The Importance of Going to College
Billy Mills is glad that he went to university. A destitute orphan on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota, his athletic scholarship to the University of Kansas made an enormous contribution to his career. He won a surprise 10,000m gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Mills originally wanted to be a boxer and only took up running as part of his training for the ring. But his student days coincided with the discontinuation of college boxing. Had he not switched sports, the disruption might have made such a victory even less likely.
Natalie Coughlin (below) is equally glad that she went to university. Female swimmers have a reputation for starting young, too young for a college scholarship to matter. But not so for Coughlin – a shoulder injury curtailed her Olympic dream at the age of 16.
Her ambition hanging by a thread, she left for the University of California in Berkeley. She recovered her muscle strength and her motivation and now, 12 medals later, she is tied with two of her compatriots as the most decorated female swimmer of all time.
Coughlin’s story could have been very different indeed. As she herself put it, “If college wasn’t around, and I wasn’t going to get a free education out of it, I would have quit.”
As a model of sports development, the US college system passes summa cum laude. It is arguably the best in world. It works for athletes by giving access to high quality training and facilities and, for poor students like Mills, it is their best chance of earning a degree.
Universities benefit from the morale-boosting prestige of having the stars of the future compete for their varsity teams. And, unlike top clubs, they don’t even have to give them wages. One particularly scathing study of college sport is called “Unpaid Professionals“.
It saves the government money too. Athletes emerge, almost fully formed, in their early twenties, without the state having to contribute a single dime. This suits the ideological opposition to government spending which characterises so much of American politics.
The US is one of a handful of countries where the state does not support its athletes. For the patriotic Voice of America, this reflects the country’s values and is a matter of pride.
But the system’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. It works almost too well. It creates the illusion that financial help is never necessary when, in reality, it often is.
This is especially true of boxing. A more sober analysis by the Washington Post suggests that sports without big college programmes have a major disadvantage. It discusses the varsity sports which are still shrinking – college boxing shrank to nothing fifty years ago.
Unless boxing is sanctioned by the NCAA once again, the United States might have to emulate its rivals by investing in the sport. Its universities graduate with distinction in the art of producing Olympic athletes but they do not quite manage to score full marks.
Next week: The boxing revolution taking place in the emerging economy of Kazakhstan