University Pathways for Elite Athlete Development

University Pathways for Elite Athlete Development   
Prepared by  Prepared by: Dr Ralph Richards, Senior Research Consultant, Clearinghouse for Sport, Sport Australia (formerly Australian Sports Commission) 
  evaluated by  Evaluation by: Martin Roberts, Performance Strategy Manager, Swimming Australia Ltd. (December 2016)
Reviewed by  Reviewed by network: Australian Sport Information Network (AUSPIN)
Last updated  Last updated: 17 January 2018
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Universities offer higher, or tertiary, education and research opportunities. The majority of students who attend university are in their late teens to 20s – which is also a key demographic for elite sports performance.

Universities can, and do, have a strong impact on the sport sector, particularly in supporting and developing elite student-athletes through quality facilities and infrastructure, supportive programming, competitive opportunities, and sometimes scholarships or grants.

Elite athletes can benefit significantly from educational and career opportunities outside of sport. It is important for athletes, parents, and other support people (i.e. coaches) to understand the opportunities, both domestic and international, that are available for athletes in order to choose the best options to support both academic and competitive goals. Likewise, universities and sporting organisations need to clearly understand the role which university education can play for athletes and develop strong pathways for athletes to continue their holistic development.

Key Messages 


Many Olympic athletes have advanced their sporting careers during the critical development period from 18 to 23 years of age while attending university.


Sporting opportunities for Australian university student-athletes residing in Australia are primarily supported by their National Sporting Organisation, the Australian Institute of Sport, and the State Institutes/Academy of Sport network. Universities assist with the coordination of dual education and sport objectives.


The University/College sport system in the United States, the NCAA, offers extensive sport resources and competition opportunities for US student-athletes, and opportunities also exist for international students.


Acquiring a university degree and life skills are additional outcomes that a student-athlete can obtain.

The mean age of athletes participating in Olympic sports varies by individual sport and by the disciplines within a sport. With the possible exceptions of women’s gymnastics, where athletes tend to reach their peak performance at a young age, and equestrian events where athletes tend to peak at an older age, most Olympic athletes are in their 20’s.

Many factors can influence the longevity of an athlete’s career and the age at which they are most likely to reach their peak performance potential. Physiological factors, such as endurance capacity or power; social factors, such as opportunity to continue within a country’s sport system; skill factors that require years of development as an elite athlete; and even gender must be considered (male elite athletes tend to remain in sport longer – perhaps due to social and cultural influences). In many sports athletes are transitioning from ‘potential elite’ to elite competitors within the age range of 18 to 23 years. This time frame may also coincide with a decision to pursue tertiary education or vocational training as part of their career pathway.

  • The age in swimming of champions in World Championships (1994–2013) and Olympic Games (1992–2012): A cross-sectional data analysis, Knechtle B, Bragazzi N, Konig S,, Sports, Volume 4, Issue 1 (2016). The authors looked at the age of swimming champions in all strokes and race distances in World Championships (1994–2013) and Olympic Games (1992–2012), for 412 elite swimmers. The age of peak swimming performance remained relatively stable in most race distances. Champions in longer race distances (i.e. 200m or more) had a slightly younger mean age, approximately 20 years for women and 22 years for men. Champion swimmers in shorter race distances (i.e. 50m and 100m events) had a mean age of approximately 22 years for women and 24 years for men. Overall, the mean age of Olympic and World swimming champions was 21 and 23 years for women and men, respectively.
  • Age of peak competitive performance of elite athletes: A systematic review, Allen S and Hopkins W, Sports Medicine, Volume 45, Issue 10 (2015). This study reviewed published information on the age of peak performance of elite athletes in the twenty-first century. Estimates were made for three event-type categories on the basis of the predominant attributes required for success: (1) explosive power/sprint events; (2) endurance events; and (3) mixed/skill events. In explosive power or sprint events, mean age of elite competitors decreased with increasing event duration; for example, the mean age for athletics throwing events (requiring about 1 to 5 seconds) was 27 years. Elite 50m swimmers, who require about 21 to 24 seconds of effort for men’s or women’s events, had a mean age of 20-22 years. Mean age at peak performance for endurance events increased with the duration of the event. The mean age for elite ultra-marathon runners for example was 39 years, while the mean age of other distance runners was 27-29 years. There was insufficient data to investigate trends in mixed/skill events. 

The reality facing many elite athletes in Olympic sports is that substantial funding, allowing full-time training and competition as a ‘professional’ athlete, is the exception rather than the norm. Although many countries have extensive athlete support schemes, few young-adult athletes outside the fully professional sport codes can pursue sport as a vocation. This means that athletes who actively pursue international competition (as a de facto ‘career’) must also plan a ‘dual career’ that will secure their future past their competitive years. Managing a higher education pathway and committing 20+ hours a week to sport training, plus the additional hours necessary for support processes (i.e. physical therapies, team meetings, etc.), can be challenging. Both short-term (i.e. sport success) and long-term (i.e. career preparation) career objective must be considered. There are many and varied reasons for attempting a ‘dual career’ in sport and study during one’s early adult years.

  • Degrees of success: negotiating dual career paths in elite sport and university education in Finland, France and the UK (PDF  - 11.4 MB, Aquilina D, PhD Thesis, Loughborough University (2009). This research sought to understand the challenges facing 18 student-athletes in their academic and sporting careers, using case studies of athletes from three different sport/education systems. Nine key motivations or justifications were identified that shaped these athletes’ decision to pursue dual careers as elite sportsperson and university student. (1) The need to focus on more than just one aspect of life. (2) The belief that two aspects, education and sport, would complement and support each other. (3) The need to keep life choices in perspective. (4) Past experience of dedicating time exclusively to elite sport with minimal improvement. (5) The need for intellectual stimulation. (6) Belief that they could perform better in sport while maintaining their educational progress. (7) Belief that education would be their ‘safety net’ if injury or illness ended their sporting career. (8) The rationale that there was more to life than sport. (9) Preparation for post-athletic careers.

Australian Universities provide support for elite athletes (e.g. Olympic and Paralympic) in three ways.

First, the Elite Athlete Friendly University (EAFU) program provides a flexible environment where an athlete can adjust their educational program to accommodate the demands of sport. This may mean increasing the time period to complete a degree or course; accommodating time away from university studies (while attending sporting events); and looking after the athlete’s welfare as a student. Sport Australia (formerly Australian Sports Commission) provides a list of EAFU endorsed Universities

Second, some scholarship assistance is also available from select Australian universities on the basis of athletic and academic potential/performance.

Third, intra and inter-university competition, with a pathway to International University Sports Federation (FISU) events, is possible.

Australian University Sport (AUS) is the peak body and national authority for the promotion and conduct of university sport in Australia on behalf of member institutions and student participants. AUS is recognised as such by the International University Sports Federation (FISU), Sport Australia (formerly Australian Sports Commission) and the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC).

  • Student-athletes perform in Rio, Australian University Sport (AUS), posted online (26 August 2016). There were 71 Australian medal winning athletes (individual events, relays, and team members) at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games; 61% are current or were former university athletes, across 10 sports. AUS research shows that student-athletes selected to Australian Olympic Teams win a higher percentage of medals on a pro-rata basis than athletes not attending (current or past) university. 

In July 2017 AUS released a report The Case for Change Transitioning from the Australian University Games to a divisional, national championship model (PDF  - 1.1 MB) which stated that:

It is clear that AUS, in partnership with members, NSOs and the ASC/AIS, can and must create more credible competition opportunities to better service the growing cohort of elite student athletes. This should become a priority for future planning. The Case for Change, AUS, (2017), p.8.

The report also highlights some of the challenges currently facing the Australian sport, and particularly elite sport, sector which may be leading to decreased international competitiveness. It argues that improving the quality of competition in Australian university sport can benefit athletes, universities, and the broader sport sector, including retaining elite athletes who currently may choose to study and compete overseas due to a lack of robust, competitive sporting programs in Australia.

Potential Olympic/Paralympic athletes attending Australian universities may also be eligible to receive financial support through dAIS, a direct cash grant from the Australian Government. Athletes are nominated by their National Sporting Organisation (NSO) for dAIS assistance if they have achieved a podium result at a recent World Championship or demonstrated potential to achieve at that level.

NSOs, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), and State Institutes/Academies of Sport (SIS/SAS) generally collaborate to provide underpinning support for elite and emerging athletes (i.e. National Team members or national representation internationally) while they attend university. This support may be supplemented by, or coordinated with AUS programs, particularly the selection of athletes to compete at the World University Games.

Personal Excellence. This AIS initiative is designed to help athletes make informed decisions abut issues that can impact on their performance in sport and life. Personal Excellence replaced the Athlete Career and Education (ACE) network in name, but also extends education and support into new areas, such as: social media, image/public profile, conventional media, mental wellbeing, finance, sport integrity issues (e.g. professionalism, anti-doping, illicit drugs, gambling), as well as career/educational planning. Through a multifaceted approach, athletes are provided guidance, resources, and educational opportunities to achieve personal and professional empowerment and become professional, accountable, responsible, and resilient in their approach towards sport and life. 

More information can be found on Sport Australia's (formerly Australian Sports Commission) website under Personal Excellence.

Elite Australian athletes wishing to pursue both education and sport have a number of domestic options in terms of support for these joint objectives. There are also overseas options for athletes to pursue university study, particularly in the United States.

In the three Olympiads2004, 2008 and 2012a total of 477 Australian student-athletes progressed through domestic programs and were selected onto Australian Olympic Teams, this was 36% of all Olympic representatives. Student athletes have won 52% of Australia’s medal total during that period.

  • Performance of student-athletes at Olympic Games: The performance impact of University Student-Athletes at the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympic Games (PDF  - 1.1 MB), Australian University Sport and Australian Sports Commission (2012). This report assesses the performance impact of Australian student-athletes competing in three successive Olympic Games. Data is also presented on the performance impact of student-athletes in other countries.
  • Sport and study a winning formula, Public Service News, Edition Number 516 (9 August 2016). The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and 40 of Australia’s universities have formed a partnership, the Elite Athlete Friendly University (EAFU) program. The EAFU program is an initiative within the Personal Excellence Strategy of the AIS, which focuses on the holistic development of athletes and their wellbeing. There is international evidence suggesting that student-athletes who are able to balance their training with education can achieve success at an Olympic level. Elite sport can be a positive aspect in the overall holistic development of a young adult.

Example programs

University of Sunshine Coast

In December 2017 the Australian Cycling Academy (ACA), a collaborative project between former national champions Matt Wilson and Ben Kersten, Sunshine Coast Council, and USC, was launched. The ACA-Ride Sunshine Coast professional men's team will aim to compete in races in Australia and Asia and the program will incorporate tertiary education scholarships and professional mentoring along with training and racing opportunities. The idea is to both nurture talented athletes as well as providing options outside of sport. 

There are both benefits and limitations associated with Australian athletes attending NCAA institutions on a sport scholarship. The potential benefits are outlined (below) in the description of the NCAA system. One of the potential limitations is the loss of financial support (and service provision) offered through Sport Australia (formerly Australian Sports Commission), National Sport Organisations (NSOs), and the State Institute/Academy network (SIS/SAS). A second limitation is the cost of travel to/from the US and Australia, which (by NCAA rules) is not covered by scholarship support. There are also many associated university costs that may not fall under the support structure of a sport scholarship.

At the age of 18 (i.e. the average university enrolment age) the prospect of adapting to a different culture, and the emotional challenges of being separated from family and friends, may place additional stress on athletes. However, this may also be a source of learning to be independent and develop resilience.

NSOs in Australia are also concerned that the short-term priorities of a US University (i.e. a 4 year investment in the athlete) may not align with the long-term development or sporting career of an elite athlete. The intended purpose of a University sport scholarship is to represent that institution, and often National and International sporting commitments to Australia must be compromised to fulfil scholarship obligations.

There are also differences in the educational systems in Australia and the United States. Australian athletes contemplating a US scholarship option must assess their academic preparation against entry standards, as well as the value of the degree program they wish to pursue.

A number of NSOs have prepared documents or guidelines to assist their elite junior athletes in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the US college sports system.  

  • Basketball Australia factsheets (PDF  - 3.8 MB). Basketball Australia provides information for prospective scholarship recipients and their parents; what to do, what to consider, and what questions to ask when weighing-up the prospects of playing for a US College.
  • College Baseball information: Frequently asked questions (PDF  - 439 KB), Spence J, Arizona State University (2012). The term 'college' within the American education system refers to education beyond year 12. The US College baseball season starts in February and ends in late May. Teams play up to 56 games during a regular season and some teams advance to playoff or championship tournaments. Team rosters are between 24 and 35 players. This resource (prepared for Baseball Australia) serves to clarify the US college system.
  • College Recruiting Guide (PDF  - 556 KB), Golf Australia (2014). Golf Australia has provided this resource to answer questions that athletes and parents may have regarding the process of attending a tertiary institution in the United States as a scholarship student-athlete. Golf Australia views tertiary education as a potential pathway option, but does not endorse athletes in pursuing their athletic or academic career in the U.S Collegiate system. Golf Australia believes the Australian system is the best in the world, with State High Performance programs offering world class resources and support structures around the athlete.
  • Swimming Australia Position Statement – US College Scholarships (PDF  - 657 KB), Swimming Australia (2014). Swimming Australia’s ‘High Performance Plan’ (HPP) includes a coordinated and holistic approach to athlete development, in terms of sporting success and acquisition of life-skills. This position statement highlights a number of considerations that young athletes (and their parents) must make when assessing the benefits of a US College sport scholarship as a sport/education option.
  • United States College Tennis: Recruiting Guide (PDF  - 2.7 MB), Tennis Australia (2010). Attaining a US college scholarship as a student-athlete can pose many questions that may leave the tennis player confused. This booklet will answer those questions and give the prospective student-athlete a more knowledgeable background of intercollegiate athletics. The five components that will serve as a guide are: (1) academics; (2) intercollegiate athletics; (3) being an international athlete; (4) how to design your collegiate recruitment resume; and (5) how to design your collegiate recruitment video.

Softball Australia hosts annual performance trials, supported by the American college recruitment program (NSR), to identify potential softball prospects who may have the ability to play full-time softball while studying for a university degree at an NCAA institution. Softball Australia recommends that prospective scholarship athletes seek further information to determine whether this opportunity is right for each athlete. [source: NSR Evaluation Camps, Softball Australia (8 April 2016)]  

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a membership-driven organisation dedicated to safeguarding the well-being of student-athletes and equipping them with the skills to succeed on the playing field, in the classroom, and throughout life. There are nearly 1,100 colleges and universities in the NCAA’s three divisions – Division I (approximately 350 institutions), Division II (300), and Division III (450).

NCAA institutions collectively invest more than USD$3 billion in athletic scholarships each year, along with access to medical care, academic support services, first-class training facilities, and competition opportunities. Student-athletes have regular access to high performance coaching, support services, facilities, and equipment. These resources would otherwise cost athletes many thousands of dollars per year. [source: NCAA website]

The NCAA currently recognises 22 varsity sports and sanctions a national championship for each, plus divisional and inter-institutional competitions. New sports may be added and many established sports have been expanded to include women’s programs.

NCAA Division I institutions: 

maximum number of scholarships, by sport 

The ‘value’ of an athletic scholarship may vary by sport, ranging from an average USD$41,700 for ice hockey (women's), to USD$10,500 for an equestrian athlete (women's). [source: 2016 Athletic Scholarship Averages for NCAA I teams by Sport,, accessed 28 July 2017]

Most NCAA varsity programs give scholarships to the ‘equivalency’ of their sport’s limit. For example, an NCAA Division I school can allocate a number of partial athletic scholarships equivalent to 11.7 full scholarships to support the majority of a baseball roster of 25 players.

Some college sports are not ‘officially’ recognised by the NCAA, such as squash and rodeo, but have an established national governing body dedicated to growing the sport within US educational institutions. These sports, and other sports may, at some future time seek inclusion under the NCAA’s jurisdiction. Institutions supporting non-NCAA sports also may offer athlete scholarships. The College Squash Association (CSA) is the collective name for the men’s and women’s College Squash Associations. As the governing body for intercollegiate squash, the CSA ranks players and teams, establishes and enforces rules, hosts annual individual and team championships, and archives college squash history. There are approximately 30 men’s and 30 women’s varsity collegiate squash programs in the United States and approximately 40 club programs. The National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) has been established for over 50 years and is dedicated to preserving the western heritage sport of rodeo within US colleges. NIRA sanctions over 1000 college competitions each year and has a participation base of over 3500 college athletes representing 137 institutions (Division I, II, and III combined).

The college sport of water polo existed as a ‘club’ sport (i.e. not sanctioned by the NCAA) until 1969 when the first NCAA Water Polo Championship was sanctioned.

The college sport of triathlon is the newest member of the NCAA and is currently supported by only 13 institutions (Division I, II, and III combined) at a varsity level (i.e. offering athlete scholarships) and many more institutions as a club or intramural sport (i.e. no athlete scholarships).

Benefits to athletes

 The three NCAA Divisions operate within certain scholarship regulations that restrict the number of scholarships allowed per sport and the ‘value’ (i.e. tuition, academic fees, living expenses, etc.) of each scholarship. Division I schools generally have the largest number of full-fee scholarships available, and the most extensive facilities. Division II scholarships are fewer and more restricted, in terms of what a scholarship covers. Division III institutions are not allowed to offer athletic scholarships, but many Division III schools recruit student-athletes by offering academic scholarships or other forms of financial assistance. In general terms, competition opportunities and training facilities are best at Division I institutions because they attract (in theory) the best athletes, although this may not be true in all sports (particularly some Olympic sports).

Student-athletes have the opportunity to pursue the university degree of their choice. NCAA regulations are in place to promote standards of academic achievement and monitor annual progress toward graduation. Most scholarship athletes also have access to tutorials, counselling, and other types of academic monitoring and assistance.

The NCAA offers an extensive competition program for each sport. However, the NCAA does impose some restrictions on the length of season and out-of-competition training period. This is done to balance the student-athlete’s time demands and encourage normal progress toward the completion of a degree.

Athletes competing in a varsity (i.e. sanctioned by the institution and NCAA) sport team/squad receive medical insurance coverage and appropriate sport medicine support. Although support resources (i.e. physiology, biomechanics, sport psychology, physical therapies, etc.) may vary among institutions, they are generally of a high, even world-class standard. Likewise, university sports facilities are generally considered excellent or world-class. Regular competition against other universities is at a high standard and offers a platform for further international competition.

An athlete will generally complete his/her NCAA eligibility at age 22 ± 1 year with a bachelor’s degree and several years of high level competition experience. [Source: The value of college sports, NCAA website]

NCAA regulations

An athlete in any sport has four years of competition eligibility within the university/college system. Allowances are made if an athlete is unable to compete due to illness/injury to protect the four year eligibility period. The NCAA may also adjust an athlete’s eligibility period on the basis of the athlete’s age, an athlete may lose a year(s) of competition eligibility if there has been an extended period of time between the completion of secondary education and first enrolment at university. These rules limit NCAA institutions from recruiting athletes (primarily from overseas) who are much older than the normal student population.

The NCAA has adopted ‘amateurism’ rules to ensure that students’ priorities remain on obtaining a quality educational experience, and that all student-athletes are competing equitably. All incoming student-athletes must be certified as amateurs. With global recruiting becoming more common, determining the amateur status of prospective student-athletes can be challenging. All student-athletes, including international students, are required to adhere to NCAA amateurism requirements to remain eligible for intercollegiate competition. In general, amateurism requirements do not allow: 

  • Contracts with professional teams.
  • Accepting payments or preferential benefits for playing sport.
  • Prize money above actual and necessary expenses.
  • Play with professionals.
  • Tryouts, practice, or competition with a professional team.
  • Benefits from an agent or prospective agent.
  • Agreement to be represented by an agent.
  • Delayed initial full-time collegiate enrolment to participate in organised sports competition. 
[Source: 2016-17 Guide for the College-bound Student-athlete (PDF  - 1.3 MB), NCAA Eligibility Centre, publications]

There are also NCAA regulations governing academic entrance standards, transfer of credit from other institutions, and transferring athletic eligibility from one institution to another. Resources are provided on the NCAA website.

Resourcing NCAA programs

The concentration of financial resources among NCAA institutions is predominantly at Division I and is heavily focused on two sports – football (i.e. gridiron) and basketball. The popularity of these two sports in the USA, and to a lesser degree college baseball and ice hockey, creates financial opportunities such as: gate receipts, merchandising, and alumni fund raising for the institution and its athletic department. The largest source of income for the NCAA is the long-term broadcasting rights to regular season and post-season football and basketball competitions. NCAA institutions that are state supported colleges/universities also receive public funding, and their athletic departments and sporting facilities may benefit from government funds. Universities with financially successful football and basketball programs may choose to invest profits into a wider range of ‘non-revenue’ sports, many of them Olympic sports. Nonetheless, NCAA institutions generally offer a variety of sport programs that are well-funded and provide athletes with high-level competitive experience.

However, the revenue distribution from NCAA football and basketball, as well as each institution’s commercial operations, presents certain disparities between financially stable and more marginal programs. Most university sports programs rely upon multiple revenue sources: state government funds; student fees; sponsorship and donations; sale of merchandise; ticket sales; media rights; and commercial management of sports venues. Diverse funding sources help to maintain program excellence, diversity, and gender equity (i.e. comparable number of men’s and women’s programs). Although many university athletic department budgets are substantial, only about 23 NCAA Division I athletic departments disclosed an operating profit during 2015. Even some highly regarded institutions face major funding challenges within their athletic departments.

  • Programs struggle to balance budget, Schlabach M, ESPN (13 July 2009). Stanford University sponsors 35 NCAA-competing varsity teams – 19 for women, 15 for men and one co-ed squad, and all of them do well on the national stage. Stanford programs have won at least one national sport championship for 33 consecutive years, and produce many outstanding athletes like Tiger Woods (golf) and John McEnroe (tennis), as well as many Olympic medalists. However, university athletic departments are struggling to cut costs and only a few turn a profit.

Only State government supported institutions are required to make a public disclosure of profits generated by their sports programs. A few of the most financially successful Division I university athletic programs are identified below. Stanford University and the University of Notre Dame are both Division I private (i.e. non-government) institutions, having a reputation for sporting excellence. [source: information gathered from university websites]

  • University of Texas (2015) – student enrolment 36,600, Athletic Department budget $183.5 million, operating surplus $10.3 million, only three sports (football, basketball, and baseball) operated at a profit, 18 varsity sports are supported, 8 men’s and 10 women’s.
  • University of Michigan (2015) – student enrolment 28,400, Athletic Department budget $151 million, operating surplus $5.1 million, 27 varsity sports supported, 16 men’s and 11 women’s.
  • Ohio State University (2015) – student enrolment 45,300, Athletic Department budget $145.2 million, operating surplus $22.7 million, 39 varsity sports supported, 19 men’s and 20 women’s.
  • University of Florida (2015) – student enrolment 36,200, Athletic Department budget $147.1 million, operating surplus $21.7 million, 22 varsity sports supported, 11 men’s and 11 women’s.
  • Stanford University (2015) – student enrolment 15,900, Athletic Department budget not discolsed, 35 varsity sports supported, 15 men’s and 19 women’s, plus 1 co-ed. [note: Stanford is a private institution]
  • University of Notre Dame (2014) – student enrolment 12,200, Athletic Department budget not discolsed, 26 varsity sports supported, 13 men’s and 13 women’s. The ND football program reported a profit of $47.8 million, with $15.2 million allocated to women’s sports, plus $14 million toward ‘non-revenue’ men’s sports [note: Norte Dame is a private institution]

Olympic Sports within the NCAA

Although most of the focus on NCAA sports is directed toward the ‘revenue’ sports of football (i.e. American football or gridiron) and basketball, which command billion-dollar television contracts, a number of Olympic sports are included under the NCAA competition program: baseball/softball, basketball, beach volleyball*, cross-country (distance running), diving, fencing, field hockey*, gymnastics, ice hockey, rowing, skiing, soccer, swimming, tennis, track & field, volleyball, water polo, wrestling. [note: * women’s program only]

Athletes are drawn to the NCAA from all parts of the world. At the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, the NCAA reported these figures for current or former athletes competing:

  • 657 athletes representing USA or Canada;
  • 46 athletes from South American countries;
  • 80 athletes from African countries;
  • 155 athletes from European countries;
  • 36 athletes from Asian countries; and
  • 46 from Oceania countries.

The total of 1020 athletes (471 men and 549 women) is made up of 831 former athletes, 168 current athletes, and 21 who had completed secondary school and committed to enrolment at an NCAA institution. The three top sports represented at the Rio Olympics were track & field (378 athletes), swimming and diving (196 athletes), and basketball (81 athletes). [source: NCAA)

Team USA at the modern Olympic Games (post World War II) has been substantially supported by current and former NCAA athletes. In 1975 the President’s Commission on Olympic Sports was established to look at the synergy among the NCAA, the US Olympic Committee, and National Governing Bodies for Olympic sports.

  • President's Commission on Olympic Sports, Executive Order 11868, Gerald Ford, 38th President of the United States (19 June 1975). The U.S. Government has never attempted to direct amateur athletics. However, the U.S. Government does have a role in helping to promote United States competition in international sporting events. America's athletes can attain better results in the Olympics if the Federally-chartered United States Olympic Committee and other related organisations are sufficiently organised to recruit, screen, and develop athletes. Because there are conflicting views on the best methods of addressing the problems facing international sports, it was desirable and appropriate that a Commission study the problems related to Olympic sports. This Commission looked at what factors impede or tend to impede or prevent the United States from fielding its best athletes for participation in the Olympic Games and other international sporting events.

The Commission issued its final report two years later. Many recommendations were made that have never been implemented. However, the Committee’s legacy has been reforms made to the governance of U.S. sporting organisations.

  • Final Report of the President’s Commission on Olympic sports (1977). The Commission looked at the totality of Olympic sports in the USA – club, school, university, and international organisations across a number of areas, making observations and recommendations. The areas of interest included in this report: (1) organisational structure for national governing bodies; (2) resolution of franchise disputes between sporting bodies; (3) athletes’ rights; (4) financing Olympic athletes; (5) amateurism; (6) developing world class systems; (7) potential role of the US Military; (8) women in sports and the role of Title IX legislation; (9) persons with disability and sports; and (10) sports medicine.

The introduction of Title IX legislation in 1972 fundamentally changed the nature of NCAA programs, particularly for Olympic sports. Title IX prohibits discrimination based upon gender in the education sector. Since a large part of the U.S. sport system relies upon secondary school and university/college sport programs, Title IX resulted in a substantial increase in the number of women’s sport programs. Over the past 40 years, opportunities for women’s sports to be included in NCAA programs have meant more scholarships for female athletes. The potential ‘downside’ in the growth of women’s sports has been the gradual decline (particularly in Olympic sports) of some men’s programs within the NCAA.

  • Summary of NCAA sports sponsorship and participation rates data related to the decline in sponsorship of Olympic Sports (PDF  - 691 KB), National Collegiate Athletic Association (2004). Much has been made of the decline in sponsorship and participation in Olympic sports at the intercollegiate level. A variety of factors may affect sports participation and sponsorship rates at the collegiate level. For example, changes in high school and college student populations; budget fluctuations; changes in the value of institution endowments; insurance costs; the popularity of any one sport; gender-equity concerns; and NCAA rules. In 2003-04, there are over 900 more women’s teams in the NCAA than before the introduction of Title IX legislation. The average institution now has approximately one more women’s team than men’s team but has more male student-athletes than female student-athletes. While teams are being added and dropped in all divisions, the only division in which there is a net decrease in the number of teams is Division I. The sports incurring the highest net loss of teams are gymnastics, fencing and skiing (men’s and women’s) and tennis, swimming, wrestling, rifle, and water polo (men's).
  • Should colleges continue to support Olympic sports? Reevy M, Sports CheatSheet, posted online (9 April 2016). While most attention is typically paid to the NCAA’s relationship with pro sports, and usually in regards to things like age limits and the right to earn money as an amateur, it’s important to note that the Olympic sports are also engaging college and post- college athletes. The next Michael Phelps isn’t going to create a future in club swimming alone; talented athletes need the Olympics to leverage their achievements in commercial terms. The problem is that colleges and universities are cutting back on Olympic sport programs in favour of more profitable sports. The NCAA needs to balance its approach as a watchdog over the NCAA revenue sports, such as football and basketball; while not subjecting Olympic sports (that don’t produce income) to the same regulations.
  • Swimming upstream: Men’s Olympic swimming sinks while Title IX swims (PDF  - 1.7 MB), Ryther M, Marquette Sports Law Review (2007). Title IX legislation in 1972 has resulted in many additional opportunities for female athletes at high school and college level. However, men’s collegiate programs—particularly in gymnastics, swimming, wrestling, and track & field—have suffered because of program closures. Institutions have cited both Title IX and overall budget pressure, as well as decisions aimed at avoiding Title IX litigation.
  • USOC concerned about future of NCAA Olympic SportsSwimming World, posted online (2 April 2015). The United States Olympic Committee has voiced its concern about the future of Olympic sports at the NCAA level. “We are, candidly, very concerned. We’re not against giving college athletes much-improved medical care and four-year scholarships with full-cost of attendance. Our concern is that the inevitable impact of these changes is coming down on Olympic sports. We’ve seen estimates that athletic departments will have to spend an additional USD$2 million to USD$3 million per year to cover these costs. That’s the cost of operating two or three Olympic sports programs. If you’re looking at your options, they are: raising more money or cutting more programs.” With revenue sports’ athletes attempting to unionize and turn collegiate sports programs into a minor league professional sports system, and the larger college football-driven athletics departments trying to enhance how much they can compensate their athletes; sports like swimming are being left to find new alternatives.

The NCAA has taken steps to address the concerns of Olympic sports by forming a Task Force to study the issues, make recommendations, and develop appropriate policies.

  • Report of the NCAA/USOC Joint Task Force (PDF  - 8.0 MB), National Collegiate Athletic Association and United States Olympic Committee (2005). The Task Force looked at those sports that experienced a meaningful loss of participation opportunities for Division I athletes during the 15 year period from 1989 through 2004, and identified at-risk sports for men – gymnastics, water polo, fencing, rifle (shooting), volleyball, wrestling, swimming, diving, soccer (football), track & field, tennis, and cross-country (running); and only two at-risk sports for women – rifle (shooting) and gymnastics. Emerging sports were also added to the list for women – archery, badminton, synchronized swimming, and equestrian. Recommendations:
    • The NCAA and USOC should jointly invest in at-risk sports through a charitable foundation.
    • Establish a program to encourage a broad-based athletic program among NCAA institutions.
    • Create a continuing education program to help coaches become more effective advocates for their programs within the university community.
    • Promote models for more effectively utilising existing at-risk programs and emerging programs (i.e. training OIympic athletes at collegiate facilities).
    • Control costs associated with at-risk sports.
    • Consider modification of NCAA rules on amateurism, participation, and competition.
    • Establish the NCAA’s Olympic Liaison Committee and focus on changes to NCAA legislation for at-risk and emerging sports.
    • Set goals of maintaining and adding programs in NCAA Division I.

NCAA Olympic Sport Liaison Committee. The purpose of this Committee is to facilitate communication and understanding between the NCAA, USOC, and national governing bodies of sports. The Committee has recommended, and the NCAA has adopted, several amendments to its definition of ‘amateur’, so that current and future NCAA scholarship athletes are allowed to keep Olympic bonus payments made by governments or national Olympic committees.

  • Rio mystery solved: Can NCAA athletes keep their Olympic medal bonuses? Jackie Bamberger, Yahoo Sports (13 August 2016). Since 2001, NCAA by-laws have permitted incoming or current student-athletes to benefit from the USOC’s Operation Gold program, which gives bonuses to athletes for top finishes at Olympic or World Championship events, without compromising their university eligibility. NCAA regulations have also been extended to athletes competing for other countries, meaning that 21-year-old University of Texas student Joesph Schooling’s $753,000 payout for capturing Singapore’s first-ever gold medal is allowed by the NCAA.


Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) is the national governing body of university sport in Canada. Every year, over 12,000 student-athletes (men and women) and 700 coaches from 56 Canadian universities compete in 21 national championships in 12 different sports. CIS also provides high performance international opportunities for Canadian student-athletes at Winter and Summer Universiades, as well as numerous world university championships. CIS provides financial assistance for Canadian student-athletes to pursue both academic and sporting goals. The 2016 Canadian Olympic Team contained 81 current and 66 former CIS student-athletes.

European Union

Winner Education Model: Facilitating higher education for athletes, Lifelong Learning Programme, European Union. The objective of this project is to make European society stronger by supporting the social dimension of higher education. Winner is piloting the case of talented athletes studying at higher education institutions in Europe. The project also aims to contribute to the process of ensuring high quality education to athletes in parallel to their sports career, and thus integrate athletes into the labour market after their sports career has ended. The project seeks to find solutions to the challenges of educating young athletes for a “dual career” by establishing a flexible study model for students with atypical learning paths. The curriculum structures, teaching methods, and the individual needs of these student-athletes will be considered. 

EU Guidelines on Dual Careers of Athletes: recommended policy actions in support of dual careers in high-performance sport (PDF  - 569 KB). EU Expert Group "Education & Training in Sport", (28 September 2012). These Guidelines are addressed primarily to policy makers in the Member States, as inspiration for the formulation and adoption of action-oriented national dual career guidelines and to raise awareness at national level about the concept of dual careers. They aspire to sensitise governments, sport governing bodies, educational institutes and employers to create the right environment for dual careers of athletes, including an appropriate legal and financial framework and a tailor-made approach respecting differences between sports.

Great Britain

Britain has expanded its elite sporting infrastructure over the past twenty years with a range of sports institutes and initiatives designed to nurture the country's future sporting talent. University sport has become part of that infrastructure. Many of the facilities used by National Sporting Organisaitons (NSOs) are located at universities, so higher education resources serve as a driver of sporting excellence. Because many world class sportspeople are either current students or graduates, the synergy between NSOs and universities is natural. England and Wales provide the Talented Athlete Scholarship (TASS) program and Scotland the Winning Students program. Both programs provide government funded sport scholarships through a partnership between universities and NSOs.

British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) is the national governing body for higher education sport in the UK. Its mission is to enhance the student sporting experience, improve athlete performance, provide competition and participation opportunities. BUCS delivers 50 sports, including disability sports, through 170 member institutions and sponsors over 100 championship events each year. The BUCS sport development unit receives about £25 million from Sport England, and uses partnerships with sport National Governing Bodies to deliver programs.

The contribution of current and past university athletes to Team Great Britain’s Olympic effort grew steadily from 1992 (Barcelona Olympic Games) to 2012 (London Olympic Games). Over the 20 year period 61% of Team GB Olympic Games medallists and 65% of Team GB gold medallists attended university. [source: Olympic and Paralympic Games: The impact of universities (PDF  - 3.3 MB), BUCS (2012)]

Where possible, direct links to full-text and online resources are provided. However, where links are not available, you may be able to access documents directly by searching our licenced full-text databases (note: user access restrictions apply). Alternatively, you can ask your institutional, university, or local library for assistance—or purchase documents directly from the publisher. You may also find the information you’re seeking by searching Google Scholar.


  • Australia suffers 'speed bleed' as best athletes headhunted by American universities, Malone U, ABC News (31 May 2015). Every year, hundreds of Australia's fastest and strongest sportsmen and women are heading overseas after being headhunted by American universities. In basketball alone, there are currently about 300 Australians in the United States on scholarships. Athletics Australia estimates 60 Australian track and field athletes have joined the exodus. The head coach of Athletics Australia, Craig Hilliard, said the statistics were surprising. For the American talent scouts, Australia has proved a rich hunting ground. Athletics Australia provides financial support to about 100 able-bodied and para-athletes and another 100 are supported through junior development and talent squads. Head coach Craig Hilliard acknowledged that many more up-and-coming athletes fall outside of the system. "We can't support everyone, it's as simple as that," he said
  • College bound athletes good news for Australian Squash, Squash Australia, published online (7 November 2016). A number of Australia’s talented junior squash players have taken advantage of the US college scholarships to advance their careers. Squash Australia is excited at the prospect of top junior players participating in the college system, but also knows the athletes need support at home. In 2016 a new High Performance Centre opened its doors, and it’s hoped it will be able to provide a service every bit as good as what’s on offer in the US, and to ensure a smooth transition and support for those athletes who decide to head overseas. In the long term, Australia’s High Performance Centre, coupled with the experience some players will gain from heading to the US Colleges, can only benefit Australian squash, and help drive it back to the top of the world rankings.
  • ‘Olympic funding: Fewer sports or drop down the medal table’, Nicole Jeffery, The Australia, published 8 November 2016. the Australian Sports Commission will have to abandon some Olympic sports or drop its top five medal target for the Tokyo Games if the federal government does not reconsider its current funding strategy for high-performance sport. Swimming Australia is looking to create university partnerships (within Australia) to further support its high performance program. Bond University on the Gold Coast and the University of the Sunshine Coast already host programs.
  • Saint Mary's Australian connection keeps growing, Brown C, ESPN (22 October 2016). Saint Mary's College coach Randy Bennett offered Australia’s Adam Caporn a scholarship in the summer of 2001 having never taken a recruiting trip to Australia or seen him play in person. In every season since, St Mary’s has had at least one Australian player on their roster. That list includes Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova, two of Australia's national team players, who both have established professional basketball careers in the NBA.


  • The Case for Change: Transitioning from the Australian University Games to a divisional, national championship model. Don Knapp, Australian University Sport (AUS), (2017). AUS has prepared the following document for members and stakeholders for the purpose of providing an overview of the critical drivers that underpin the rationale for changing the event delivery of its current model, the Australian University Games (AUG). 
  • The case for University sport (PDF  - 1.1 MB), Knapp D, Australian University Sport (2011). This paper highlights many of the compelling political, economic and social drivers that enable university sport to align with and reinforce public policy in key areas such as sport, health, and education. While the university sport sector can demonstrate a valuable contribution to the national sporting program administered by the Australian Sports Commission and National Sporting Organisations, additional opportunities could be explored. Universities have the potential to better position themselves in the sport sector because of their links to both professional sports and community sports, and because of their excellent facilities and access to a key age demographic (i.e. youth). University resources and infrastructure investment are increasingly recognised as a valued part of the sport sector, particularly in regard to performance sport and elite athlete development. University sport represents an excellent value-add investment for governments and stakeholders looking for an extra boost to the national sport program.
  • ‘Feasibility of the development of university sporting leagues’, Ernst & Young Report to Australian University Sport and the Australian Sports Commission (2011). This project examined the feasibility of university sporting competitions involving these target sports: basketball, swimming, cricket (Twenty/20) rugby 7’s, tennis, netball, football (soccer), and rowing.
  • The Performance Impact of University Student-Athletes at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games (PDF  - 1.1 MB). Australian University Sport/Australian Sports Commission, (September 2012). This paper provides an overview of the university student-athlete experience and performance as a cohort at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.  It provides evidence indicating that student-athletes participating on the Olympic stage appear to be more likely to win medals than non-student athletes. This evidence holds true not only for the Australian Olympic Team (Team Australia), but for most key international rival teams that finished above Australia in the medal tally in London. 
  • Supporting a UK success story: The impact of university research and sport development (PDF  - 2.6 MB), Research Councils UK (2012). This report highlights the research contribution made by universities to the success Olympic and Paralympic athletes, as well as the wider sports sector in the UK.  


  • Evidence Review: Understanding the value of sport and physical activity in tertiary education (PDF  - 913 KB), Mansfield L, Kay T, Meads C, and Lindsay I, Brunel University, Centre for Sport, Health and Wellbeing (2013). This report was commissioned by Scottish Student Sport and Sport Scotland. Empirical evidence and theoretical grounds suggest that sport and physical activity can contribute to a range of positive outcomes in tertiary education. However, there is a marked absence of rigorous data to support this, and this does not mean that benefits do not occur. Although elite sport may be one component within tertiary education, this report focuses on the headline benefits of sport to the general student body. A number of themes are support in the literature, including: (1) the value of sport to health; (2) the value of sport to employability; (3) the value of sport in supporting academic attainment; (4) the value of for inclusion and identity, and; (5) the value of sport for social networks.
  • The impact of engagement in sport on graduate employability: implications for higher education policy and practice, Kerry Griffiths, Steve Bullough, Simon Shibli, & Jayne Wilson, International Journal of Sport Policy &Politics, Volume 9(3), (2017). This paper analyses the impact of engagement in sport on graduate employability using a triangulation of views from three key stakeholder groups. Primary research was conducted with 5838 graduates, 112 employers and 13 university senior executives as part of a mixed-methods approach. The research found that engagement in sport was viewed as a soundinvestment from the perspectives of all three groups, with examples highlighting how sport provided ‘added value’ beyond subject-specific qualifications. This finding was particularly prominent where graduates demonstrated experience of voluntary roles through the leadership and management of sport and could articulate how this had a positive impact on the development of additional employability attributes. We argue that there are important implications for higher education policy, sports policy,universities, employers and students. 
  • The Impact of Engagement in Sport on Graduate Employability: Final Report (PDF  - 1.7 MB).  Kerry Allen, Steve Bullough, Doug Cole, Simon Shibli and Jayne Wilson, Sport Industry Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University, (2013). This report presents the findings of research commissioned by British University and Colleges Sport (BUCS) and undertaken by the Sport Industry Research Centre from March to June 2013. The purpose of this research is to provide evidence of the value of sport on graduate employability. It considers engagement in sport to include: participation, competition, volunteering, leading activities, and coaching. To deliver the research the authors sought the views of graduates from a wide range of academic disciplines, graduate employers, and senior executives of UK universities.
  • Intercollegiate coaches’ experiences and strategies for coaching first-year athletes. Jeemin Kim, Gordon A. Bloom & Andrew Bennie, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, Volume 8 (4), (2016). The purpose of this study was to investigate university coaches’ experiences and strategies used with first-year student-athletes. University student-athletes have reported difficulties balancing the rigours of academic study, athletics, and their personal lives. These challenges may be exacerbated for first-year athletes who are transitioning from secondary school into university. Given that coaches significantly influence their athletes’ experiences, their coaching styles and support may ease this transition process. Eight highly successful and experienced university coaches of men’s team sports participated in individual semi-structured interviews. A thematic analysis revealed that coaches created a supportive team environment for first-year athletes by building trusting relationships with them, showing patience with their development, and encouraging leadership from senior athletes.
  • Placing higher education in the performance pathway: A performance analysis of the World University Games, Maw G, British Universities and Colleges Sports, BUCS (2012). The World University Games is the second largest elite multi-sport event in the world, behind only the Olympic Games in scale. As part of the preparation for the 2012 London Olympic Games, the experiences of British student-athletes participating in Universiade competition was analysed. 22 members of the 2012 GB Olympic Team had competed in the 2011 World University Games and 56 members of Team GB had competed in a previous Universiade. Athletes represented seven sports: basketball, fencing, rowing, swimming, taekwondo, water polo and weightlifting. A performance comparison among sports held in both Universiade and Olympics was made to assess the strength of Uni competition. BUCS has undertaken this research to assess the Universiade’s potential place in sports’ performance pathways. This study conclude there are strong arguments around the scale, performance standard and experience of environment that support the World University Games in the performance pathway of many sports, providing perhaps the closest analogy to the Olympics outside of the Olympiad itself.

Clearinghouse Videos 

Please note a number of the resources below (as indicated) are restricted to ‘GOLD' AIS Advantage small AIS Advantage members only.
Please see the Clearinghouse membership categories for further information.

Other Videos

  • AIS Elite Athlete Friendly University (EAFU) program. Australian Sports Commission, YouTube, (5 November 2015). Olympic and Paralympic athletes discuss their involvement in the EAFU program.
  • US College Athletic Scholarships. Luczak P, Tennis Australia (31 March 2015). The US College pathway provides many exciting opportunities for athletes to keep developing their tennis and gain a university degree at the same time. Student athletes receive excellent academic support with access to outstanding facilities and opportunities to compete both individually and as part of a team. Australian tennis player, Peter Luczak, talks about his US College experience.
  • Elite Athlete Program (EAP), SUSFMarketing, YouTube (8 July 2009). The University of Sydney can boast more than 300 Australian representatives among its past and present students. 

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