Carl Lewis became concerned several years ago when he noticed what was happening to the men's 100-meter dash at the Olympics and world championships. Foreign athletes -- on scholarship at U.S. colleges, trained by American coaches -- were taking over an event that Americans had dominated.

At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, there was one such runner in the field of eight, Raymond Stewart of Jamaica, who went to Texas Christian. By the 1992 Barcelona Games, there were four -- half of the field. And, at the 1995 world championships, there also were four. Two others, both Canadian, were trained in the United States by American college coaches, even though they were not attending school.

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, U.S. fortunes in the 100 have fallen. Lewis won the gold medal in 1988, but the top American won only a bronze in 1992 and managed just a fifth-place finish in 1995.

"I'm a big believer in open borders and open markets," Lewis said. "I think the opportunity for people to come should be left open and people should be able to come and go to college. But I'm concerned about the scholarships. We're giving so much scholarship money away to {foreign} athletes that we're taking away opportunities for American kids."

During an Olympic year, there are few more volatile topics in NCAA sports than the number of scholarships U.S. universities dole out to foreign athletes. Some of the best athletes at this week's NCAA track and field championships at the University of Oregon come from countries other than the United States -- and will attend the upcoming Atlanta Olympics in the uniform of their nations. The debate isn't confined to track and field -- athletes in sports ranging from swimming to sailing are training at U.S. colleges to pursue their Olympic dreams for other countries.

The U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Track and Field and critics within the NCAA worry that cutbacks in men's NCAA track and field scholarships -- from 24 two decades ago to the current 12.6 -- combined with the influx of foreign athletes are severely damaging U.S. hopes in the sport. (Title IX has mandated 18 scholarships in track and field for women.)

"We have figured that there are 1,500 foreign athletes in U.S. colleges every year," said Ollan Cassell, USA Track and Field's executive director. "That's a big number, that's a lot. Over four years, that's 6,000, some of them the same kid, some of them not. If we had 6,000 Americans getting that kind of coaching, we would find some late bloomers, kids who might become great track and field athletes. But we'll never know about them, because they're not given that opportunity."

Coaches such as John Cook of George Mason University and Dave Wollman at Southern Methodist, both of whom have recruited dozens of foreign athletes, agree that American track and field is on the decline, but say it's not their problem.

"I'll coach anybody," said Cook, a native of Germany and a longtime U.S. citizen. His men's team, dominated by foreign athletes, won the NCAA indoor title this year. "This has nothing to do with nationalism. The fervor of the flag has nothing to do with intercollegiate athletics. To me, they're student-athletes going to my school. I recruit Americans very hard. I used to coach high school in the Washington area, so I'm a big supporter of American track and field. But American kids expect a lot more, they think they have some kind of entitlement when you recruit them. The foreign kid is so happy to get anything."

"Last time I checked, USA Track and Field did not provide any support to Southern Methodist University," Wollman said. "I have two {U.S.} kids who have benefited greatly and have a good shot of making the U.S. Olympic team because of the atmosphere in training that the kids from overseas provide. My American kids learn a great deal from the kids from overseas. I know that they've enriched the life experience of a lot of the U.S. kids on my team. I think that anyone who is thinking non-globally in this world today is really a small thinker." American Perspective

The problems for U.S. track and field are numerous, but they begin with a simple premise: American children would rather play another sport.

"Track and field does not provide the instant gratification kids can get in other sports," said Ron Helmer, Georgetown University's women's coach and a former coach at Woodbridge High. "It can take a long time to develop your talent. That's not what our society is all about. It's about running down the court, dunking the basketball and jumping up and down and acting crazy. You don't see the numbers of American kids coming up anymore in track and field, because so many of them are doing something else."

Contrast this, coaches say, with foreign athletes.

"Foreign athletes tend to produce quicker," said Georgetown's men's coach Frank Gagliano, who has been coaching track and field in college for 36 years and never has given a scholarship to a foreign athlete. "I think they're more mature than the American athlete. They appreciate what people are doing for them. Sometimes, the American athlete takes a while, like two years, to appreciate that they're getting a college education and they're getting coached and so forth." The foreign athletes also are often older than their American teammates. Because students in other countries often are required to complete another year of high school, and because African athletes sometimes are not discovered until their mid- to late 20s, American colleges have been able to reap immediate benefits from older freshmen, many of whom have been competing on the international level at earlier ages than their American counterparts.

The NCAA has taken some steps in recent years to reduce the incentive for schools to bring in these older foreign athletes. At the 1995 NCAA convention, a rule was passed stating that an athlete who participates in a competition during each 12-month period after his or her 21st birthday, but before his or her enrollment in a U.S. school, loses a year of eligibility. That way, an experienced 24-year-old would not be able to enter a U.S. college with four years of eligibility.

Still, some say, an older foreign athlete is worth the risk.

"If I had 30 scholarships for men instead of 12.6," said SMU's Wollman, "I would take 15 American kids that I saw that I could wait for their mental development, their emotional development, all the maturity things that you have to go through with an 18-year-old kid, and be in good shape. But unfortunately, with so few scholarships, you have to get production out of them, and you've got to get it out of them as freshmen."

Enter the foreign athlete. In the early 1980s, Cook received a tip from a coach at another U.S. school about a young man running in Somalia. Cook followed up and, on the Fourth of July 1983, 20-year-old Abdi Bile landed at Dulles Airport and stepped into Cook's life.

"Sight unseen," Cook said. "We took their word on him."

Four years later, Bile was the world champion in the 1,500 meters and Cook was a legend. He now has the pick of the best runners in most African nations and the Caribbean islands. A recent George Mason 1,600-meter relay team, for instance, featured a Jamaican, a Somalian and a Ugandan, in addition to a Hungarian. Cook calls it "the pipeline" and now relies on a GMU assistant coach from Jamaica to travel the world and find talent, such as Uganda's Julius Achon (800 and 1,500) and Jamaica's Greg Haughton (400), both Olympic medal contenders. Foreign Perspective

One of Wollman's finds is Katie Swords, a 20-year-old junior from Brisbane, Australia, who won four distance events at the Southwest Conference championships and successfully defended her NCAA title in the 10,000 meters here earlier this week. Swords said she occasionally feels sheepish because she accepted a free ride to a U.S. university.

"I've thought a lot about that," she said. "I feel kind of embarrassed a lot of the time, being a foreigner, but what can I do? I can see both sides of the argument. I know if I was an American athlete, I'd want to have a chance to win a national title. But I think it's good, overall. Not only does it increase the competition, but it builds goodwill between nations. I know that can sound silly, but I think it's true."

Swords is not an Olympic contender, but Ato Boldon, a UCLA sprinter who won the bronze medal in the men's 100 at last year's world championships, will be in Atlanta competing for his native Trinidad. Boldon, who moved with his mother to New York and then San Jose while he was in high school, was asked whether he had considered becoming a U.S. citizen.

"I thought about it, but why?" the 22-year-old said. "One more gold medal for the United States is not going to make a big deal. But for Trinidad, it would only be our second ever. That's a big part of my career in Trinidad, to be a role model for kids who have a lot of talent but don't necessarily have the opportunity."

That's a point rarely mentioned in the foreign-athlete discussions within the NCAA, Cook said.

"I'm certainly not Henry Kissinger, but in an ideal world, you hope these kids finish up their education here and then go back and do something for their country," he said. "It's an emissarial thing. I'm not saying it's the Peace Corps, digging ditches and wells. But I really believe we did a better job with Abdi Bile than if he had stayed in Somalia. To me, that's cheap foreign aid."

Other sports also are attracting foreign athletes with scholarships. At the University of Michigan, the men's swimming program has produced 11 Olympians this year -- six of them Americans, including Arlington's Tom Dolan, and five of them foreign swimmers.

"They thrive on the competition with each other," said Michigan men's swimming coach Jon Urbanchek.

This is nothing new. At the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, American men won all but one swimming gold medal. The one that got away was captured by Britain's David Wilkie, who won the 200-meter breaststroke. Wilkie was coached and trained on U.S. soil as a student at the University of Miami.

It happened again in one of the highest profile races of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Matt Biondi, America's top swimming sensation, was competing in one of his best events, the 100 butterfly. But he was touched out at the end by Suriname's Anthony Nesty. Biondi knew Nesty. All the Americans did. He went to high school in Florida and swam in college at the University of Florida.

St. Mary's College in Maryland has two foreign sailors who will compete in the 1996 Olympics: freshman Rodrigo Amado of Brazil and sophomore Paul Stoeken of the Virgin Islands.

"There's no rule against it," said Arkansas men's track and field coach John McDonnell, who was born in Ireland and came to the United States in 1964 on a track scholarship to Southwestern Louisiana. He has three foreign athletes on his roster this year.

"The world is getting so small," he said. "If American athletes cannot compete with foreign athletes, it means that our system in the United States is not working. The foreign guys aren't running any faster. The Americans have slowed down. We've got to wake up, not so much on the NCAA level, but outside the NCAA."

But what will become of American track and field in the future?

"If we don't think of our own kids, in years to come, we won't have a great Olympic team," said Georgetown's Gagliano. "And if there are only 12.6 men's scholarships and 18 women's, and if you take those scholarships and give them to the foreign athlete, you're not going to develop the American kid in the sport of track and field, academically and athletically."

Added Carl Lewis: "Five or six years ago, I said we wouldn't get a medal in the year 2000 {in the men's 100} unless we did something to address promoting the sport, encouraging the young people to stay active and involved and letting them know that they have a future there. Well, boom, in 1995, Mike {Marsh} was the only finalist in the world championships. It's amazing it happened so quickly." Staff writer Steve Berkowitz contributed to this report. CAPTION: UCLA's Ato Boldon will run for Trinidad and not seek U.S. citizenship: "One more gold medal for the United States is not going to make a big deal."