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Strong U.S. showing masks future problems

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BEIJING -- It no longer makes any difference whether the U.S. Olympic Committee was sandbagging or simply being realistic with its pre-Games pronouncements about medal hopes in Beijing.

The significant thing is its analysis was exactly correct.

So it would be wise to listen to USOC chief executive Jim Scherr’s analysis of future shock for U.S. Olympic teams.

‘Given our position coming into the Games, which was that China would win the gold-medal count and would be closer in the total medal count than anyone thought, we surpassed our expectations for performance in these Games,’' Scherr said.

For what it is worth, despite the continued rise of China, Team USA should wind up with its most medals in a non-boycotted Olympics since 1904.

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But that statistic is a questionable measure of success. The regular addition of sports and events from 1960 through 2000, many in sports where U.S. athletes already excelled, has increased the U.S. haul. The U.S. also has benefited from the reunification of Germany, as the sum is less than the parts that were East Germany’s sports machine.

A counterpoint to that is how many other countries worldwide have become competitive over the past two decades -– and the addition of countries from the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

The fairest comparisons are to the last two Summer Games, since there were 300 medal events in 2000, then 301 in 2004 and 302 here.

By that standard, the 2008 U.S. Olympic team can hold its head higher than ever, its total (103 through Saturday morning) guaranteed to top those of Sydney (92) and Athens (102).

‘When we look at what we’ve actually accomplished and what we were within reach of accomplishing, we’re pleased,’' Scherr said.

Yet Scherr, an Olympian in wrestling, is not getting carried away, because he knows the ongoing problem of how to replace the colleges as the primary development pool for athletes in sports such as track (21 medals before Saturday), swimming (31), men’s gymnastics (two), volleyball (two) and wrestling (one) could undermine U.S. Olympic teams very soon.

The cowardly athletic directors who hide behind Title IX to cut men’s non-revenue sports are to blame for some of this, but getting all those old men to change their ways is futile. The USOC must find a solution –- sponsors, government help, whatever –- to provide alternatives for developing athletes and coaches without college opportunities.

Some will point out Michael Phelps did not need college swimming to become the biggest winner in Olympic history. He is a complete exception, having signed a lucrative sponsorship deal well before winning his first gold medal in 2004.

And Phelps also benefited from college swimming the last four years, training at the University of Michigan. Many other swimmers and track athletes use college facilities that exist only because the schools have -– or had -– teams in those sports.

‘With the decline of collegiate opportunities, you’re really taking the heart out of the pipeline that many of our sports in the U.S. have relied on to prepare athletes for Olympic competition,’' Scherr said.

‘The effect is not only the early effect, which is the raw base of numbers in the first iteration. The long-term effect would be loss of those coaches and individuals who go on to support the sport because they had an opportunity to participate. You will see a continuing decline of opportunities as each iteration goes forward. There will be a multiplier effect in the future.’'

Scherr said that ‘in the next 15 years,’' the lack of such opportunities will have a dramatic effect on the performance of U.S. Olympic teams.

You can (medal) count on that.

-- Philip Hersh


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