Why Is America So Bad at the Olympics?
America’s Olympic performance is slipping. Hamstrung by the traditional collegiate sports system, it is failing to keep up with the latest scientific advances.
CHELTENHAM, England — The U.S. Olympic Team has been left behind.
At London 2012, the U.S. could be found languishing in 48th place if you adjusted the medal table to account for country size.
For almost a century after the birth of the modern Olympics in 1896, the U.S. was in the top 20 for medals per capita—but since Seoul 1988, Team USA has been on a sharp slide.
Hundreds of factors shape today’s global sporting map but one crucial trend, welcomed by many of America’s most successful competitors, is the honing of sports science programs.
The U.S. was a sports science trailblazer in the late ’70s and ’80s, but understanding its importance is no longer enough to stay ahead of the game.
The globalization of sports science has begun to level the playing field.
The latest battles between national teams are dominated not just by scientific advances, but the ability to develop comprehensive development systems to apply them. Young people with natural potential to win Olympic medals must be identified early and have all the wisdom of sports science—from nutrition to medicine, psychology and training—funneled directly into their development.
To American ears, this might sound sinister—the kind of thing the Russians and Chinese are good at. But the fact is, Britain, Canada and Australia are now in the vanguard.
“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.
In Britain, the major Olympic sports are now centrally funded so they can employ full-time scientists, sports medics, physiotherapists, and soft tissue specialists who are on call seven days a week drawing up and then implementing rigorous programs that will allow a small group of chosen athletes to reach their physical peak in the coming weeks.
“There has been virtually no technological advance since the last Olympics,” Whyte told The Daily Beast during this summer’s Cheltenham Science Festival in England. “What we are starting to understand much better is the individual approach of working with athletes, in other words, our coaching science. The relationship between coaching and science is coming closer together. We are not necessarily advancing knowledge, what we are doing is advancing practice.”
In the U.S. sporting world, there is no equivalent federal funding for the Olympic sports. In most cases there are hardly even any central organizers.
Wade Gilbert, a sports science consultant for the U.S. Olympic Committee and editor of the International Sport Coaching Journal, said there was a lack of alignment and planning in U.S. sports compared to some of the world’s most advanced systems.
“The U.S. is unique from a sports perspective; we have no minister of sport or federal ministry. Even the Olympic association really has no control over any of this process—they’re there to support but they can’t really mandate anything,” he told The Daily Beast.
“It’s not a mystery, most of the high-level research in athletics is coming out of Canada, Australia, and England, and that’s because those countries have federal oversight of sport, federal ministries of sport.”
It’s the collegiate sports programs that dominate the coaching of many of America’s rising Olympic stars. In a way that is unparalleled in other countries, American colleges have taken a stranglehold on youth sports.
Television money pouring into college football and basketball in the late 1960s and ’70s transformed college sports programs into multimillion-dollar behemoths.
Ronald Gallimore, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, has witnessed that transformation first hand. As part of his groundbreaking investigations into coaching, he wrote a book on UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, one of the most celebrated icons of college sport. (In 2009 Sporting News named Wooden the greatest coach in American sporting history, knocking Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers down into second place.)
Men like Wooden became household names and helped to convince the American public that college sports programs were global bastions of athletic excellence.
The likes of Carl Lewis, Mark Spitz, Cam Newton, Michael Jordan, and Wooden’s own Kareem Abdul-Jabbar certainly flourished in the NCAA system, and college sports teams become symbols of pride for entire cities or even states.
“Everybody in Tennessee, for example, roots for the University of Tennessee. On football Saturday the state shuts down and everyone watches the game—including the legislators,” said Gallimore.
“The alumnae love their teams to be successful and they are the ones donating to the university. At the state universities the legislature votes on the money that supports the university and many of those legislators are graduates of the university.”
There is no doubt that the crucible of collegiate competition has forged some of the world’s greatest athletes and many colleges have modern facilities that are the envy of similar institutions around the world.
That doesn’t mean they 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.
Could college sports ever be replaced by such a science- and performance-led system in the U.S.?
“No, no, I don’t see that happening here,” said Gallimore. And nor does he think it would be worthwhile. “When you consider the opportunities of the current system there are thousands of opportunities. Even if you’re not an Olympic hopeful we’ve got so many chances to be on a team and win in your division or championship.”
There is no time for such romantic notions at the English Institute for Sport in Manchester, where they have helped to mastermind a plan that has shot Great Britain up the Olympic medal table in recent years. In 2012, Team GB finished third in the gold medal count. If you exclude very small countries (populations under 20 million), the per capita table had Australia in first place and Great Britain second. The U.S. is just below Kenya in 11th.
The English Institute for Sport concentrates on training and assisting the coaches who work with small cohorts of rising stars who have been identified from all corners of the country.
The director of science and technical development told The Daily Beast that they focused on preparing athletes for “what it actually takes to win instead of just building an engine.”
Speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival, Dr. Steve Ingham said he traveled to observe training programs all over the world.
“I’ve had the chance to go round many of the institutes—I’ve seen the talent out in China, for example, but in many instances they’re not optimizing it. The talent comes in at a young age but they are given quite generic programs with no individualization or monitoring and in some cases they just don’t improve as much as they could. I have seen it in canoeing, rowing, cycling programs,” he said.
“I visited a rowing program which had a 40 percent back-injury rate, so they’re not addressing the big problem areas. In the British system, modern-day strength conditioning is preserving our athletes’ ability to train on a day-to-day basis but also preserving their career and longevity.”
“If countries like China with big populations—and therefore a greater talent pool—begin to apply science to preparation and performance in the same way we have in Britain we will struggle to compete as we have done.”
China runs a regional training, system which means each area competes against each other, with the best qualifying for the Olympics, but with little central oversight.
“The U.S. is dominated by the collegiate system which, is similar in a way to the Chinese scenario, where they select the best in an Olympic year and they’re the ones that go to the Games. In Britain, we are committed to developing our talent throughout their careers, nurturing them to perform at the Games,” Ingham told The Daily Beast. “The U.S. Olympic Committee has some good systems in place but it is tiny compared to their collegiate and professional sport system that hoovers [vacuums] up a ton of talent.”
Team GB’s medal haul in London was its best ever, but Ingham and his team wasted no time congratulating themselves; they are determined not to follow Australia’s drop-off in performance in the years after their home Games in Sydney in 2000.
“We’ve got a workforce of 300 people and it was counter-intuitive to say to them after a hugely successful home games in London, ‘We are going to change.’ Some said, ‘Why? It was brilliant!’ But we said we are going to change it because we have got to set the bar higher for the next Games in Rio.”
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.