Friday, August 3, 2012

Why America Will Top The Medals Table Again

After a week of competition at the London Olympics, we're seeing two countries vie for domination of the medals table. The first, China, has more than one billion people, focuses on events such as weight lifting that have many medals up for grabs and puts its athletes into a rigorous, bootcamp-like state training regimen from the ages of 11 or 12 with little to no freedom. Effective, sure, but not exactly something democratic countries would want to model. See this fine article in Time for more details.

The second is the United States. 

Certainly, it is also a country with a large population (more than 300 million), but sheer number of people is not the primary reason for its Olympic dominance. Having played two sports at the US college level, basketball and football (our kind, irritatingly still called "soccer" Stateside) and lived here for 11 years, I've compiled several reasons why the US will continue to produce the likes of Michael Phelps, LeBron James, Hope Solo and Ryan Lochte for the foreseeable future:

1) College Sports
When I first visited the US in 1999, I stayed at two small (less than 2,000 students) colleges in Ohio. I was amazed to find that both had a full-size swimming pool, synthetic running track, indoor and outdoor tennis and basketball facilities, an American Football stadium and a weight room you'd expect to see at an Olympic training facility. Turns out that this is the norm at hundreds of American colleges and universities, and merely increases in scope for the big schools such as the University of Texas, which crammed over 100,000 fans into its stadium for an American football game last year and where the athletics program generates around $150 million in annual revenue.

The conference that Texas teams compete in, the Big 12, is certainly big in the plus side of the balance sheet, recently inking a new television deal with ESPN/Fox worth $2.6 billion. And the Big 12 is just one of several top conferences in the college sports system, which feeds the professional leagues of the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL and MLS through draft systems. Though not every college sport is played in front of 100,000 fans, each is hotly contested and the top athletes receive full scholarships that pay for their education.

During the championship week in collegiate American football (Bowl Week) the country is hopped up on gridiron while they're freebasing turkey and stuffing around the Thanksgiving holiday and 21.9 million people watched the college basketball final in spring 2012. The level of competition is so high that the athletics championships regularly boast performances that would shame many countries' Olympic trials and events such as the Kansas and Penn Relays draw some of the world's top sprinters. Simply put, the collegiate sports system fosters, nay demands, excellence. Outside of rowing, what British university sports foster the same?

2) Youth System
In 2011, more than three million American children played organized football (soccer). The leagues they play in are well coordinated and most training facilities are somewhere on the good-to-out-of-this-world spectrum. There are two world-class complexes within 20 minutes of my house in the Kansas City metro, and one attracts 13,000 youth players, 2,000 coaches, and 800 teams each year. So it's no surprise that the US women's team enters the 2012 Olympics as a favorite and the men's team continues to rise in the world rankings. And football isn't anywhere near as popular as American football, baseball or basketball (though, of course, the first two are not Olympic events).
Click here to read the rest of this piece at The Huffington Post

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