1968 Olympians Return to Echo Summit
By Bob Burns
Echo Summit was the unlikely center of the track and field universe for a few remarkable weeks in 1968.
While the track that produced four world records and one of the greatest Olympic teams in any sport was shipped down the mountain to South Lake Tahoe afterward, the otherworldly site of the 1968 U.S. Olympic Men's Track and Field Trials today was commemorated, 46 years later.
Last year, the California State Historical Resources Commission voted to designate Echo Summit as a California Historical Landmark. California Historical Landmarks are buildings, structures, sites or places that have been determined to have statewide historical significance.
Today, more than a dozen members of that 1968 Team, including Hall of Famers Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Larry Young and Bill Toomey, reunited at the track for a ceremony that recognized the site as a California Historical Landmark.
There are more than 1,000 state historical landmarks in California, and Echo Summit will be just the fifth sports-related site. A roadside sign will be placed along Highway 50 and a historical marker Has been installed near the site of the legendary competition.
Millions of motorists pass by Echo Summit each year on their way to and from Lake Tahoe. It's safe to say that few are aware of the history that took place decades ago in the trees a stone's throw from the eastbound lane on the busy highway.
To replicate the high altitude of Mexico City, site of the 1968 Summer Olympics, officials from the United States Olympic Committee chose Echo Summit as the site of a high-altitude training camp as well as the 1968 U.S. Men's Final Olympic Track & Field Trials from Sept. 6-16.
The National Forest Service allowed for the temporary construction of a 400-meter oval in the middle of the forest on top of Echo Summit. Following the Olympic Trials, the track was disassembled and transported down Highway 50 to South Tahoe Intermediate School, where it was installed and lasted until 1992.
The 1968 Olympic Trials featured four world records. No track and field competition held in the United States in the 44 years since has had any as many world records. The men's team selected at Echo Summit is widely regarded as one of the strongest in Olympic history, winning 12 gold medals in Mexico City.
USOC officials considered Flagstaff, Ariz., and Las Cruces, N.M., as possible sites for altitude training and pre-Olympic competition. The turning point came when South Lake Tahoe Recreation Director Walt Little asked St. Cloud State coach Bob Tracy, who had supervised an altitude training study for the USOC in 1967, to accompany him on a jeep ride through the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe.
Echo Summit's elevation of 7,377 feet was just 28 feet higher than the Mexico City's. The U.S. Forestry Department signed on to the idea, as long as the installation of a 400-meter track had a minimal impact on the environment. With Harrah's Tahoe casino offering support, and with revenue raised from a five-cent motel tax, South Lake Tahoe officials were able to buy and install a synthetic track modeled along the specific lines of the Mexico City track.
Prospective Olympians began arriving on the mountaintop in July to acclimate themselves to the thin air. Single athletes were housed and fed in trailers directly across Highway 50 from the track while most married athletes stayed in hotels near Lake Tahoe. Local businesses provided part-time jobs to many of the athletes. The Trials on top of the mountain attracted journalists from around the world.
The synthetic track surface was a distinctive pink, with eight lanes on the straightaway and six lanes on the curves. Hundreds of towering pines were left untouched inside the oval, creating a pristine setting for one of the most unusual - and furious - competitions in California history. Huge boulders surrounded the high jump pit.
The USOC conducted extensive testing on athletes at Echo Summit to learn more about the effects of high altitude on high-performance training. Ron Clarke, the great Australian distance runner, trained at Echo Summit for a couple of weeks in preparation for Mexico City.
Despite the beautiful setting, Echo Summit wasn't paradise. Black athletes were under tremendous pressure to participate in an Olympic boycott. Only the most single-minded athletes could ignore the headlines raging across the front pages. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were fresh wounds, and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago took place less than two weeks before the Olympic Trials began.
Sprinters Tommie Smith and Lee Evans were the leaders of the "Olympic Project for Human Rights," a movement initiated by Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at San Jose State, where the top-ranked sprinters were students. Plans for an Olympic boycott by black athletes had been in the works since 1967 but had begun to wane by the time Echo Summit rolled around.
Nonetheless, the issues of the day didn't vanish into thin air.
"It was like a cinder pile burning for a year and a half," Smith said. "We felt pressure the whole time."
3M, the company that manufactured the Tartan track used at Echo Summit, developed a releasing agent that allowed organizers to pick up the surface without cutting the surface into sections. That was part of the agreement reached beforehand between local officials - the track must be shipped down Highway 50 and laid anew at South Tahoe Intermediate School.
Today at Echo Summit, the paved outline of a track can be seen in the parking lot serving Adventure Mountain, a winter recreational park. Echo Summit is also a trailhead for the Pacific Coast National Scenic Trail. In the years since 1968, Echo Summit was the site of a since-closed ski run, just as it was for a brief spell prior to 1968.
The only other sports sites to be designated California Historical Landmarks are the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Long Beach Marine Stadium, Squaw Valley Ski Area, and the Pioneer Ski Area in Johnsville.