In another blow to the Olympic athlete-scholar program at Northern Michigan University, the United States Olympic Education Center announced Tuesday that U.S. Speedskating has suspended its short track program for the upcoming year.
We fear it may be the end of a long and storied relationship between NMU and Olympic skating. Both long and short track speedskating programs were at NMU before the USOEC became an official Olympic Training Center in 1985. Long track was discontinued in 1987, but short track thrived - last year's USOEC short track team had 13 members. Over the years, 38 Olympians have trained with the program. It's a star-studded cast of athletes: Marquette Senior High School graduate Shani Davis, the first African-American to win an individual gold medal in the Winter Olympics; multiple medalist Apolo Ohno, who never attended NMU trained for the Olympics at the USOEC; two-time gold medalist and NMU grad Cathy Turner; Katherine Reutter, who trained at the USOEC as the top female short track speed skater for the U.S.; Olympic medalists Kimberly Derrick and Jordan Malone, and World Cup medalist Anthony Lobello.
The support of the USOEC and the Marquette community played a crucial role in these competitors' successes during the Olympic Games.
The USOEC has hosted four major short track speedskating events, including two ISU World Cups in 2003 and 2009, as well as the U.S. Short Track Olympic Team Trials for the 2006 and 2010 Olympic Games.
These well-attended and nationally covered events pumped money and publicity into the Marquette area. They helped put the Upper Peninsula on the Olympic map.
So why must the program end?
Officials blame the suspension of speedskating on changes in facility equipment required to host and train elite skaters, as well as significant changes to the center's funding model.
The short track speedskating program is based out of the Berry Events Center, which is also home to the Wildcat hockey and basketball programs. Permanent boards for hockey at the Berry Events Center require placement of temporary pads to protect speedkaters during training and tournaments. That setup is no longer considered safe for elite skaters.
Changes to the BEC would no doubt be expensive, but we're confident they could have been considered - if the second part of the equation, funding, had been solid.
But federal funding for the program dried up with the elimination of the B.J. Stupak Scholarship. It was the first domino in a chain of events that dealt a huge blow to the USOEC.
For that, we feel at least part of the blame rests with U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, who refused to fight for the scholarship early in his term during federal budget cuts because he opposed "earmarks."
We didn't see the scholarship as an earmark. And neither did anyone else in these parts, from what we could tell. It wasn't a one-time gift to an undeserving constituency, but was a fully authorized program that had run for many years. And, although Congress chose to fund the program at slightly less than $1 million annually, the authorization actually allowed up to $5 million in expenditures each year. That amount certainly would have helped keep speedskating, and other programs, viable at the USOEC.
NMU was the only university in the country where Olympic speedskaters could train for the games while working on their college education. Now, there is no such facility. Weightlifting and Greco-Roman wrestling are the only two sports remaining in the diminished NMU program.
We feel Rep. Benishek made a grave mistake in not understanding the impact of the loss of USOEC funding on Olympic athletes - and his Congressional district.
The current state of crisis at the facility can be traced, in part, to his lack of support.
And for that, we're not awarding him any medals.