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What’s the Right Model for Finding Future Olympians?

What’s the best way to handle a country’s Olympic training program? Choose sports for children at a young age or allow them to choose later in life once they’ve grown into themselves and their sports?

This morning I was watching the women’s cycling road race. While talking about Great Britain competitor (and eventual silver medalist) Lizzie Armitstead, one of the announcers mentioned that after the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, disappointed with winning only one gold medal, the country began more intensely training its athletes at a younger age. It seems to have worked as Great Britain has received 11, 9 and 19 gold medals at the Summer Games following Atlanta.

The comment brought to mind the way the former Soviet Union handled training its future Olympians, which is similar to how China now trains its athletes. Both of these countries have faced rumors about how far their training methods go, and I doubt Great Britain is going as far as those two, but many nations around the globe are utilizing this pluck and train at a young age method.

One country that is not using this method is the United States. We don’t need to, quite frankly. Our children’s sports programs are strong enough that our most gifted, talented and hard working athletes separate themselves from the pack naturally over the years. Of course there are athletes that receive a lot of attention and training starting at a young age, but that attention comes from their parents, not from the government and not from the Olympic Committee.

It’s been working for us. The US has established itself as the country to beat in the Olympics over the past 30 years. But could we be even better if we used some of the philosophies and strategies used by Great Britain, China and many other countries?

My initial reaction was no. If we used the Chinese philosophy, someone like Michael Jordan never would’ve competed for our country. Not in 1984 and probably not in 1992 either. Jordan didn’t develop into a really good basketball player until his latter high school years. Countries that pluck talent at a young age never would’ve accepted Jordan into athletic training. He was way too old in high school.

As I thought more about it though, I wondered if maybe we would be even better if we were directing young athletes in certain directions. We probably wouldn’t have had Destinee Hooker playing something other than volleyball, nor would we have directed Ryan Lochte to participate in a sport other than swimming. What about that guy at the end of the bench for the Knicks though? Or the guy fourth on the depth chart at free safety for South Carolina’s football team? Lots of young American male athletes choose to play football, basketball or baseball because they’re the popular sports. Very few ever reach the point where they’re good enough to play in college, even fewer are good enough to play professionally. What if those basketball players that didn’t show LeBron or Dwight Howard talent at a young age were pushed toward volleyball? What if young football players that didn’t show the potential of Peyton Manning, Ray Lewis or Jake Long were pushed toward the javelin, rowing and the shot put?

Of course, this could never happen because the potential paycheck that comes with a professional career in football, basketball or baseball is much higher than that of someone that plays volleyball, rows or runs track. The 12th man on the Trailblazers, a special teams player for the Texans and a middle reliever for the Brewers all probably make more than a good Olympic caliber rower. Those three major sports receive so much attention and financial attention that they’ll always be the most popular with young athletes. Every kid wants to be the next Kevin Durant, Candace Parker or Aaron Rodgers, not many want to be the next Tony Azevedo or Mariel Zagunis.

What if money wasn’t a roadblock though? Would we be an even more dominant Olympic country if we directed our young athletes toward certain sports like other countries do? Don’t read too much into this – I don’t think we should ever do that. We’re a country of freedom where people can choose their careers and hobbies, but it’s interesting to think about. A more realistic question to think about is, would China be better off following the US? Instead of putting funding toward plucking out talent they ‘think’ they see, put funding toward developing all of your country’s children and youth athletics programs? Provide better opportunities and training for all your children. A country with a population that large surely misses on some predictions. What if that kid they have in the pool would actually be better at gymnastics? The only way they can know for sure is letting children choose the sports they play and then allow all of them to compete for spots on the national teams. A young girl could swim, play volleyball and high jump as a young girl. Then, at some point, choose to focus on one, either the one she’s best at or the one she loves the most and wants to dedicate her time to. It seems to me, this would result in a country’s very best athletes representing it at the Olympics. But what do I know?