I Think: International Athletes Taking Over NCAA?

[The following article represents the opinions of the author, not necessarily Track & Field News, which is also not responsible for any factual errors which may be present in the piece]


International Track & Field Athletes Taking Over?

 by Ben Lindaman

“Walter Henning: three-time NCAA hammer throw national champion.”

Sounds like a pretty good title, right? Sadly, this title does not exist for Walter Henning. One of the greatest talents for the hammer in the USA in recent memory only walked away with one collegiate title and has since given up the sport.

Walter could have been the first ever American to win three national championships in the hammer and the third collegiate athlete of all-time (Scott Nielson: Washington/Canada & Balázs Kiss: US/Hungary).

Due to two international athletes from Virginia Tech in ’09 and ’11 winning the national titles and Walter finishing behind them, Walter was denied the chance to cement his legacy as one of the greatest American collegiate hammer throwers of all-time. If those Virginia Tech athletes had not been in the competition, Walter would have won three straight national titles. In a world in which everything is available in a split-second at one’s fingertips, track & field has unconsciously pressured coaches of track & field programs to produce championship teams right away. This pressure is especially felt the higher up one goes in the collegiate ranks.

Coaches at the Div. III level are typically encouraged to keep their programs fun and enjoyable while providing a positive experience for the student athletes. An NCAA Div. I track & field coach of a major university is expected to produce conference championship teams and perform well at the national meets before their contract expires. While the talent in the United States was sufficient enough to produce championship teams for the latter part of the 19th century, some coaches felt they needed the extra "boost" to help take their programs from middle-of-the-road to top-dog. This has led coaches to reach out to international athletes to help aid in their program’s progression, and to help at the conference and national meets.

While academics should be the priority of the "student-athlete,” a recent trend in the over-saturation of international athletes in the NCAA track & field landscape has caused some grumbles in the track community. There are several benefits and costs of having international athletes in a track program, and this article hopes to outline these issues while providing a few "solutions" or strategies to this sensitive topic.

These are a few reasons why coaches would want to have an international athlete be a part of their teams, or why an international athlete would want to go to school in America:

1. Coming to the USA for academic purposes:

Many international athletes come to America to receive a higher quality education than what is available in their native country. This is no different from a student who isn't involved in track & field or any varsity sport who wants to come to America and study. Furthering one’s education is the reason why students, athlete or non-athlete, attend a college or university. This brings students from all walks of life to the USA to receive a first-class education. As this pertains to track & field, many international students are bound by much stricter guidelines in their home country, and are forced to choose between their love for track & field and getting an education.

Sebastian Barth, an All-Conference Missouri Valley hurdler and a member of the German Junior national team that competed in the 2012 World Junior Championships in Barcelona, cited that he would have had to choose between school and training as an athlete in Germany. American culture is set up to where an athlete has the option to go to school and participate in athletics. By coming to the USA, Barth could get a quality education while still developing his talent in hopes of competing for the German national team in future international competitions.

2. International athletes winning championships can help save a coach's job

This was a big reason that many head coaches cited when I talked with them. A head coach and/or assistant coaches have very easy ways for people to tell how well they are doing as a coach: by how well their athlete’s perform on the track. It's probably one of the easiest professions in the business to do a "job/performance" review.

Now that isn't all that goes into the hiring/firing of a coach, but it's a pretty clear indicator of how effective the coach's style and training program is. If the athletes aren't putting out great performances or contending for championships points like they are projected to score, there might be a problem starting at the top.

International athletes are a very quick-fix solution to a coach whose job hangs in the balance. Most international athletes, especially in track, come already trained and ready to compete at a high level - making them easy to "polish" up and place in a high-level meet to score big points. This can effectively save or delay a coach's job because they can point to the international athlete as proof that they are moving the program in the right direction.

3. Helping jump-start a program

A great coach should have the organizational skills and be able to plan ahead for graduation of their athletes and recruit accordingly, but there are some athletes who are hard to replace. For many programs that have gone through major graduation of athletes or are an upstart program, implementation of international athletes can be a huge boost to a program. If those international athletes can perform well on the big stage, win conference championships, and qualify for nationals it's much easier to convince a prospective recruit to attend that school if the recruit can look and see the success that athletes have had in that program.

Success of international athletes in a program is a good way to bridge the gap between recruits having little interest in the program to signing the top-notch recruits who would have otherwise passed up the school.

4. Developing foreign talent that might otherwise go unnoticed

International athletes who come to the USA have great credentials to back up the big scholarships they consume. To the casual fan, international track athletes look like rock stars. If one were to take a closer look at the culture of that nation's national track team most international athletes who come to the USA are only considered "prospective/developmental" athletes in their own countries, could “possibly” make their country's international teams in the future.

For example, Arizona's Lawi Lalang (a native of Kenya) won 3 NCAA national titles in ’12. One would think he is the next protégé in Kenya to take an Olympic gold medal. Upon closer look, Lawi barely makes a dent in the national lists for Kenya; only taking 13th on the Kenyan list for the 5000, and not even cracking the top 10 in the mile - an event in which he is close to the NCAA record.

From Lalang’s perspective, coming to America was a dream come true. He got to develop his talents further and receive recognition for them. Having not come to America, he would be an “average” runner by Kenyan standards and may not have continued training. One can only speculate.

While there are several positive reasons for having international athletes in NCAA competition, some might speculate that there are more negative connotations associated with having international athletes be a part of the NCAA track & field landscape.

5. Opportunities lost for American students

The NCAA has strict limits on the number of scholarships that are allotted for each track & field team; 12.6 for the men and 18.0 for the women. Most Div. I programs have 40–50 student-athletes on a roster and most programs spread the 12.6 for men as thin as they can; giving 20% to this athlete, 35% to that athlete, etc. Most programs hope to accommodate 25–30 male athletes with the 12.6 scholarships.

The trouble and money battles can arise when an international athlete gets placed on scholarship. Most international athletes get around 90-100% of a scholarship, essentially taking up one whole scholarship. This can be a disadvantage to American athletes because that one scholarship could have been spread out between two or three American athletes; thus, a scholarship opportunity is taken away from an American athlete.

6. Training athletes that will compete for native country

I realize that the majority of the athletes that compete in track & field or sports in general will never make an Olympic team or international team, but this is a scenario that comes up on a consistent basis and deserves some attention. This is more prevalent in track & field due to the individuality of the sport. It's much easier for a track & field athlete to find their way to the Olympics or international events than it would be for a basketball or soccer player to make the team and then lobby for the amount of playing time needed to make a significant difference.

You see it in almost every event at the Olympics or World Championships in track & field; international competitors having a United States university attached to their biography. It seems almost "un-American" to train an athlete, spend money and resources on them, and then have them compete for a country other than the United States. It's only a detriment to the USA in international competitions. We say we want to be the best in every event at the Olympics or World Championships but we also are training the competition that we are competing against; -this seems counterproductive.

7. The lost art of actual coaching and coaching ethics

A coach's main task is to take an athlete and instruct them on how to best perform the task to get the most out of their talent. Most coaches are never handed an athlete who is already well-versed in a selected event, and usually the coach has to start from ground-zero or reteach the basics to an athlete before they can progress to more advanced drills and techniques. In the case of international athletes, most of them have received adequate coaching or are just freaks-of-nature athletically and really do not need too much in terms of "coaching."

This is very beneficial to the college track coach because it's easy to bring in an international athlete, put them in the blocks after a few practices, win a conference title and then take credit for coaching that athlete to where they are. Now I know I'm oversimplifying the process but the basic idea is still there. 

It's very easy for an international athlete to make a coach look "good" when the coach didn't have to go through the process of teaching the skills to the athlete - instead just putting them in a race and taking the credit.

The art of coaching has been moving towards who you recruit verses actual coaching. Show me the coach that takes a so-so athlete from a local town by the university and makes him or her a conference champion verses importing some international athlete and having them win the conference title (when in reality the athlete could have won the conference title without the coaches help).


8. Creates an uneven playing field

This area gets into a sensitive part for many coaches and programs around the nation: money! Money is what fuels everything in life. From the car you drive, to the clothes you wear, to the place you live, and even how a track team functions. The meets, facilities, and the athletes cost a program money. When it comes to international athletes, they cost a program A LOT of money!

The respective school’s university sets a policy on how much money gets funneled into the scholarships. For example, one school might have 12.6 scholarships but only in-state scholarships where as another school will have 12.6 scholarships but 6 of them might be out-of-state. This gives school No. 2 more money than school No. 1.

For the programs whose university policy makes it difficult to afford to have an international athlete, it puts them at a severe disadvantage against the schools that are able to afford several international athletes on their team. I'm not saying that a program can't do well without the aid of international athletes but it certainly does help if a team can have an international athlete or two.

My prime example to help illustrate this point is from the 2013 NCAA Div. I Indoor National Championships held recently in Arkansas. As expected, the hometown favorite Razorbacks took home the team title, but what was not known to the casual fan was how they went about doing it.

Arkansas scored an impressive 74 points to win the team title, but of the 14 athletes that contributed to those 74 points, 8 were from foreign countries. Those 8 international athletes scored a whopping 41pts (55%) of the 74 points for their team.

In contrast, the University of Oregon women won their fourth straight indoor national title with only the aid of one German athlete (lead off the distance medley relay; placing 8th). That German athlete only contributed 1/4th of a point in the 56 points the Ducks used to win the team title.

Additionally, Arkansas had the most foreign athletes entered in the meet with 8 entries. Florida and Wisconsin teams placed 2nd and 3rd respectively with only one international athlete combined between the two. (Mohammed Ahmed, Wisconsin - from Ontario).

9. Growth in international dominated events is stunted

Traditionally, the United States has been relatively weak in distance events, discus, hammer, and javelin, with those events having been dominated by the Europeans and Africans for the better part of the last half century; NCAA track & field is no exception.

The easiest way to view this phenomenon is to look at the 5000 run at 2013 Div. I indoor nationals. This event was dominated by the international athletes. Seven of the top eight finishers were international athletes - with only Maverick Darling, Wisconsin, left to save the USA from utter embarrassment.

This raises the question of why are we spending so much time developing international athletes instead of developing our own talent? By doing this, the USA can make an impact in Olympics and international scene instead of pulling up the rear. In this country, I don’t think we really develop many athletes in those respective events because we don’t want to spend the money; there is no solid return on the investment.

We certainly don’t want to spend the money on the sports that don’t garner national headlines and mobbing cameras. If it isn’t the fastest person in the world in the 100 meters, or the high jump, or the decathlon, we really don’t care because you don’t put a hammer thrower or 5000 runner on a box of Wheaties, and in this country, if you can’t market it, there is no reason to fund it.


10. Why are athletes drawn to football and basketball?

How many American World Records would there be if some of the athletes who specialize in those two sports were focused on and could make the make the same money in track & field?


Possible Solutions

With the international athletes making a big impact on team, conference championships and NCAA track & field national meets, there has long been some discomfort in the track & field community on how to combat this problem. The easiest and most pain-free way would be to put some parameters or restrictions on how track & field programs go about dealing with international athletes. Placing a "cap" on the amount of money that can be spent on international athletes or placing a "cap" on the age of an incoming international athlete are two solutions that can be used to help control teams from going "international crazy."

Proposing that only 10% of the track & field program's conference roster can be international athletes is one solution that can be looked at, or placing a cap on the number of international athletes that are allowed on the competition roster at any given time.

By doing this, the playing field can be kept relatively fair and give all teams an equal chance to fight for a title. This is not a foreign concept to other league organizations, as the European futbol and basketball leagues have been doing it for years. The basketball leagues in Europe have restrictions on how many United States players are allowed on each roster to help prevent a team from loading up on USA players to help win championships. The English Premier League in soccer is also looking to adopt restrictions on the amount of South American players and US-born players that can be allowed on each team.

Placing an age "cap" on the incoming athletes would also help level the field and keep things fair. This would prevent the "22-year-old incoming freshman" from Chile going up against an 18-year-old freshman from the USA. In most countries there is a national Junior meet and a national under-23 meet. The timing of the NCAA Championships makes a U-23 meet impossible, but the international athletes at the NCAA meet make creating American champions in some events nearly impossible. The NCAA Championships could serve as a pseudo-under 23 meet but with the international athletes also competing in those championships, and most of the time competing at an older age than their fellow American competitors.

When you figure US Senior Champions are typically 26-29 years of age, Americans in some events can expect to go from age 20-25 without winning the title of US Champion. Those opportunities to win NCAA titles between ages 20-25 are being taken by international athletes that are mainly a couple of years older than their competitors. We have brought their psychological development to a grinding halt.

Only in America would we voluntarily enter into such psychological destruction of our future champions.

And what happens to the ones who decide to stick with it as a post collegiate? What happens when they make an Olympic team and even make an Olympic final and line up against the guys who they’ve personally experienced kicking their ass in college? We are depriving our American kids the opportunity to experience winning national titles and continuing in their psychological development. They weren’t allowed to stay the course because our system is broken.

It’s also worth mentioning that Div. II and III programs have had great success and produced some phenomenal teams throughout the years; hard-pressed to find one international athlete on any one of those teams. Wisconsin–Oshkosh men and women teams have been the most dominant DIII programs in the last decade and have done so with only in-state talent and a few athletes from neighboring states. If they can do it, why can’t the bigger schools?

International athletes have been a part of track & field for decades, but the international athletes have caused a shift in track & field and have caused some within the track community to raise a red flag. Can the problem be fixed? Is there a problem to begin with?

I am not against having international athletes be a part of track & field teams across America, but am saying that there should be some boundaries set so some things don't spiral out of control in the decades to come.

[Ben Lindaman is a junior at Northern Iowa and competes in the decathlon]