The Military and Olympic TrainingUpdated: November 4, 2022
Did you know the U.S. military allows qualifying service members to participate in Olympic-level training in order to compete internationally?
According to the Air Force official site, the first active-duty military member to win an Olympic gold medal was Air Force Airman Malvin G. Whitfield, who won gold in 800-meter for track and field in 1948 and 1952, among other Olympic achievements.
It is important to point out that Whitfield won these gold medals while still serving his country. And he isn’t the only person to do this; today, there are several agencies that help currently serving military members train and compete with the ultimate goal of making the cut for the Olympic competition.
Find a list of current and former military athletes at the olympics.
Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Navy World Class Athletes
While there is a DoD-level Armed Forces Sports program, there is no centralized DoD program for military members to apply to in order to be considered for Olympic training, World Class Athlete training, etc. Each branch of military service has its own athletics program and service members apply through their chosen branch of military service including the United States Coast Guard.
The Air Force and Army have World Class Athlete programs. The Navy Sports Program and All-Marine Sports perform similar functions for Sailors and Marines.
The Air Force World Class Athlete Program (WCAP)
Part of the Air Force Sports Program, Air Force Services Center began its World Class Athlete Program in the mid-1990s “to continue the legacy of Tuskegee Airman Malvin G. Whitfield” according to the Air Force official site.
The Air Force Chief of Staff at the time, Gen. Ronald Fogleman, noted the program would be good for both the athletes and the Air Force in general. The first WCAP airmen competed in the 1996 Summer Olympics and since then many have participated in contests all the way to the Olympic level.
WCAP athletes train on a full-time basis in a two-year program. As part of WCAP, these airmen compete in U.S. Armed Forces events, qualifying events for the Military World Games, as well as the Olympics.
These airmen-athletes train full-time, but that training does not excuse them from their military duties to train, learn and maintain skill levels in their chosen career fields. These athletes are also responsible for providing the public face of their teams; when training near an Air Force base or other military site, the WCAP athletes may hold seminars, briefings, and recruiting events.
If you are interested in signing up for the Air Force World Class Athlete Program, you can download Air Force Form 303, complete it and submit the required documentation to the Air Force Personnel Center official site via MyPers.
The United States Army World Class Athlete Program (Army WCAP)
The Army World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) requires top-ranked soldiers willing to train in their sport and as soldiers at the same time. The goal for competition at the Army WCAP level is to make it to Olympic-level and Paralympic-level games.
According to the Army official site, active duty, Guard and Reserve members are eligible to try out for the Army WCAP program, chosen for their ability to compete “at the highest level.”
If chosen to become part of the “WCAP unit,” these soldiers, “hone their skills with elite civilian and military coaches at America’s best facilities.” Simultaneously, these soldiers/athletes are required to maintain Army standards for training, fitness and professional development.
Like the Air Force version of WCAP, Army competitors also conduct outreach such as clinics, recruiting drives, and seminars. Army achievements through WCAP include NCAA Division 1 championships, Olympic medals, and first place finishes in service-held running events such as the Army 10-Miler.
To apply for the Army WCAP program, several forms are required including DA Form 4187, DA Form 4762, plus letters of recommendation, a completed WCAP questionnaire, and other documentation to the WCAP program. You can find the current mailing address for these forms (electronic submission options were not listed on the official site at the time of this writing) at the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program official site.
The U.S. Navy Sports Program
The Navy runs its sports program differently than the Army and Air Force. The official site for the Navy states Navy Sports “does assist athletes in a number of non-Armed Forces Championship events” and that such athletes have “already” established themselves as world-class athletes.
A list of frequently asked questions on the official Navy Sports Program official site states competitors are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
The Navy does not have a WCAP, and to the FAQ question “Does the Navy Sports Office have a world-class athlete program?” The answer is no. “Navy Sports does not have a program to develop world class athletes. Athletes must prove that they are already competitive on a national or international level.”
Applying for a spot in the Navy Sports Program means training and competing in All-Navy sporting events such as boxing or wrestling (but not necessarily limited to those events) and attending an All-Navy training camp. To apply, contact your base fitness director or visit the Navy Sports official site. Those who apply and are selected must have their commander’s endorsement and will travel at the government’s expense on TAD orders to train and compete.
The All-Marine Sports Program
The All-Marine Sports program is open to “exceptional Marine athletes who want to train and compete; some of these athletes may rise to the level of competition at top-level events including the Armed Forces Championships, National Championships, Military World Games, and the Olympics.”
There are intramural-level All-Marine Sports programs, and then there are the high-level competitions that go beyond a weekend softball event between on-base teams. Those interested in the higher-level competitive options should consider the application process for a trial camp.
In order to be considered, athletes will have to be supported by their unit Commander and Installation Sports Director and that must be documented in writing. Attending the trial camp is not necessarily a try-out or a guarantee that the applicant has been accepted into the All-Marine Sports program.
The U.S. Coast Guard Sports Program
The Coast Guard official site describes US Coast Guard Academy Sports as an operation hosting more than 100 sporting events each year; some of these athletes may go on to participate in NCAA-level sporting events depending on circumstances and other variables.
The Coast Guard official site does not contain a great deal of information for those who want to compete at the high levels offered to military athletes in other branches of service, but the Department of Defense official site does link to Coast Guard Sports as part of its Apply Today page encouraging athletes to sign up for high-level Armed Forces Sports competitions.