best and ignorant at worst.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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