Higgs is one of 11 international athletes competing for Bucknam on the University of Arkansas men’s track team. Hailing from France, Jamaica, Ireland, Estonia and elsewhere, these athletes typically receive scholarships to train under Bucknam, a highly esteemed American track coach.
“I don’t look at this as feeding the enemy,” he said.
Getty ImagesAlistair Cragg of Ireland
Arkansas is part of an unlikely training ground for foreign Olympians: the NCAA. At American colleges, athletes can receive an experience they can’t get anywhere else: In addition to first-class facilities and coaching, they also can get room and board and top-tier education worth more than $50,000 annually. The track-and-field program at Arkansas is so popular abroad, its coaches receive four or five emails a day from foreign athletes hoping to join.
Among scores of others likely competing in London this summer will be Grenadian sprinter Kirani James (University of Alabama), New Zealand swimmer Lauren Boyle (California-Berkeley) and Belgian sprinters Kevin and Jonathan Borlee, former stars at Florida State.
The damage adds up. At the 2008 Beijing Games, foreign athletes from U.S. universities earned at least 28 medals for their countries—and possibly twice that many. About half don’t cite their NCAA affiliation in their Olympic bona fides, says U.S. Olympic Committee historian Bill Mallon, who estimates that foreign athletes from U.S. universities may have won 60 medals in 2008—more than 6% of the total. In Beijing, 48 countries fielded athletes from the Pacific-12 Conference alone.
The situation troubles Americans such as swimmer Rowdy Gaines, the three-time Olympic gold medalist. He favors capping the percentage of international athletes on U.S. college teams to preserve a majority of opportunities for U.S. athletes. Fielding so many foreign athletes, Gaines said, “hurts our Olympic movement, which we have to think of, first and foremost.”
The NCAA said any limits would have to be approved by its member schools and that there is no legislation pending to curtail the practice.
To appreciate the potential threat of U.S.-trained foreigners, Gaines need look no further than his own alma mater, Auburn. Over three Olympic Games, former Auburn swimmer Kirsty Coventry has won seven medals—for Zimbabwe. In the 200-meter backstroke in Beijing, Coventry took gold, relegating her former Auburn teammate, Margaret Hoelzer, to second place.
Other critics wonder why athletic scholarships, on which the NCAA places limits per sport, so often go to international athletes. Georgia swimming coach Jack Bauerle has coached many foreign swimmers but said the U.S. should avoid “being a farm club for foreign athletes.”
Some argue that recruiting foreign athletes bolsters the marketability of U.S. higher education, a valuable export. It may also sharpen the competitive skills of America’s top collegiate athletes: Hoelzer, for instance, said she would rather win silver behind Coventry—her Zimbabwean former Auburn teammate—than take gold because of collegiate training not available to her opponents. “If I’m going to be best in the world, (it shouldn’t be) because I had more opportunities,” said Hoelzer. Alistair Cragg, who will run the 5,000 meters for Ireland in London, said he and American teammate Daniel Lincoln made one another better while training at Arkansas. “It’s like a mini-Olympics in everyday life,” Cragg said. Lincoln finished an impressive 11th in the steeplechase in 2004 in Athens.
On campus, foreign athletic stars are no less popular. Coventry, after all, helped Auburn win three consecutive NCAA titles. Moreover, foreign athletes often commit to study in places many American athletes might avoid, like El Paso, Texas. Foreign athletes are largely the reason the University of Texas-El Paso has been able to compete on the track against national powers Texas and Texas A&M, says coach Mika Laaksonen. At the Beijing Games, nine current and former UTEP track athletes competed—none for the U.S.
Laaksonen, a former hammer thrower from Finland, acknowledges that many U.S. colleges are training America’s Olympic opponents. But of college sports, he said: “It’s a business.”
Efforts to limit foreign athletes on American campuses have failed. About 20 years ago, then-Auburn swimming coach Dave Marsh proposed a 20% cap on scholarships to foreigners, arguing that it would preserve opportunities for young Americans and improve U.S. Olympic fortunes. But Marsh says he was told such a cap may be illegal.
That failure couldn’t have worked out better for Marsh, whose subsequent recruitment of foreign athletes propelled Auburn to eight men’s and five women’s national titles.
At the 2004 NCAA men’s championship, which Auburn dominated, Marsh recalls opposing fans chanting “U-S-A!”
In men’s rowing, the percentage of foreigners on college teams appears to be rising. The top three eight-man boats at the 2011 championships had at least four foreigners. Weeks ago, the U.S. team squeaked into the last spot available for London in the men’s eight. Canada, meanwhile, nailed down a spot last year with a men’s eight featuring five rowers who had competed at U.S. colleges. “My time at (the University of) Washington was huge for my development as an Olympic athlete,” said Canadian rower Will Crothers.
Nobody sees both sides of the issue more clearly than Bill Martin, the former Michigan athletic director who doubled as USOC president in 2003-04. “When you’re wearing your athletic director’s hat, you want to get all these great swimmers to come to Michigan and help us win an NCAA championship.”
But, he added, “You don’t like it when they go beat you in the Olympic Games. It’s a two-edged sword, isn’t it?”