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Vince Grippi: The U.S. is no longer a lock when it comes to the Olympics

Aug. 2, 2021 Updated Mon., Aug. 2, 2021 at 4:38 p.m.

By Vince Grippi Spokane Chronicle

The sun was ready this morning to make it’s usual overpowering summer appearance over Spokane. But it must have given up, beaten back by the haze in the air. The miasma made a point, though. The future is always murky.

The red glow was, in a perverse way, beautiful. The fog-like nature of the air. A large red orb, like Sauron’s eye, rising in the eastern sky. A crimson glow. Mesmerizing. Though the reason behind it, wildfires throughout the region, quickly burned away any possible appreciation. And woke us up.

Not literally. The cat did that with its claws about 20 minutes earlier. No, we’re speaking figuratively. And our focus on this Monday isn’t about anything but the United States and the Olympics.

Once our personal playground. Now, not so much.

The medals’ table from Tokyo tells the story. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States has been the dominant Olympic power. The Chinese broke through in 2008, when they hosted in Bejing and won 51 gold medals, but other than that, the U.S. has been atop the overall standings each year since Atlanta in 1996.

With less than a week to go in 2020 (actually, 2021, but, you know, the International Olympic Committee), it is once more, albeit barely. Though it seems a certainty the gold medal crown will go to China for only the second time.

Heck, in Rio five years ago, the United States had 19 more gold medals than any other country, as well as 14 more silver and 12 more bronze. This year? As we head down the stretch of the pandemic games, the U.S. is just two medals ahead of China (64-62) overall and trails in gold 29-22.

Is this a blip or a, like the smoky Spokane skies, a harbinger of the future?

We vote for the latter.

Our Olympics team has always been held hostage – or fueled by, depending on your point of view – by college athletics. What alums of most every school would call “minor sports” are the backbone of any Olympic effort. Swimming, diving, wrestling and so on, are where the medal counts rise. And those are the college sports most under financial attack due to the Godzilla-like growth of football and, to a lesser degree, basketball.

Schools throughout the nation have been dropping those sports, at least among men, for more than a decade. The money saved? Usually it goes to another video coordinator or nutrition specialist for the football program. OK, we exaggerate for effect. Administration personnel numbers have grown exponentially as well, fueled by a need to keep up with rules from the NCAA and the federal government. The finite resources college athletic programs labor under are, more and more, being funneled into the beasts that dominate television programming.Heck, when Stanford, a school with a multi-million dollar athletic endowment, starts dropping fencing, field hockey and men’s volleyball, you know those Olympic sports in the U.S. are in trouble. The school announced in July of 2020 it was dropping 11 sports, all of which lead to the Olympics.

The Cardinal reversed course in May, but the announcement underscored the fragility of such sports in our nation’s hierarchy.

If you are a college-age athlete in the West, want to wrestle at the Division I level, you only have seven choices on this side of the Rocky Mountains. Only three Pac-12 universities, Oregon State, Stanford (it was one of the 11 that was recently saved) and Arizona State, offer the sport anymore.

That’s the way our society works, of course. Money matters. And a sport that is in the public eye once every four years doesn’t bring in much. Or any. But the ever-growing contraction of such sports at the college level will bring a corresponding contraction of medal wins at the Olympics. There are other reasons as well, scandals, drug-testing failures, inept leadership, but the heart of the issue is the outlay of money at the collegiate level.

We warned about this four years ago as the U.S. was dominating in Rio. It seemed a bit silly. But it was also Cassandra-like.

Which brings us back to our first point. We were wrong. The Olympic future for the United States is actually clear, not murky. It’s just that the future won’t be as bright as the recent past.

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