Olympic Gold: Men's gymnastics struggling to survive

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Michael Moran, representing the University of Minnesota, competes during the Winter Cup gymnastics event Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. A junior from Morristown, New Jersey, Moran admits there were people within his inner circle who discouraged him from competing collegiately because they viewed his chosen sport as a dying entity. The University of Minnesota and the University of Iowa will stop offering it as a scholarship sport at the end of the month. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

The death of a 117-year-old program, one that captured championships and produced Olympians, ended with a gasp. And then a vote.

The fact the former did not alter the outcome of the latter offered a stark glimpse into the steadily eroding support for men's gymnastics at the NCAA level, one that will eventually have a ripple effect up and down the food chain for a sport struggling for relevance inside the U.S. Olympic movement.

That gasp. John Roethlisberger could hear it during a University of Minnesota Board of Regents meeting last fall. At one point someone asked how much money the school's athletic department would save by approving the proposal to cut men's gymnastics, men's tennis and men's indoor track and field, a move athletic director Mark Coyle called necessary to help offset a $45 million to $65 million deficit due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The answer? $1.6 million. Or just more than 1% of the athletic department's $123 million budget.

“Everyone was appalled,” said Roethlisberger, a three-time Olympian and a three-time NCAA champion for the Golden Gophers. "It didn’t make a lot of sense. ... (We hoped) maybe we can reconcile and at least save our sport and they were like, ‘Nope, let’s vote.’”

And they did. Seven in favor of cutting men's gymnastics, men's tennis and men's indoor track at the end of the 2020-21 academic year. Five against.

Minnesota's decision came two months after Iowa announced it was dropping men’s gymnastics, men’s tennis and men’s and women’s swimming and diving. Again, administrators pointed to the long-term financial impact of the pandemic.

The losses will leave just five men's gymnastics programs in the Big Ten and just 11 at the Division I level overall, not including the three service academies. And it leaves the USA Gymnastics men's program in the precarious position of trying to reclaim a spot among the world's elite while dealing with a diminishing talent base.