If Olympic sports can survive here in Marquette, we'll all have a dry river bed in Oklahoma City to thank.
In the 1920s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers essentially killed what was a portion of the North Canadian River that ran through the city after a series of floods. In an effort to revitalize the city, OKC began transforming the trickling creek back into a river in 1999. The newly rebranded Oklahoma River not only drew new businesses to its shores, but boathouses and boat races as well.
The Oklahoma River is now home to four university rowing teams, some of which didn't exist at the start of last decade. It has hosted collegiate, national and international competitions featuring some of the top rowers and kayakers in the world. The next step in the facility's development is the addition of a whitewater rafting and kayaking center.
The barren ditch that ran through the heart of OKC was once a symbol of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, but now the transformed waterway could be the shining example of what United States Olympic and Paralympic training centers could look like in the future.
"One city, one sport" was the initiative that U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun introduced to Northern Michigan University President Les Wong during a June meeting in Colorado Springs. The two met to discuss the future of NMU's U.S. Olympic Education Center and its role minus the B.J. Stupak Scholarship.
"It was very clear from Scott Blackmun that they not only appreciate our commitment, but they want to see the USOEC move forward and survive," Wong said. "The issue for them isn't a commitment so much. The question is how does the USOEC fit into their plans for reorganizing Olympic training."
Currently the USOC is very fragmented. For example, just in short track speedskating, some athletes train in Marquette while others train in Colorado Springs. Then there are those who train on their own wherever they want.
Wong said in his talks with Blackmun, this practice concerns the USOC because of the strain it not only puts on them, but on the smaller national organizations governing each sport.
"Some of their real top athletes train with a single coach wherever they want to train," Wong said. "Michael Phelps swims anywhere he wants to swim. They don't think it's bad, but you have 40 top athletes all over the place."
Oklahoma City has been targeted for the home of USA Canoe/Kayak and the work being done on the Oklahoma River has sold the USOC on the "one sport, one city" model. OKC's goal is to be the eventual home of USA Canoe/Kayak.
Wong said Marquette was suggested by Blackmun as the perfect spot for wrestling and speedskating. The USOEC currently hosts short track speedskating, Greco-Roman wrestling and women's freestyle wrestling, along with weightlifting and boxing.
"They are in a real interesting situation now, wanting a little bit different model for athlete training," Wong said about the USOC.
The question remains, however: Is the "one sport, one city" model feasible? Will getting more cities involved in Olympic sports not only grow the popularity of the games, but be a more financially stable model as well?
Providing Olympic athletes a place to train and get an education is important, but the experience in Marquette has proved to be financially difficult. Getting more cities and other universities involved in more Olympic sports could not only help lift the financial burden off places like Marquette, but give more athletes an option to train and get an education in the process.
As painful as it may be to see Olympic sports leave Marquette, it would be even more painful to not have any Olympic sports period. I think the "one sport, one city" model could be a success and keep Marquette in the Olympic game.
Let's just hope education doesn't get lost in the transition.
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.