How the US Subsidizes Foreign Olympian Athlete Development
Couch potatoes rejoice, another Summer Olympics has arrived to provide us endless hours of superhuman feats of physical (and mental) spectacle for our entertainment in obscure sports we only see every four years (handball anyone!?!). While it is easy to get caught up in the patriotic circus that is the Olympics, I find myself conflicted by the number of athletes’ representing foreign countries (non-US) that are attending or have attended US universities.
The US college sports system and infrastructure is unique in the world. No other country has an amateur, not-for-profit, non-governmental sports system that provides world-class training and athlete development with a competitive circuit at the elite level of the NCAA and the other collegiate athletic associations.
Winning is important to US colleges for more than pride, winning has a direct correlation to supporter donations, which are crucial for supporting most student athletic programs, which in turn are important for attracting new students. This highly competitive environment of college athletics drives demand to recruit the best student athletes from across the world, and the primary way to attract student athletes is scholarships.
From a university affinity stand point, supporters want their college teams and athletes to win regardless of where the athletes originate. But the situation gets more complex when you add in international competitions, like the Olympics, when international student athletes’ loyalty changes to their respective country. Olympians are the best athletes in their respective sports, so it is safe assume they are receiving or have received some form of financial support from the college they attended, most likely in an athletic scholarship. So US colleges absorb most if not all of the cost of training and development of foreign student athletes while they attend the school including receiving a college education. This is great for the international students and foreign country sports federations receive a subsidized benefit of their athletes.
Avoiding the topic if this is “fair,” which is an entirely subjective idea, the real issue that arises is that most colleges with competitive athletic programs in the US are either public or private not-for-profit institutions, thus all donations to them are tax deductible. Therefore, tax deductible donations are subsidizing foreign student athletes who are receiving athletic scholarships.
While I think international diversity at US universities is key to the learning environment, I question if US tax deductible donations should be supporting athletes whose international competition loyalty belongs to other countries.