With the Tokyo Games postponed to 2021, U.S. Olympic hopefuls have had to tack on another year to their training—much of which is done at colleges and universities across the country. But as conferences and schools move to cancel or postpone fall sports (and speculation surrounding winter season sports beginning to bubble), hundreds of Olympic hopefuls are at risk of losing the infrastructure they rely on.
The U.S. Olympic Team’s reliance on NCAA infrastructure, among both amateur and the professional ranks, is vast. The various U.S. national governing bodies (NGBs) have reported 544 athletes training on more than 130 school campuses across the country to the U.S. Olympic and Paralymic Committee (USOPC) since March, all aiming for a shot to make Team USA. They, of course, include current college athletes but also local professionals or alumni who choose to stay close to their coaches.
“Everyone is going to have to rethink how to accommodate the athletes, because at the end of the day, without the athletes, there is no Olympic movement,” said sprinter Manteo Mitchell, who ran for Western Carolina from 2005-‘09 and still trains on the North Carolina campus. Mitchell won a silver medal in the 4×400 meter relay at the 2012 Olympic Games. “To keep people at peak performance, [schools, NGBs and the USOPC are] definitely going to have to go to the drawing board and figure out a plan. I think now is the time you see people get creative.”
Even at schools that have postponed their seasons, college athletes can continue training and practicing as permitted by the NCAA/sport federations as long as they meet their institutions’ protocols and testing requirements, a handful of athletic directors confirmed to Sportico. However, those athletes likely won’t have the structured coaching and scheduling that comes with a typical season. Each campus will determine its policies in conjunction with local and state guidelines (as well as NCAA and conference safety protocols), while also considering factors like staffing capacity, legal and liability considerations and more—all of which makes facility access right now as fragmented as the U.S. Olympic pipeline itself.
For instance, who exactly is responsible for testing—the school, the national governing body, the USOPC, the athlete—is still not clear. The USOPC launched a relief fund to assist athletes—collegiate or not—who have encountered COVID-19 financial disruption, some of which could cover to testing costs. NCAA rules typically prohibit athletes from accepting aid outside of scholarships, stipends and limited “permissible benefits,” which include indirect financial perks like meals and education-related benefits. However, athletes looking to cover “actual and necessary expenses to compete in the Olympics” can accept funds from either their national governing body or NCAA school to help in that endeavor.
Meanwhile, colleges expect that facility access will likely be limited only to currently enrolled students, which would leave professional athletes in a lurch. But even that is not a given. Any further school, local or state lockdown could conceivably cut off college athletics facilities for all.
“We’re hoping as we head into this year, if one campus is in a more locked position, maybe another campus can be a resource,” said Sarah Wilhelmi, who was hired as the first USOPC director of collegiate partnerships in 2016. “We’re exploring all of that, knowing hotspots are going to be unpredictable and safety issues will be most important as we try to navigate helping these athletes train.”
Working between NGB’s, schools and national team athletes, Wilhelmi’s team is looking for answers to a barrage of unprecedented questions. As Mitchell noted, taking “months or even days off in an Olympic year just isn’t an option if you actually want to compete.” It’s why he’s been using any flat field he can find to train over the last few months, even if it means getting kicked off a few.
“Flexibility is required this year, and with our partnership with the USOPC we are here to help those athletes work to train and achieve the Olympic dream,” said Jennifer Fraser, NCAA director of Division I governance. “The United States is unique in this way. The collegiate environment does produce the Team USA athletes, and we have great pride in that. We all have a common goal and mission to do what we can—especially now.”
At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, nearly 80% of American athletes (and 83% of U.S. medalists) had college athletics ties of some kind. As the predominant athlete development system, college sports provide infrastructure and training resources in Olympic sports at little or no cost to the USOPC and NGBs. The uniquely fractured system has produced great Olympic success over countries that have far more centralized systems for development and training, independent of individual institutions and colleges completely.
Even prior to the pandemic, the USOPC was working to smooth the edges of its decentralized structure. Crafted with its Collegiate Advisory Council and the Power 5 conferences, the USOPC and NCAA passed new legislation in January 2020 to remove some existing impediments for athletes who compete collegiately and internationally. The new rules help clearly identify national team student-athletes and extend training flexibility (granting exemptions to NCAA-mandated training time limits, for example), provide developmental resources and encourage collaboration between the different bodies involved.
“This legislation has and will continue to help ensure there’s more communication because [NGBs, schools and the USOPC] have to track who exactly qualifies for the increased developmental training expenses or the exemptions it allows for,” said NCAA associate director Leeland Zeller, who worked on the most recent legislation. “A natural outcome of the legislation is more people working together. With that, we can continue to provide even better opportunities for the elite-level student-athletes to excel both in college and [at the] Olympics. During this uncertain time, we need that as much as possible.”
While the initial goal was to alleviate the scheduling, training and financial conflicts many student-athletes were otherwise self-managing, it also resulted in designated college contacts at each NGB and senior-level liaisons at schools with a current national team athlete. That heightened connectivity between bodies has been key to problem-solving during the pandemic, Wilhelmi said.
“When COVID hit, all of those contacts became a conduit for us to help work with the schools on behalf of athletes who are now facing facility or training challenges,” she said. “What almost started out as a joke conversation, like, ‘Oh, hey, just send your athletes to our house, and we’ll help train them,’ … became a real conversation. That actually makes sense. We’re going to need each other in this environment.”
The fact that these athletes are, in theory, students first, per the NCAA’s strict amateurism rules, could complicate some of those efforts. If any classes are still held on one campus, the logistics of sending a national team athlete to another to train could get tricky. And while there are Olympic training centers sprinkled throughout the U.S., capacity and the educational element for those who wish to maintain NCAA eligibility remain issues.
But these logistical issues pale in comparison to the even greater threat looming over U.S. Olympic dreams. In the face of athletic department budget cuts brought on by the pandemic, the USOPC could face a massive hit to its prized pipeline. Stanford, for example, announced that 11 varsity sports, nine of which were Olympic, will be discontinued at the conclusion of the 2020-21 academic year. Navigating those waters will be an even bigger challenge.