AAU Junior Olympic Games Bring Glimpse of the Future
Written by: Dale Robertson
Originally published at: http://www.chron.com/news/
Anyone who believes kids today are slothful, overweight and video-game addicted should be in Houston this week for the 2012 AAU Junior Olympic games.
Anyone who can’t make it to London for the real deal should visit the George R. Brown Convention Center, Turner Stadium in Humble or the Pearland Natatorium, to name three of the venues, from Wednesday through Aug. 4 to catch an almost certain glimpse of America’s future Olympians.
While only a fraction of the 16,000-plus kids who’ll compete in 18 sports in the Houston area over the next 10 days are bound for glory on the world stage, history indicates some will take that giant next step. Paul Campbell, the AAU’s national chairman of youth sports, said the 1984 U.S. Olympic team that dominated the Los Angeles Games was practically a Junior Olympics reunion party.
“Eighty-three percent of those athletes had been in our competitions,” he said.
And it won’t be just be the kids who emerge as champions that merit following in the future.
Campbell, who has run the Junior Olympics for 20 years and been involved with the competition since 1977, likes to remind people that diver Greg Louganis”came in dead last” in his first Junior Olympics competition. That’s the same Greg Louganis who would win four gold medals in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. And sprinter Maurice Greene, a double gold medalist in 2000, placed third in the Junior Olympics.
Besides Louganis and Greene, Junior Olympics alums through the decades include Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Joan Benoit-Samuelson, Mary Decker Slaney, Kerri Strug, Bart Conner, Magic Johnson and Lisa Leslie. And the last time the AAU brought the games to Texas – 1989, in San Antonio – a super-sized local kid was the center of attention in the basketball tournament.
“Shaquille O’Neal was a high school senior,” Campbell said.
The AAU launched the Junior Olympics the same year as the first Super Bowl, 1967, and the event has grown exponentially despite mega changes in how amateur sports in the U.S. are governed. Once, the AAU called the shots for all non-professional sports, having been founded in 1888 to standardize rules and rein in the wild-west elements of 19th-century American athletics.
By the middle of the 20th century, the AAU had become a monolithic organization. Its grip on track-and-field was absolute, and its basketball power was such that the big AAU semi-pro teams such as the dynastic Phillips 66 Oilers were superior to the teams in the nascent pro leagues of the post-World War II era.
The Phillips players, many of them former NCAA All-Americans, were paid handsomely as employees of the Bartlesville, Okla.-based petroleum company, but their jobs were basketball, and they delivered six consecutive AAU titles from 1943 through 1948. So iconic was the Oilers’ name that K. S. “Bud” Adams, whose father, “Boots” went from being a lowly clerk to presiding over Phillips by the age of 38, adopted it for his new AFL football team in Houston.
But the AAU’s across-the-board grip on amateur sports for adults as well as children loosened significantly when Congress passed the Amateur Sports Act in 1978, creating a separate National Governing Body (NGB) for most sports. Since then, the AAU has evolved into more of a volunteer organization than a governing body, and despite the motto “sports for all, forever,” its focus is overwhelming on youth programs.
“We don’t have the control we once had,” Campbell said. “We’re not the overseer of all the Olympic sports anymore. Each sport moved out on its own.”
The Junior Olympics is by far the AAU’s largest single competition. It would be far bigger still if it hadn’t jettisoned basketball, considering that nearly half of the AAU’s million-plus memberships are tied to hoops.
Track and field haven
Campbell explained that the AAU “is the only organization (licensed) to use ‘Olympics’ as part of an event’s name.” However, no special effort will be made to exploit the fact that Houston’s Junior Olympics bumps up against the London Olympics. “We just run our event,” Campbell said. “We put it on so the kids, year after year, have the same opportunities.”
Track and field dominates the Junior Olympics, with some 12,000 competitors – close to three-fourths of all the athletes who will attend – expected at the Humble High School venue.
“We came back to Texas for one reason,” Campbell said. “Texas has the (most) track-and-field athletes. When we had a qualifier just for this area alone, there were probably 2,000 kids who participated but didn’t qualify.”
It also has, with the spruced-up Turner Stadium, “one of the most beautiful tracks anywhere” and the elbow room to accommodate the flood of athletes and family members. Nearly 60,000 visitors are expected. The AAU had been in a five-city rotation for the previous 14 years but was outgrowing the capabilities of some of the smaller locales.
Campbell doesn’t hide his pride in the Junior Olympics. He noted, for example, that the track timers are the same people who work the Olympic Trials and added, “You don’t find delays in our meets. Our meets go boom, boom, boom.”