Tracking South Tahoe’s forgotten glory |

Tracking South Tahoe’s forgotten glory

Anticipation hangs in the air. The temperature is 78 degrees Fahrenheit on a Thursday afternoon in July of 1974. The girls, five 12- and 13-year-olds, line up at the start of the 880-yard run. It is the third all-comers track and field meet, in a series of six, sponsored by the South Lake Tahoe City Parks and Recreation Department.

While waiting for the sound of the starting gun, the young athletes ponder their strategies. They review in their minds the mistakes and successes of previous races and resolve within that this will be their best effort yet.

As the starting gun announces the start of the race, the Tartan surface of the track is prepared to receive the continuous strides of the runners. The girls proceed with caution, pacing themselves, while at the same time, challenging one another and competing for position. Halfway through the first of the two laps, the group begins to separate and distance is established between the participants. The two girls in the lead, never more than 10 yards apart, push each other for the next 440 yards.

The last half of the second lap, however, tells the story when one of them finds the strength to pull away from her rival and make her way to the finish line. As she does, she is aware of the heat bearing down upon her and upon the track. The distinctive odor of the Tartan surface baking in the sun fills her senses and causes a flood of memories to come forth. Memories of races won and races lost, memories of practices where she gave a 100 percent plus effort and worked herself to the point of exhaustion and yes, even nausea, and of course, memories of just being there with her teammates, sharing the experience of the sport and of being young.

As she crosses the finish line, the victor hears her coach yell out a time of 2 minutes and 48 seconds, her all-time best. She collapses into the arms of her waiting teammates who have been cheering her on, and the memories of the past are silenced as the present demands their attention.

For those athletes of yesterday, and for the people who live, work and recreate in South Lake Tahoe today, it is extremely unfortunate that those voices, crying out from the past, continue to go unheard. Few people residing in this community know the true story of what happened on the Tartan track at South Tahoe Middle School only 31 years ago. Indeed, few people are aware that there is a story to be told at all.

In 1967, the newly established city of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., was offered the chance of a lifetime. Because the 7,377-foot elevation of Echo Summit, just outside the city limits, was similar to the elevation of Mexico City where the 1968 Summer Olympics were to be held, the city of South Lake Tahoe was given the opportunity by the United States Olympic Committee to host the United States Men’s Olympic Track and Field Team for the purpose of high-altitude training. The city was also chosen to host the 1968 United States Olympic Track and Field Trial Finals.

Working together, members of the community were able to provide the Olympic athletes with the facilities, including the Tartan track, necessary to accomplish their purpose. The track, which originally sat 400 yards off of U.S. Highway 50 at Echo Summit, was later moved to what was then South Tahoe Intermediate School. The facility was a source of pride to the people living here, especially to those who were running enthusiasts.

Over the years, however, this beautiful state-of-the-art, all-weather track has been allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair that its very safety is now questionable. The community and city government, who once worked together to bring this facility into existence, have failed to continue their cooperative effort and maintain it. Many have tried to place specific blame for the track’s condition on either the city or the school district. The city, because it owns the facility, and the school district, because the track sits on its property and is used primarily by students of the district.

According to Steve Weiss, parks superintendent for the city of South Lake Tahoe, the city and the school district would be more than willing to work together to restore the surface of the track; however, the money just is not there for a project of this size. Weiss estimates that to complete the necessary work on the track facility would cost between $100,000 and $300,000.

Neither the Parks and Recreation Department nor the school district has, within their budgets, the finances available to accomplish this task. The fact is, that while the citizens of this community are busy pointing fingers at one another over whose responsibility it is to maintain and restore the facility, the track continues to remain in desperate need of repair and is in danger of being lost forever.

From its very conception, the idea of constructing an Olympic training facility, complete with Tartan track and other amenities, was a costly one.

Before “city officials” traveled to Chicago in an attempt to sway the United States Olympic Committee in the direction of choosing South Lake Tahoe as the location for the high-altitude training site for the U.S. Men’s Track and Field Team, city manager John Williams made it known at a session of the City Council, that South Lake Tahoe would have to guarantee that an all-weather track at about 7,300 feet elevation could be constructed in time for the late-summer training session. He said he felt local contractors, businessmen and citizens would donate time, materials, and labor to help keep the cost of the project to a minimum. He estimated a $35,000 expenditure for the track to be constructed at the same level as the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City, where the 1968 Olympiad was held.

Williams further explained to the council that the track could later be relocated to one of the city’s schools where it would benefit the entire community. The strategy paid off when in September of 1967, Arthur G. Lentz, executive director of the U.S. Olympic Committee, announced from Chicago that South Lake Tahoe had been selected to condition and name team members for the 19th Olympiad in Mexico City.

That day, the committee also selected Payton Jordan, track coach at Stanford University, as head coach of the Olympic team and Bill Bowerman, track coach at Oregon University, to coordinate the South Tahoe effort with the Olympic team training.

Williams promised the committee that the city of South Lake Tahoe would provide an Olympic approved running facility at 7,377 feet altitude. Williams’ statements were supported by Walt Little, city-school recreation director; Bob Keyes, representative of Gov. Ronald Reagan; and Bill Schroeder, managing director of the Helms Athletic Foundation.

The fledgling community of South Lake Tahoe understood what hosting the Olympic athletes would mean: South Lake Tahoe would be the world center of track and field (for) approximately two-and-a-half months. Citizens and government leaders set about to make the dream a reality.

In addition to the financial contribution made by the city itself, citizens groups and committees raised money through different fund-raising activities. A “U.S. Olympic Benefit Basketball Tournament” was held at South Tahoe High School with proceeds from ticket sales going toward the United States Olympic team high altitude training program, the South Lake Tahoe Soroptimist Club donated money toward underwriting the purchase of hurdles and a benefit banquet was held in the High Sierra Room of Sahara Tahoe.

A crowd of 420 attended the banquet at a cost of $10 per person. Actor Van Heflin, who was at the benefit, called selection of South Lake Tahoe as the U.S. Olympic training site “a marvelous tribute to California’s newest city.”

Heflin went on to say, “I’m sure you’re all proud of the aggressive leadership that made this possible. It just didn’t happen accidentally.”

As part of the ceremonies at the benefit, 5-year-old potted pine trees were given to those people who assisted South Lake Tahoe in being chosen as the Olympic training site.

Upon receiving the tree, Schroeder stated, “I hope in the years to come this will be a memento of a very wonderful experience.”

Due to the hard work of civic leaders and residents of South Lake Tahoe, the needed funds were raised in time to begin construction on the track facility that would be used by the Olympic team. The effort was made possible through mutual cooperation of the city of South Lake Tahoe; Steve Myers, Echo Summit Ski Area permittee; the Eldorado National Forest; private individuals and business; and a citizen’s committee appointed by Mayor Norman Woods. The citizen’s committee was named the South Lake Tahoe Committee for Olympic High Altitude Training.

Great pains were taken by the committee; coaches Bowerman and Jordan; Win Priday, city public works director; and Bill Pillsbury, city engineer, to parallel the track specifications as close as possible to those of the Olympic track in Mexico City. Accepting invitations to serve as technical assistants to the final track layout were Tom Moore, promoter of the California Relays at Modesto; Gil Bishop, meet director for the 1967 National Amateur Athletic Union championships in Bakersfield; Dick Dankworth, track coach at the University of Nevada; and Skip Houk, Northern Nevada representative, Pacific Association, AAU.

At that time, most outdoor tracks were made of an earth or cinder surface. Poor weather conditions, especially rain, would cause them to become slow’ tracks; after heavy use their surface became pitted and broken. To avoid this at the 1968 Games,the eight lanes of the Olympic Stadium’s track was surfaced with a uniform and durable synthetic material manufactured by the 3-M Company of St. Paul that was unaffected by weather or athletes’ spikes. For the first time in Olympic history runners were able to count on a track as good and fast the last day of competition as the first.

Again, in an attempt to produce a track and field facility comparable to the one in Mexico City, this new material, called Tartan, was also used to surface the high-altitude training track at Echo Summit. In addition to the track surface, the material also covered all field event runways, circles, and aprons.

By the middle of July 1968, the Tartan track at Echo Summit had been completed and was ready to receive the United States Men’s Olympic Track and Field Team hopefuls.

As the huge squad of 193 athletes descended upon the small community of South Lake Tahoe, the city came alive with a level of activity not previously known to it. Such track and field greats as Bob Beamon, 1968 National AAU long jump champion; 200-meter runner John Carlos; high hurdler Willie Davenport; Lee Evans, American 400-meter champion; Dick Fosbury, inventor of the famous “back-over the bar high jumping style that is known today as the ‘Fosbury Flop;’ 400-meter runner Larry James; Randy Matson, six-time National AAU shot-put champion; Al Oerter, previous Olympic gold medalist in the discus throw; Jim Ryun, 1964 Olympian and National AAU champion in the one-mile run; Bob Seagren, six-time National AAU and four-time NCAA pole vault champion; Tommie Smith, 1967 and 1968 National AAU 220 yard/200-meter champion; and five-time National AAU decathlon champion Bill Toomey were among those who came to live, train, and compete in South Lake Tahoe during the summer of 1968.

Olympic Track and Field Committee Chairman Hilmer Lodge said, “Those athletes eventually named to the final Olympic team, including the winners here, must satisfy the committee in September that they are physically sound and can with success perform in Tahoe’s Mexico-like altitude of more than 7,000 feet.”

Lodge said having the trials here serves to filter out the less adept athletes.

The athletes trained through the summer at the Olympic High Altitude Training Site at Echo Summit to better condition themselves in order to earn a place on the team at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trial Finals at the site on Sept. 9 through 17, where at least 3,000 people were expected to attend.

Most of the athletes who took part in the training had nothing but good things to say about the track facility provided for them by the citizens of this community, stating the Tartan track is the “fastest of its kind we’ve ever run on.”

Steve Stageberg of Georgetown (D.C.), a 5,000-meter hopeful, said, “I’ve run on a lot of Tartan tracks before – but this is the best I’ve ever been on.”

When all was said and done, four new world records were established at the trials by John Carlos on Sept. 12, in the 200 meters, with a time of 19.7 seconds; Lee Evans and Larry James on Sept. 14, in the 400 meters, with times of 44.0 and 44.1 seconds, respectively; and Geoff Vanderstock on Sept. 11, in the 400-meter hurdles, with a time of 48.8 seconds. And with the records, the city of South Lake Tahoe had earned itself a place in the United States Olympic history books.

The publicity gained by the city of South Lake Tahoe during the U.S. Men’s Olympic Track and Field Trial Finals has at no time since been surpassed.

Harry Matte, then director of the city’s news bureau, made the statement that “South Lake Tahoe now has a base on which to build its publicity, advertising and promotion for many years to come. From a cost standpoint there is no advertising program conceived which will ever challenge the Olympics program as the greatest publicity getter the South Shore has ever had.”

The three major American television networks of the time, ABC, CBS, and NBC all covered the trial nationally, as did television and radio stations from Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Reno. Magazines running stories and pictures concerning South Lake Tahoe included Time, Newsweek, Life, West, Sunset, Ramparts, Sports Illustrated, The New Yorker, and Track and Field News.

The foreign press was not absent in its coverage of the trials and sent news teams from Voice of America (covering for European distribution), L’Equipe, Agence France-Presse, Paris Match, Kyodo News Service, Nippon Television Network Corp., Fuji Telecasting Co., Swedish Press, Bild Zeitung (West Germany), Mainichi Newspapers, Yomiuri Shinbun, Stockholm Daily, Realidate (Brazil), Sydney Sun (Australia), Sydney Daily Telegraph (Australia), Yediot A’Haronoth (Israel), and La Gazzeta dello Sport (Milan). The United States Information Agency [also] filmed a brief documentary on South Lake Tahoe’s role in the U.S. Olympics. The film was made for distribution in 40 foreign countries.

When the trials concluded, coach Jordan told members of the Lake Tahoe Area Council, “You are a community of action. In the eyes of the world you have established yourself as a leader in bringing the Olympic Track and Field Team to Lake Tahoe to train.”

He expressed a firm belief that with the success of this training session, Lake Tahoe “could be a center for all athletes from all corners of the earth.”

It was abundantly clear that the city of South Lake Tahoe had made a name for itself not only in the United States, but also in the world. After training at the Olympic High Altitude Training Site at Echo Summit, athletes Beamon, Davenport, Evans, Fosbury, Matson, Oerter, Seagren, Smith and Toomey all went on to win gold medals in their events at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

When the summer of 1968 and the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trial Finals came to an end, the city of South Lake Tahoe was left with the question of what should be done with the Tartan track left behind at Echo Summit.

According to an article in the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Williams and Pillsbury, on behalf of the city, compiled a study of alternative uses and sites for the track. Their analysis produced four possibilities for the future location of the facility: Leave it at Echo Summit; place it at the South Tahoe High School; put it at the intermediate school; or sell it to the highest bidder.

Williams revealed to the City Council the pros and cons of each alternative:

1) The summit is remote from the population center of the Tahoe Basin and would not get maximum use. Leaving the track there would require taking over the basic permit from the ski operator at the site at an estimated cost of $150,000. A permit from the Forest Service would also be needed.

2) The South Tahoe High School site would require structural changes costing $71,460 to replace the track with its same configuration. Reshaping the track to fit the site would require more Tartan surfacing at a cost of $38,500.

3) At the intermediate school … it would cost $23,460 to build a track base and $19,500 to relocate the track, for a total cost of $42,960. It would take three weeks to replace the track.

4) The University of Oregon had offered $30,000 for the existing surface.

It was Williams’ opinion that the track should be moved to the intermediate school because he felt that “more persons could use it to greater advantage and if a national athletic foundation were created, sufficient vacant land is near the school to allow the nonprofit corporation to build necessary facilities to make an ongoing national athletic program.”

Based on Williams’ research, on Oct. 1, 1968, the South Lake Tahoe City Council decided in a 3-1 vote that South Tahoe Intermediate School would be the new home of the Tartan track and in the late summer of 1969, the school became “the first school of its kind in the United States and possibly the world, with a $100,000 plus value Tartan track on its premises.”

The moving of the track to a new location did not dampen the enthusiasm of the previous summer, and plans for future events at the track were already under way. The first event scheduled was an international decathlon and track meet Sept. 11-13, 1969, which would become known as the Indian Summer Games. Bleachers were set up at the intermediate school around the track to accommodate the expected 2,000 spectators. Olympic athletes Evans, Carlos, Toomey, Seagren and others returned to Lake Tahoe’s South Shore to compete and attempt to “shoot for” new world records on the same Tartan track they trained on one year earlier.

The games were televised by CBS. The athletes also used the time to meet and discuss ways of improving the sport of track and field and the establishment of a national high altitude training site, with an eye on South Lake Tahoe as the place. Although the event was billed as The First Annual Indian Summer Games, the meet did not occur again in 1970.

The track and field spirit lived on during the summer of 1970, when Olympian Tom Von Ruden joined forces with the city-school recreation department to conduct the annual summer all-comers track program.

Von Ruden made himself available to the youth of this community every Thursday afternoon, before the meets began. Any young person desiring to remain in condition and work on their track abilities was invited to turn out. The all-comers meets were open to anyone who wished to participate. Competitors ranged from 5-year-olds to Olympic Games competitors. Locals, as well as “runners from San Diego, Long Beach, Los Angeles, San Jose, Sanger, Sacramento, Fair Oaks, Carson City, Reno, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts competed throughout the summer. Each week, more and more people turned out to compete and encourage one another. The final meet of the season, on Aug. 20, 1970, saw a record 156 residents and visitors competing.

Although the enthusiasm for track and field in South Lake Tahoe appeared to thrive during the two years following the visit of the U.S. Men’s Olympic Track and Field Team, a change in political attitude was already at work in the community.

The elections of June 2, 1970, brought new members to the City Council and with them, a “change in direction.” The new consensus of the city’s leaders was that South Lake Tahoe should be moving away from the high altitude and Olympic-type events.

New Mayor Emory Upton said, “The city had been mainly concerned with developing city sports. Now, we’ve got to start developing the city’s campsites and other outdoor facilities.”

Walt Little, the man most instrumental in bringing the U.S. Olympic team to Tahoe, was, at that time, asked to resign because it was felt by the new City Council that he would not be able to contribute to this new city vision. The decision to replace Little and take the city on a new course did irreparable damage to the track and field fervor in the city of South Lake Tahoe.

In the years that followed, track and field successes were sporadic at best. The city Parks and Recreation Department continued to sponsor the summer all-comers track meets at the track, but from year to year attendance at the meets steadily declined. As interest in the sport deteriorated, so too did the condition of the track. For unknown reasons, those city members who once worked so diligently to give this community a sports facility to be proud of, failed to think ahead to maintaining it in the future.

As a result, time and weather have been allowed to wreak havoc on the track’s Tartan surface and on the substructure beneath it.

Rick Brown, boys track and field coach at South Tahoe High School, cites that the track facility, in its current condition, does not meet national high school standards. “The discus area,” argues Brown, “is dangerous and illegal and, the pole vault area has not satisfied federal safety standards for the last three years.”

Last year, in an to effort to draw public awareness to the history and current status of the track, Brown and South Tahoe High School girls track and field coach Anthony Davis, worked with Whittell High School track and field coach Dan Makley, to put on a meet between the two schools at the Tartan track, ending a six-year absence of high school completion at South Tahoe Middle School. The meet had to be canceled twice before it was actually run, however, due to standing water on the once all-weather surface.

According to Brown, “the track needs to be expanded to eight lanes all around in order for the school to be able to host official high school and college track meets. It also needs to be completely resurfaced and striped.”

Brown has been approached by other coaches in Northern Nevada who have told him that if improvements were made and the track was brought up to code, they would love to participate in a meet in South Lake Tahoe.

“Right now,” adds Brown, “the track is an embarrassment.”

According to Weiss, the current mutual use agreement between the city of South Lake Tahoe and the Lake Tahoe Unified School District specifically states that the maintenance of the track is the sole responsibility of the city, though the school district has offered some financial support to upgrade the facility.

In 1995, plans were being discussed by city leaders to make the necessary refurbishments to the track and the facility surrounding it; however, the plans were abandoned due to lack of finances.

The city has no plans for the track at this time except to just keep it as safe as possible by patching it up, when necessary, and keeping it clean, according to Weiss.

The role of the city and of the school district, at this point, feels Weiss, is to “act as facilitators to work with a group of citizens” dedicated to seeing the track restored.

Presently, the city Parks and Recreation Department can no longer sponsor track meets at the Tartan facility due to potential hazards and liability concerns. Upon the surface where Olympic athletes once competed for glory, there is now stenciled the warning “Caution, use at your own risk!”

In fact, recently a strongly entertained solution to the whole problem was to simply remove the track and leave a dirt one in it place. This, agreed Weiss, is the eventual fate awaiting the track if a citizens group does not come together to save the facility. At this time, concerned citizens, calling themselves the South Tahoe Track Foundation, are already coming together to address the issue of saving the middle school track.

Brown emphasizes that “it’s time for the complacency to stop and for the citizens of this city to do something about this facility that belongs to them.”

Sports are an important part of any vital and thriving community, and the sport of track and field was a sport that was with South Lake Tahoe in its infancy.

The Olympic track and field athletes who once competed in South Lake Tahoe went on to lead useful and fulfilling lives. Davenport went on to be an officer in the U.S. Army, Matson was drafted by both pro basketball and football, Oerter became a computer engineer, Ryun is a U.S. Representative, Seagren became an actor and Smith is now a college track coach and professor in the Los Angeles area. The discipline and work ethic necessary for success in the sport of track and field obviously followed each of these men into their professional lives.

It is highly doubtful that the city of South Lake Tahoe will ever be able to restore the Tartan track at South Tahoe Middle School to its former and rightful state. It is therefore up to the citizens of this community, who wish to preserve this part of our city’s history and provide a safe and adequate track facility for all to use, to raise the necessary funds and see the project to completion.

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