Could this be the last time the U.S. dominates at the Olympics?

The United States has traditionally been at the top of the medal count in Summer Olympic Games. However, the American dominance may be nearing an end as other countries focus on raking in gold.



June 8, 2021 - 9:47 AM

In this photo from July 11, 2017, US Olympic track and field legend Michael Johnson answers to reporters after the Los Angeles 2014 bid presentations before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) members in Lausanne. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images / TNS

The story goes back a ways, back to the mid-1980s, when Michael Johnson was still in high school.

The famous sprinter was years away from winning gold medals at three consecutive Summer Olympics. He wasn’t yet known for those glittering golden spikes.

A nerdy kid, Johnson was running track at a small magnet school in Dallas. The team’s coach, Joel Ezar, who taught health class during the day, knew only a little about technique but could spot raw talent.

“No one was paying attention to me,” Johnson recalls, “until he started writing letters to all these colleges.”

Baylor University offered the unpolished athlete a chance to hone his skills with a coaching staff versed in speed and strength training.

“It was a critical moment for me,” says Johnson, who wonders whether he might otherwise have fallen through the cracks and never become an Olympian. “I made a huge leap when I got to college.”

This story might sound quaint but it shows how college sports have served as a vast feeder system, helping the Americans dominate every Summer Games for the past 25 years and making them favorites to again win a lion’s share of medals at the Tokyo Olympics.

People need to know how it works, Johnson says. They need to understand because the U.S. winning streak could be history — no more piles of gold, silver and bronze — by the time the 2028 Los Angeles Games come around.

COUNTRIES such as China, Russia and Germany follow a different method, identifying a relatively small number of prospects at an early age and funneling them into specialized training academies.

The U.S. relies instead on its broad network of colleges to serve as a kind of minor leagues. Casting a wide net, this system has a history of identifying and developing talent such as sprinter Carl Lewis and volleyball great Misty May-Treanor. It has given late bloomers such as Johnson, with his awkward, upright style, a few more years to mature.

As a result, the American team can choose from thousands of candidates to restock its roster every four years.

But that pipeline is now in danger of slowing to a trickle, in large part because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its financial impact, with scores of universities cutting costs by downsizing their athletic departments.

Football, a non-Olympic sport, and basketball, a prominent Olympic sport, but one that yields few medals, have been spared because they generate tens of millions through ticket sales and broadcast rights. The ax has fallen instead on such sports as the Summer Games trinity of track, swimming and gymnastics, which operate at a deficit. So far, hundreds of teams have been eliminated nationwide.

Prominent NCAA schools such as Iowa, Minnesota and Connecticut have made cuts, as have many smaller Division II and Division III campuses.

A few universities, including Brown and Clemson, have backed down in the face of public pressure. Stanford, which ranks with USC and UCLA in sending athletes to the Olympics, reinstated 11 teams it planned to drop. Still, officials see a worrisome trend.