America's best collegiate athletes often not American

When swimmer Ryk Neethling powered South Africa's Olympic relay team to an unprecedented gold medal in Athens last summer, the Americans were surprised, to say the least. Except for US assistant coach Frank Busch.

"We'd talked about it for a long time.... Emotionally, it was an incredible experience," he recalls.

As a teenager, Mr. Neethling had been recruited by Mr. Busch to attend the University of Arizona, where he competed on a generous scholarship - courtesy of the state's taxpayers. In fact, with three of South Africa's four relay medalists having attended Arizona, the school could go into the business of franchising global Olympic athletes.

In some ways, they already have - and they're not alone.

For decades, foreign athletes have come to the US to train and bolster American university teams, boosting the level of competition and bringing Yankee jocks shoulder to shoulder with multiculturalism. But now, with nearly $1 billion to spend in scholarship money and growing pressure to field winning teams, schools are increasingly filling their rosters with foreign athletes.

The trend is fueling a debate about whether taxpayer-funded collegiate programs are developing international talent at the expense of aspiring American athletes - not to mention America's Olympic hopes.

"I think that's something we need to be concerned about," says Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming, a governing organization. He points out that at last year's National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I swimming championships, foreign athletes constituted 40 percent of the field. He's worried that the prevalence of foreign athletes means fewer scholarships for Americans - a crucial incentive for talented high schoolers to stay in the pool.

But it's not just swimming that's affected. Nearly one-third of NCAA ice hockey and tennis athletes last season were not American. In other sports, the percentage of foreign athletes is lower, but they're concentrated at the top. Of the 20 "All-Americans" in the final event of this month's NCAA skiing championship, for example, only six were American.

Zachary Violett, a cross-country skier who didn't make that half-dozen, would like to think he'd have pocketed at least three NCAA championships by now if it weren't for the Europeans that dominate his sport. At last year's event, he finished fourth behind three Norwegians.

Is that frustrating? "Well, I like to [complain] about it, but it's great having people to chase," says Mr. Violett, who emphasizes how much he's improved by skiing head-to-head with the Europeans.

Most of them compete for schools that wouldn't even consider Violett when he was applying to colleges, and certainly didn't offer him the full-ride scholarship the "Euros" enjoy.

Not to be defeated, Violett reverse- engineered the process: He went to a ski gymnasium in Gielo, Norway, where he trained "nonstop" and worked late nights in a restaurant to make ends meet. Now a senior with a full scholarship at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, Violett lives with his Norwegian and German teammates.

A quiet revolt

But not everyone is content to accept the situation as is. On Internet message boards, everyone from ex-soccer players to track stars gripes about the problem, while coaches across the country complain from the sidelines.

Pressured to produce the best teams, some feel the only way to win is to follow suit and recruit more aggressively overseas, compounding the problem.

One of the most foreign-flavored - and difficult to change - sports may be men's tennis. Last year, 63 of the top 100 ranked collegiate players were foreigners, many of whom came in as 22-year-old freshmen with several years experience on the European pro circuit.

That didn't dissuade University of Illinois coach Craig Tiley, who made a conscious commitment when he took on the job in 1993 to develop American players, rather than importing ready-made European stars. In 2003, Mr. Tiley's team won the NCAA championship without a single foreign player.

While Tiley, Wielgus, and others chafe at lost slots and scholarships for US athletes, others point to the qualitative benefits foreign athletes bring to a team - and to the classroom.

"They raise the level of appreciation, expectations, and global perspective" of their teammates, says Lance Harter, who coached four-time Olympic track medalist Veronica Campbell of Jamaica at the University of Arkansas. They also appreciate the educational opportunities they have in the US and are often some of the best students, says Kyle Kallander, chair of the NCAA's Olympic Liaison Committee.

For some talented foreigners, athletic accomplishments are the ticket to a virtually free education at some of America's top universities.

Moreover, as Jeff Howard, director of corporate communications for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), points out: "The United States is a country built upon welcoming people from around the world, and our institutions have benefited from that principle."

Ways to boost ranks of Americans

Still, both the USOC and the NCAA are aware of the concern and have talked about possible solutions. Mr. Kallander would like to explore ways to provide incentives for having more American students on any given team.

Wielgus, on the other hand, recommends putting a cap on the amount of scholarship money available for foreign students. Many coaches acknowledge that's a reasonable and sensible approach, says Wielgus, but few are willing to say so for fear of putting themselves at odds with their athletic departments, whose bottom line is to create the best possible team.

As Busch puts it: "Being an employee of the University of Arizona, my job is to field the best teams I can field, and whether that means recruiting a kid from Arizona or Australia, it really doesn't matter."

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