Yes, Olympic sports do matter

Katie Ledecky turned in another dominating performance in the 800-meter freestyle Friday night at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, finishing over 11 seconds ahead of the silver medalist.
Katie Ledecky turned in another dominating performance in the 800-meter freestyle Friday night at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, finishing over 11 seconds ahead of the silver medalist. The Washington Post

I wasn’t all that excited about the 2016 Olympics. There was the Zika virus. There were the protests in a corrupt country that had spent billions on the games. There was the contaminated water. There was the Russian doping scandal. I planned to pretty much ignore the whole spectacle.

Then they jumped in the pool. At age 31, the ageless Michael Phelps won gold medals again. There was the astonished look on the face of the wonderful Simone Manuel when she realized she was the first black female swimmer to win an individual gold. There was the utter domination of the 19-year-old Katie Ledecky.

If Ledecky isn’t the best female athlete in the world, then gymnast Simone Biles is at the top, as a reader argued in an email this week. On the mat or the dangerous balance beam or the uneven bars, the American women exhibited brilliance, from the not-of-this-world Biles to the stirring redemption story of all-around silver medalist Aly Raisman, who after being shut out in 2012 rebounded in 2016.

So, yes, I’m hooked. I watched more of the first week of the Olympics than I ever thought I would. Not every minute, mind you, but enough of the NBC’s prime time coverage to think of Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines as friends, to complain there are too many commercials and to wonder if maybe they could just leave Ryan Seacrest on the Copacabana Beach when this is all over.

All of this unexpected interest has also served to reaffirm a belief: Olympic sports do matter.

Kudos to Lee Todd, who when he took over as UK president in 2001 vowed to improve the university’s all-around sports program and hired Mitch Barnhart as athletics director, who executed the plan.

There are those who argue that isn’t a worthy goal, especially for a state and school with limited resources. College football is the national money-maker. At Kentucky, college basketball drives the bus. Instead of spending resources on non-revenue sports, ones that annually lose money, schools like UK should concentrate on the cash cows.

They’re wrong for a variety of reasons, the best of which involves the athletes themselves. If you are a university and you offer a sport — or any program for that matter — you owe it to your students to do everything in your power to give the participants the best chance to have an enriching experience and to succeed. It shouldn’t be any different for a women’s volleyball player or a men’s basketball player. That should be a given.

Second, having a well-rounded and successful all-sports program only helps the reputation of a university. Look at the standings for the 2015-16 Learfield Director’s Cup, which ranks schools by their all-around sports programs. Stanford ranked No. 1, followed by Ohio State at No. 2 and Michigan at No. 3. Those are some pretty fair academic institutions. No one should (or would) label them as “jock” schools.

After finishing a school-record 11th in 2014-15, UK fell to 26th last year, but that’s OK. There will be ebbs and flows. Meanwhile, Barnhart has set a department goal of being in the top five by 2022, which just happens to be when his newly-signed contract is set to expire.

True, Olympic sports are not as popular as football or basketball, a point some can’t stop making. ESPN’s Amin Elhassen, a former NBA executive, so arrogantly put it on Twitter, “Two years from now, Katie Ledecky is that jerk in line at Starbucks with the complex order.” (Actually, I think we know who the jerk is.)

I prefer to side with my neighbors who told me they bought a UK $40 Olympic sports family pass and enjoyed gymnastics at Memorial Coliseum and discovered the fun atmosphere of softball at John Cropp Stadium.

I’ll also side with 59-year-old Shirley Babashoff, the Olympic swimmer — once an Olympian, always an Olympian — who was basically cheated by the doping East Germans in 1976 but told Sports Illustrated last week she couldn’t wait to watch what happens in Rio.

“I like to see what people are capable of,” Babashoff said.

That’s why all sports matter.

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