Journey To London Has Begun
The journey has begun. The destination is London. The event is the 2012 Summer Olympics.
And many of the key participants will be embarking from the Pac-12 Conference. They will be not only fulfilling personal dreams but also a conference birthright and legacy.
How dominant is the Pac-12 Conference when it comes to Olympic sports?
In the modern Olympic era, athletes from the schools that make up the Pac-12 have won 1,092 medals.
If the conference were a sovereign nation it would rank third in the history of Olympic achievement. The Pac-12 would come in behind only the United States with 2549 medals, the Soviet Union (1204 medals), which no longer exists, and Germany (1099 medals).
"It's not a story that's understood," said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. "Being from the East Coast, I know that there is zero appreciation around the rest of the country of how far ahead our schools are."
That may be changing. This week the Pac-12 is kicking off it's Road to London campaign. Over the next eleven months the conference will behighlighting its Olympic heritage and spirit. The focus will be on current athletes with aspirations to compete in London, legends of the Olympic Games and fascinating Olympians whose roots are in the Pac-12.
"The goal is to have American sports fans understand how fundamental the Pac-12 is to our international success and prospects," said Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby, an active board member of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
The campaign, culminating in the Games of the XXX Olympiad in London next summer, is a perfect prologue to the launching of the Pac-12 Network in the fall of 2012. In addition to broadcasting football and basketball games, the regional networks will cover more than 700 events that fall into the broad category of "Olympic sports." Those sports include everything from swimming and track and field tosoccer, softball and baseball.
"Frankly, the biggest beneficiary of our network will probably be the Olympic sports," Scott said, noting that the level of exposure for those sports will dramatically increase. "That is going to mean so much to our student athletes, to fans of those sports, to coaches, to recruiting efforts, to exposure…This is a great opportunity to tell their story differently."
Scott has a unique appreciation for the value of Olympic sports, which are sometimes referred to as non-revenue sports. A former tennis player, Scott values the Olympic sports, and as the former chairman and CEO of the Women's Tennis Association he's a strong advocate for the importance of women's sports.
"Obviously the Pac 12 has a great pedigree in football and basketball, but the conference also has real excellence and leadership in Olympic sports," Scott said. "And there's a level of pride in the Pac-12 for women's sports that doesn't exist everywhere else. I don't think any conference has taken more pride in its women's sports than ours has."
That deep level of pride for the athletes who don't always grab the biggest headline runs throughout the conference.
"Certain sports enjoy the benefit of extraordinary popularity," Bowlsby said. "But that doesn't mean they are any more demanding. Our athletes in all our sports are passionate and committed to bringing excellence to what they do."
Pat Haden, now the athletic director at USC and the Trojans former quarterback, boasts proudly of USC's Olympic accomplishments, noting that if USC was its own nation, it would rank 18th among countries in medals earned. USC is connected historically to the Olympics through its athletes and by the Los Angeles Coliseum, which hosted both the 1932 and 1984 Olympics.
"We're not just a football school," Haden said. "On our campus all our athletes are equally important and its not just hyperbole. We understand that football drives the revenue model but there's no reason we can't support and celebrate all our athletes."
In his early months as commissioner, Scott focused on elevating the conference's football and basketball programs - the revenue producing sports. But he's eager to raise the profile of every sport in the Pac-12.
"The mission we're on is to demonstrate a changed paradigm, where Olympic sports can get much more meaningful exposure," Scott said. "We can use the interest in football as a lever to get benefits and exposure for other sports."
As in every other Olympic Games of the past century, athletes from the schools that comprise the Pac-12 will flock to the world's greatest sporting stage. They will follow in the footsteps of other great Olympians: Jackie Joyner Kersee, John Naber, Natalie Coughlin, Dick Fosbury Rafer Johnson. Jennie Finch, Steve Prefontaine.
The nation will learn their names, cheer for them, speak of them with pride.
"The Olympics are aspirational," Scott said. "They tie sports to higher ideals and goals: peace, humanity, good sportsmanship, healthy competition."
And if you're looking for the personification of the Olympics, look no further than the Pac-12. One of the most successful forces in Olympic history.