Taylor: The Golden State of Olympic athletes

July 18, 2012, 1:31 a.m.

Though it is incredibly close, Stanford University is not quite at the absolute top of the list academically. However, it is host to unquestionably the best college sports program in the country.

Dissenting voices will point to the fact that Stanford is not the reigning football national champion, but perhaps they don’t realize that there are other sports played at the college level. The Cardinal’s strength is in breadth; it is home to one of the largest and most equally funded athletics programs in the nation.

This fact is evident in the 18 straight Directors’ Cups it has won and even in the creation of the Capital One Cup a couple years ago. The latter prize notably rewards success more highly in a handful of more popular sports, something that clearly benefits those schools that concentrate solely on the most lucrative disciplines and hurts those with a broader outlook. These adjustments perhaps serve to break the Cardinal’s stranglehold. Even with this handicap, though, Stanford has won both Capital One Cup women’s trophies so far awarded.

But is the best in the United States the best in the world?

It is difficult to make fair comparisons with many overseas universities because the very concept of semi-professional varsity athletics doesn’t really exist in most countries. In the U.K., for example, there is maybe only one case that comes close to the professionalism, importance and funding of U.S. college sports: the Oxford vs. Cambridge boat race. In major sports, talented athletes will go professional far before they reach college age, and without the guaranteed income source from these popular sports, there is no money for athletics programs.

Surprisingly, the better comparison comes not with universities in other countries, but with the very countries themselves. When the London 2012 Olympic Games kick off in a couple of weeks, the U.S. and China are pretty much guaranteed to be squaring off against each other for the honor of top dog. Even wildly optimistic and patriotic citizens of the host nation realize this; coming in third overall is the goal for everyone else.

But if the Farm declared independence from the Union tomorrow—and I hope you forgive my extreme artistic license here—where would it stand? Could it come in third?

First, some simple demographics: Last year about 1,700 were born into Cardinal country as undergraduates, and 2,500 deserted their alma mater to become naturalized graduate Stanford citizens. Assuming a similar life expectancy for the average American, we can claim that the rough population of the Farm and its diaspora is around 230,000.

In comparison, the total number of Berkeley students and alumni works out to about 420,000, and the population of San Francisco is 800,000. Stanford wouldn’t, though, be the smallest nation recognized by the International Olympic Committee; that honor would fall to either Tuvalu or Nauru, each home to about 10,000 people.

If Stanford had competed independently at Beijing 2008, it would have finished an impressive ninth in the medal count, just behind Japan and just ahead of Italy. Cal would have come in 17th.

Even more revealing, though, is a measure of the number of people per medal. By this statistic, the Bahamas would have earned the top ranking (as the least athletic) after the Games in China, with 300,000 people per medal. Stanford: a staggering 9,400. Berkeley: an almost-as-impressive 25,000.

However, the Bay Area doesn’t have a monopoly on Olympic success. Stanford’s total of 115 golds is beaten by USC’s 123, and the Trojans would have come two places higher than the Cardinal in the medal table at Beijing in 2008. In fact, USC has the best Olympic record of any U.S., and likely world, university. With a significantly larger student body, though, it has a larger number of people per medal, around 33,000.

Without even having mentioned UCLA (110 golds) or any of the other eight Pac-12 schools, it is clear how much of an Olympic breeding ground both California and the Pac-12 conference are. Though often underrated in the big sports throughout the academic year, the West Coast is an athletic powerhouse that dominates American Olympic success.

From a U.S. perspective, it is certainly a good thing that the Golden State isn’t independent.

Tom Taylor sounds like he might be starting to support USC. Make sure he doesn’t join the dark side at [email protected].

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