That system has one obvious advantage: for athletes in many sports, their path to athletic excellence also comes with a nice byproduct — a college education. But perhaps less obvious is the crucial role that NCAA sports play in bolstering the U.S. Olympic movement. Many of the sports contested at the Olympic and Paralympic Games simply wouldn’t have an organized pipeline of training and competition for athletes beyond the youth level without it.
“From a broad perspective, the NCAA system has been hugely impactful,” said Alan Ashley, chief of sport performance for the United States Olympic Committee. “Some of the sports that don’t have a (strong) club structure, the college system really is the pipeline.”
And even in sports where there is an established club system, the nationwide organization of the NCAA makes it the place for many athletes to hone their skills and test themselves against the best competition.
“Every great men’s freestyle wrestler has come through the NCAA,” Ashley notes. “Look at women’s hockey — every one of those women has graduated or will have come from an NCAA team.”
Ashley pointed to the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games as an example of the role NCAA sports play in the Olympic Movement. In addition to the women’s ice hockey team, the men’s hockey team also included numerous former NCAA athletes. In total, in 2014, 31 U.S. medalists in Sochi participated in collegiate sports. In London in 2012, about 65 percent of the U.S. team members were NCAA athletes, and they produced 28 medals, Ashley said.
“These are really good training opportunities, not available in other countries,” Ashley said.
In fact, he noted, the American system of college sports does such a good job of preparing many athletes for elite level competition while also providing the huge benefit of free education, that Olympic and Paralympic athletes from many other countries also take advantage of NCAA opportunities.
The club system in many sports in the United States is often not as reliable a place for training athletes, in part because they can be less stable than varsity programs, which tend to roll with changes, offer scholarships and have set schedules of competition year in and year out. Clubs also don’t provide room and board for their athletes the way universities do.
But even the NCAA athletes who never make it to the Olympic or Paralympic Games often benefit the Olympic movement and the sport, Ashley said.
“Think how many kids that don’t make the Olympic team there are that play college basketball, D-I, D-II or D-III, who contribute to the fabric of that sport long term,” Ashley said. “They help clubs, they coach, they have kids who are involved...
“In skiing, you won’t necessarily find our Olympic team coming out of college, but college skiers are the backbone of future clubs,” who later go on to groom future Olympians he said.
But more than that, the system benefits the athletes themselves, Ashley noted.
“Think about the whole Olympic movement; the idea that body, mind, everything goes together. Individuals going in, getting an education and a degree ... and then going on to do great things,” Ashley said. “It’s a really nice combination.”
Dave Royse is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and a former reporter for the Associated Press and News Service of Florida. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.