In the next few weeks, we will see two countries vie for domination of the medals table at the London Olympics. 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).
Once kids get to high school at age 14, the best athletes play in packed arenas for their schools and may also compete for traveling teams in setups like the AAU for basketball, where current superstars like LeBron James make their name on the national stage. Indeed, high school football and basketball are covered by ESPN and other national TV networks, and sports magazines and websites devote endless column inches to ranking high school prospects and covering which colleges the players will attend.
Other Olympic sports in which you'd struggle to find a local facility in certain parts of Britain - including rowing and gymnastics - also have abundant training centers in America. My wife and I sometimes (read, often) make fun of our peers who complain that they're little more than taxi drivers who ferry their kids between umpteen sporting activities each week. Yet such parental involvement and the resulting financial backing (when new kit is needed or, for traveling teams, when parents pay annual fees), certainly fuels mass participation and, in the long run, results on the world stage.
Britain has a great coaching network for football and rugby, and an improving one for athletics, rowing and some other sports. But, on the whole, the sports coaching system pales in comparison to that of the US. Of course there are the big-name coaches: Chris Carmichael for the endurance athletes, Bob Bowman for swimmers and Chinese gymnastics wiz Liang Chow, who now trains American hopefuls in Iowa. But it's not just sports-specific coaching that the US excels in.
One of the reasons that A dominates the medals table every four years is that it leads the world in strength and conditioning training. Every high school and college has a weight room, and many private gyms are staffed by trainers with qualifications such as CSCS and master's degrees in exercise science and a rigorous education program. (The meat market gyms where posers do endless curls and crunches, not so much.)
When I write "weight room" this does not mean a hotel gym-like space with a bunch of fancy cardio equipment and machines that target individual muscle groups. I'm referring to Olympic-style lifting performed with weights, bars, dumbbells and squat racks, and not a whole lot else. Movements such as snatches and clean and jerks develop total body power and strength that can be applied to almost any sport.
While schools may have vanity muscle-focused gyms as well, the young athletes who train in the real weight rooms are performing functional, technical lifts that boost sports performance. And they have the best coaches to instruct them how to get results.
Even the small college I attended had an elite strength coach, Mr. Tom Cross. You wouldn't expect giant, 18-stone American Football linemen to be in awe of a 70-something man who stands five-foot-seven, but those who entered the sweat- and pain-inducing world of "The Real Cross Training" (as a T-shirt he designed bluntly put it) quaked before the demands of his program and the Sir Alex Ferguson-esque rebukes he directed at those who weren't displaying correct lifting form.
Still, when the 2,000-student school placed second at the collegiate weightlifting championships - besting some of the big universities mentioned earlier - the football and soccer teams made the playoffs year after year and the basketball team won a national title, nobody could argue with the impact of Cross's coaching. And there are hundreds of Tom Cross-style coaches in the US, readying not just college athletes but also the next American Olympic champions for success. Some of them go even further than incorporating Olympic lifts, like Lochte's strength coach, who had his charge flipping giant tyres and dragging anchor chains in the Florida heat to gain power (I'll save you two minutes, check out this YouTube video).
I've already mentioned the incredible college sports facilities in the US, and touched on the high quality of youth soccer pitches. But this only tells a small part of the story with regard to sports infrastructure here. While I was in secondary school in England, I played national league basketball, and yet could not find an indoor court to practice on. So I made do with running two miles each way to an outdoor court that got as slick as an ice hockey rink when it rained and with changing trains twice to practice with my team in Bristol. Admittedly, this was in the rural West Country, but it is illustrative of how British kids often struggle to find facilities to practice, football and rugby notwithstanding.
In the US, there is seemingly a basketball court on every corner, and youngsters wishing/needing to play indoors can find what they need at church, at school (where, unlike at my grammar school, kids are encouraged to practice outside of PE lessons rather than prohibited) or at a local gym/recreational center. And this provision extends far beyond basketball - tennis courts, swimming pools and many other facilities for all manner of sports are readily accessible across the country. City councils invest, private organizations invest, churches invest, even individual neighborhoods invest.
Not every sporting challenge can be solved by money, but if Britain wants to improve its Olympic performance, a few national centers of excellence just aren't going to get it done. University sports may not be the place to focus our energies as we don't have draft systems and the club system is more developed in the UK than in the US, but what we do need is widespread investment in facilities, improved training for sport-specific and strength and conditioning coaches, and enhanced youth sports networks. Not just to win more medals, but to give our kids the chance to participate and excel in a wide range of sports that can get them out of the Playstation Generation couch potato trap.