Four acres in Colorado Springs that once contained an Air Force facility are being utilized to help move the U.S. amateur sports program into the jet age.
The Olympic Training Center, under the guidance of former decathlon champion Bob Mathias, is in its second year of providing training facilities to athletes, as well as stimulating medical research and new administrative and coaching concepts.
The future of a similar facility in Squaw Valley, Calif., is muddied a bit right now because a developer is seeking to purchase the land. However, regardless of the outcome of that situation, it is eventually planned to have six centers in operation throughout the United States.
Colorado Springs, home of the National Sports Festival, is a particularly fine choice for such a center because of its central location and the other nearby facilities, such as the Air Force Academy sports complex.
"Every sport can be accommodated at the center or at outlying sports facilities," Mathias said. "The only things we don't have here are Nordic and alpine skiing, which are accommodated at Squaw Valley."
The center itself contains a track running around an AstroTurf field; a small gym that accommodates volleyball, boxing, wrestling and judo; a smaller gym for racquetball; a weight room, beds for 550 persons, a dining hall, a sports medicine building, a dental clinic, an eye clinic and a recreation hall.
A gym containing three basketball courts is about to be constructed, with the completion date set for January. Afterward a swimming and diving facility is programmed.
The national women's volleyball team has been based at the center for the past year.The men's volleyball team is considering a move there from its unappealing home in Dayton, Ohio. Both men's and women's team handball groups will train in Colorado Springs for four months, starting in September, as they attempt to qualify for the Olympics.
"I think we still have a good chance to qualify," noted former Air Force basketball star Tom Schneeberger now a team handball standout. "For the first time this year the national team will be able to practice as a team at the Olympic Training Center. The team members will be giving up their jobs and schools so we will be able to train together."
The need to give up so much for training has been the key drawback to U.S. Olympic efforts before and it has not been solved yet. For example, Tommy Martin, the Sports Festival 189-pound judo champion, said, "There is going to be a long training workshop at the center after the festival, but I can't stay for it. I have to get back to work in Sacramento."
The 24-year-old window installer is the beneficiary of a drive to raise $10,000 to permit him to quit work and train for the Olympics. The sponsoring group is known as "The Friends of Tommy Martin" and if the drive succeeds, Martin can take care of his financial obligations and avail himself of both the center's training facilities and major international competition.
"It is a difficult thing to give up jobs or schooling just to train," Mathias said. "But in some sports it is the only way to compete with the East Europeans. It helps tp play together, as opposed to meeting three weeks before the Games. The ice hockey team is taking six to eight months to practice together. More of the national governing bodies are beginning to do that."
Room, board and transportation within the Colorado Springs area are furnished by the U.S. Olympic Committee to those utilizing the training center. An athlete cannot simply hitchhike to the center and bed down for a long stay, however.
Reservations must be made by national governing bodies, on a first-come, first-served basis. Mathias reports that the center is overbooked through the summer, with winter occupancy showing a huge rise over the first season. Cyclists, gymnasts and team handball players were among heavy users last winter.
Besides athletes, the facilities are utilized by coaches, referees and administrators to exchange ideas and formulate plans. The Pan American Games team was processed at the training center in June and skiers have undergone dry-land training there.
Testing of athletes has received a high priority, with a comprehensive vision clinic conducted during the sports festival. Athletes at the center are tested on a treadmill, for breathing efficiency and heart stress; on a Cybex machine measuring body torque, for strength and endurance, and in an underwater harness, to determine body-fat content.
"I spent five days at a camp last year and it wasn't really training but a testing type thing," said Joetta Clark, the woman's 800-meter champion at the festival. "I can't say it has been beneficial to me yet, but it should help all of us in the future."
Besides the physical facilities, the center helps to establish a sense of camaraderie among the athletes, not only in their particular field but with those in other sports.
"I trained at the center for two weeks when it first opened," said Julie Hanson, the festival women's discus winner. "The track wasn't finished and the weight room wasn't finished, but the atmosphere for training was just great. I really liked it."
The center is at high altitutde and athletes using it have found that hard work that high makes it easier for them when they return to sea level.
"I got a pain in my chest, not really a breathing problem, when I trained up here," said Larry Roman, who shared the gold medal in junior two-man canoeing at the festival. "You work hard here for a week and it's tough, but go down to sea level and things come easier."
"At altitude you have to breathe harder and work harder," said four-time Olympic discus champion Al Oerter, who arrived a week before the festival to train at Colorado Springs. "After you leave altitude after hard training, the benefits stay with you for a couple of months."
Except for the need for further centers, the only real difficulty experienced with the one in operation is the failure of some governing bodies to utilize it fully. Emmitt Berry, the festival hammer throw champion, said he would love to go there to train, but the Amateur Atheletic Union thus far has set up no program for hammer throwers.
"The Olympic Committee has no jurisdiction over who comes," Mathias said. "We invited all the governing bodies here and to Squaw Valley, told them what facilities we had and invited them to bring in teams of all kinds, not just elite athletes. If they get their people here, we take care of all expenses.
"We're a hotel operation. We ask them for their requirements and then we arrange to take care of them. We provide the facilities and their coaches do the training.
"If the center doesn't have the necessary facilities, we make arrangements with the Air Force Academy, or the local school district, or parks and recreation, or the Country Club of Colorado, which has a 50-meter pool, or Fort Carson or Peterson Air Force Base for shooting. Everybody seems willing to help when you're talking Olympics."