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Cutting college programs imperils U.S. Olympic hopes

Maybe, as the melancholy saying goes, everything good is discontinued—'57 Thunderbirds, M*A*S*H, Nike Stings. And now, wherever you look, major universities are dropping, or drastically cutting back, track and field programs. San Jose State, the alma mater of world-record setters Lee Evans, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and John Powell, among many other luminaries, let head coach Marshall Clark recruit for next year and then in May told him it was all over. The Spartan administration sacrificed track and field, cross country, wrestling and women's field hockey to fund a conditioning coach and drug and academic counselors.

At Oregon State you may no longer combine the study of electrical engineering with, say, steeplechasing. Karl Van Calcar, who did just that, winning the NCAA steeplechase in 8:32.35 on June 3 and graduating three days later, is the last of his line. In response to a million-dollar athletic department deficit, Oregon State has discontinued both men's and women's track, and so will nurture no more Olympians such as runners Morgan Groth and Tracy Smith, discus thrower Tim Vollmer, and high jumpers Joni Huntley and Dick Fosbury. Think of that. Has there ever been an athlete who epitomized American imagination better than Fosbury with his revolutionary flop?

Northwestern dropped track this year. San Diego State and Long Beach State have cut back their programs in recent years.

"My AD drops hints," says George Mason University's John Cook, who coaches 1,500-meter world champion Abdi Bile. "He mentions every other school that cuts a program. It's scary. You know the purse-string guys. They sense a trend and they encircle you. Then it's Dien Bien Phu."

College athletic directors, we're told, are businessmen. But if they were real businessmen, they would have long since pruned away every sport but football and basketball. With rare exceptions, nothing else breaks even. No, athletic directors are asked to temper the ruthlessness of the bottom line with the instincts of coach and teacher. They're asked to meet the sporting needs of a plural society, to keep costs down and to win. That's something you don't want to assign to an M.B.A. from the George Steinbrenner school of emotional maturity. Consequently, it's hard to second-guess decisions by athletic directors.

But not impossible. It's clear that if this hewing and felling go on, U.S. performances in Olympic and international competition—already declining—will be in further jeopardy.

Unlike any other nation, the U.S. has always entrusted—if something can be entrusted by default—the development of its Olympic track athletes to the colleges. Lately, some corporate money has gone to postgraduate stars, but shoe companies are not about to begin massive training programs for promising 18-year-olds.

In 1977 the President's Commission on Olympic Sports, in the funniest line of its 600-page report, pointed out that there are three modes of sports organization employed by successful nations. In one, the government is in control. In another, a private authority is in control. In the third, no one is in control. "Only the U.S.," deadpanned the PCOS, "uses the third method."

College athletic directors, whether they know it or not, are making and carrying out U.S. Olympic development policy. Unfortunately, they are letting it be determined by market forces, and funds are going increasingly to revenue-producing sports. "It doesn't take much to see what's happened in this country," says Clark. "We have the Rose Bowl and the Final Four, and the rest of our heritage is on the back burner."

Bill Dellinger, coach of the men's track team at Oregon, offers an intriguing solution. "The 14-scholarship limitation in track and field has caused too many coaches to simply recruit a few stars and take them to big meets," he says. "They don't coach. They just manage. The heart of college track, the dual meet, has become practically obsolete. What you want to do is expand the teams without expanding the costs.

"So reward the top 10 dual-meet teams in the country with $40,000 apiece. Give the next 10 teams $30,000, and the third 10 $20,000. Do it for men and women alike. Get the money from the NCAA and USOC, or an enlightened company. You'll see AD's trying to develop dual programs, not by wild recruiting but by splitting scholarships up and really coaching, really teaching."

Dellinger's plan deserves a try. Yet even if such a shift in focus is not track's salvation, it is time the purse-string guys thought hard about the consequences of abandoning unprofitable sports. Come Seoul in September, come Barcelona in 1992, a lot of Americans are going to wonder where the Dick Fosburys went.