When Scott Neilson was in the ninth grade in New Westminster, British Columbia, he experimented with the hammer throw as part of his high-school track program. Today, a sophomore at the University of Washington, he is the United States collegiate champion in that event.
If Neilson had been an American, he would have had to attend one of a few high schools in New England to find a hammer program.
"I think that's why the Americans don't throw as far," Neilson said. "If you don't have it in high school, all the good athletes are channeled into the shot and discus. In university, you ten have to start all over."
Few states permit the javelin throw. There is no consistency in hurdles programs. Ths steeplechase is virtually nonexistent. High school seniors run the two-mile and, a year later, must cope with the 5,000- or 10,000-meter runs.
So, American college coaches often turn to foreign athletes, experiencd in these events, when it comes time to utilize their 14 scholarships, spread over four years, for track and field.
"Foreigners are dominant in areas where Americans are weak," said John Chaplin, coach of Washington State, which has three excellent distance runners from Kenya - Samson Kimombwa, Joshua Kimeto and Henry Rono, NCAA champions all.
"If our high schools would run a full program, with 4,000- and 8,000-meter runs the way they do in Europe, and with the hammer and javelin and steeplechase, we wouldn't need to seek out foreigners in those events. And how can I tell if a kid can be a good 400-meter intemediate hurdler when he's been running the 180-yard lows?
"Another big problem is the 14 scholarships. In football, basketball, baseball, practically every other sport, you have a lot more scholarships than people you can play. But track and field got the short end of the stick. You generally run 21 events in a meet and yet you have only 14 scholarships."
"With the 14-scholarship rule, a lot of coaches won't take a chance," said Maryland coach Frank Costello. "So they bring in a ready-made team and show them where the track is. The situation with the number of foreigners is out of hand. Everybody figures if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
Costello refuses to join the foreign legion, but others are not at all reluctant. Wyoming coach Ron Richardson will leave on an overseas trip in a few days, ready to bestow five scholarships on worthy recipients.
He will have no trouble dipensing them. The United States is the only nation with an athletic scholarship system. Where top American athletes shop for the best deal, foreigners are satisfied to obtain a free education while maintaining a high level of competition.
Another aspect of the scholarship rule is the ease with which a few quality athletes can transform an also-ran into a championship contender. Schools like Southern California and UCLA that once poured shcolarship money into track and field are now handicapped, and others are taking advantage.
"You legislate mediocrity, not equality," Chaplin said. "Sure, the meet is closer in the team scores. I had five good athletes in 1968, and I have five now. But schools that hve put a lot of time and money into building track programs are coming back to me."
Chaplin and Texas-El Paso's Ted Banks have been recruiting foreigners for years and now they find themselves in a most advantageous position.
"They can work on referrals," Costello said. "They don't even have to recruit."
And so, when John Ngeno, three time NCAA 10,000-meter champion, graduated, he merely champion, graduated, he merely tapped fellow Kenyan Henry Rono, whose indoor heroics (first in two-mile, third in mile) helped Washington State win its first NCAA title since a 1937 success in boxing. Foreigners won nine of 15 events in that indoor meet.
Rono is a 25-year-old freshman, as is Brigham Young's Tito Steiner, from Argentina, the NCAA decathlon champion. It is the disparity in age - and, consequently, experience - that has directed the most criticism toward the importation of foreign athletes.
Craig Virgin was America's outstanding high-school distance runner but, at Illinois, he has managed to win only one NCAA title in the 1975 cross-country meet. Seven other times, he has been the first American finisher in an NCAA event, only to be beaten by a foreigner. It happened to him twice here at Champaign, as foreign athletes won seven of 19 individual titles, down one from a year ago.
"I think it is obscene that an 18- or 19-year-old freshman from this country should have to compete against a 21- or 22-year-old freshman," Virgin said."And Rono is 25. I thought when I came to college I would move up the ladder like I did in high school. But who ever thought they'd bring in a 25-year-old world-class runner as a freshman."
The NCAA, of course, foresaw this problem when it established a rule taking away a year of competition from a foreign athlete for each year of age over 21. But that was thrown out by the courts and it seems unlikely that will be promulgated. There won't be any voluntary restraint of trade in foreign athletes, either.
"I am paid to follow the rules and I follow them," Chaplin said. "If you tell me I have to have guys who are 21 or 22 who are striped with a spot on their rear, I'll do that. The alumni contribute to the well-being of the insititution and my alumni would like to see they guy who's first across the finish line have WSU on his chest once in a while. Of course, the California schools would like for me just to take their leftovers."
Chaplin and UCLA's Jim Bush have argued the foreign-athlete question on many occasions and bush has said. "Every time we give a grant to them, we deprive an American athlete of one. We are definitely hurting our national program, and future Olympic programs."
To which Chaplin replies, "Is it my responsibility to develop American athletes for the Olympic Games? We wrap ourselves in an American flag every four years and scream because we're not winning all the medals and then immediately forget about it, instead of improving our club system and getting our high schools to begin events where foreigners are predominant."
Perhaps Rick Walker, Arizona State's fine hurdler, should be given the final word on the subject - for now.
"If we heat them," Walker said, "we don't care if you're foreigners. It's only when you lose that you think about it."