The US is healing a rift between two sporting bodies that has restricted top college athletes. Now, Jon Marcus reports, its Olympic team is seeing the benefits
The traditional success of American competitors at the Olympic Games may owe more to the large population of the United States than to the domestic support system for gifted athletes.
Damaging territorial disputes between the two powerful organisations that represent Olympic competitors and university athletes are only now being settled, partly at the prodding of a government fretting over falling Olympic performances.
The heart of the controversy is the strict eligibility restrictions on university athletes, who are governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. These have traditionally barred athletes from accepting financial support, even for travel to international competitions. Athletes who accept such grants may lose their eligibility to compete at the university level as amateurs, and they may lose scholarships.
"The problems that arise are primarily with the definition of 'amateur', and the NCAA has probably the strictest definition of amateurism," says Carolyn Campbell-McGovern, senior associate director of the Ivy League Athletic Conference and chair of the NCAA Olympic Sports Liaison Committee, which is trying to resolve these differences.
"We've been working with the NCAA rules to identify those that have been unnecessarily restricting Olympic athletes."
In exchange, the United States Olympic Committee and its affiliated federations have been helping universities to pay for high-priced sports that generate less revenue and fan support than mainstays such as basketball. USA Cycling underwrites cycling programmes at 216 universities and awards ten scholarships a year. Olympic federations related to the USOC support athletics at 130 universities and colleges and a smaller but significant number of fencing, field hockey, gymnastic, synchronised swimming, handball, water polo and wrestling programmes.
Still, a lack of university funding and interest harms US athletes in sports such as field hockey; the US could not even scrape together a hockey team for this year's summer games.
The entente follows years of dissension between the NCAA and the Amateur Athletic Union, a committee of which in effect selected US Olympic team members. The rift became so deep that NCAA-member universities voted in 1972 to withdraw from the US Olympic Committee.
With that, the government became involved, creating the President's Commission on Olympic Sports in 1975. By 1978, Congress had passed the Amateur Sports Act. That reorganised the US Olympic Committee, which would be the exclusive coordinating body for all Olympic-related athletic activity, but would have no say over college sports.
It was 11 years before the USOC and the NCAA began talking to each other, and two more years before they set up a liaison group in 1991. A more active special task force was formed in 1995. The task force has made 45 changes to NCAA rules to help Olympic athletes, including letting them miss practice days on campus to participate with national teams and, in some cases, allowing them to accept grants for travel and equipment. It has also arranged for the USOC to support NCAA national championships in sports lacking corporate sponsors, such as men's gymnastics, men's water polo, wrestling and field hockey.
This year, as a result, university athletes are well represented at the Sydney Olympics. Some 85 per cent of team members are estimated to be products of NCAA-member universities.
Attention has now turned to younger athletes, even as educational reform and limited space in schools is forcing physical education to the fringes. "There's a lot of emphasis being put on select athletes," said John Hodges, spokesman for the Amateur Athletics Union, which now focuses on primary and secondary grades, and whose alumni include such US Olympic greats as Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Greg Louganis.
"A lot more emphasis needs to be put on those athletes who may not become the select athletes, because there is no way you can judge eight and nine-year-olds to determine who is going to be the next Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods."