Colorado Springs, Colo. — Thirty years ago Bob Mathias was halfway between two accomplishments that still stand in the record books. He is the only athlete to have won two Olympic gold medals in the decathlon -- in 1948 and 1952. He subsequently served in the House of Representatives only to be swept out of office with the post-Watergate Democratic landslide in 1974.
Yet it is Mathias's current position as director of the Olympic Training Center here which will most likely give him the greatest lasting influence of his illustrious career. He now stands to affect directly the lives and performances of America's amateur athletes who compete at the highest international level.
While still in Congress, Mathias continually pressed for sports legislation, and finally in 1977, the bill giving the US Olympic Committee authority over Olympic amateur sports and providing it with federal backing was signed into law.
"This is a lot better than Congress," Mathias says. "Here you can see your accomplishments. Being able to start and run such a training center has been satisfying. In Congress it takes such a long time to see your accomplishments."
It is hardly surprising that the USOC tapped Mathias to run the center. He had, after all, pushed through the sports bill and had run summer sports camps bearing his name. Still, his first job was hardly glamorous. It was to turn the old Ent Air Force Base into a viable training center -- quickly and under the watchful eye on the USOC, which moved its headquarters from a New York Park Avenue mansion to the center. Mathias took over in March 1977, and in June he welcomed his first group -- an ice hockey team.
"We've been going full blast ever since," he smiles.
Still, the renovation began as something of a crash program -- and it is still going on.* "when the military moves out," Mathias says, "they take everything with them. They didn't even drain the water out of the pipes.* The base had been abandoned for two years. Every pipe in 50 buildings had to be replaced, and we had a lot of painting, wiring, and general repairs to do. It cost about $20,000 to make each building habitable, and that doesn't include furnishings."
The 34-acre center can house and feed up to 525 athletes at a time. More than 5,000 spent from a few days to several weeks during the last fiscal year and about 7,000 are expected during the current one. In addition to the 13 barracks thus far renovated, the training center contains a new artificially surfaced running track and soccer field, pool and pool house, and weight room and sports medicine center, where athletes are tested biophysically and biomechanically and guided in physical conditioning and nutrition.
A gym with basketball and volleyball courts, boxing and wrestling rings, tennis courts and gymnastics facilities is being planned. In the interim, athletes are transported from the still-sparse facilities of the center to pools , gyms, rinks, and other training sites at the US Air Force Academy, local schools, parks, and clubs.
Most significant is that the USOC supports this entire training effort. The chronically underfinanced amateur sports organizations need only to reserve space and provide each athlete with a ticket to Colorado Springs.
The USOC's decision to go along with President Carter on the boycott of the Moscow Olympics has naturally dampened the enthusiasm of the athletic community, but activity at the center still goes on as athletes from all over the country work at their specialties with an eye toward a multitude of other national and international competitions.
In a typical month, the center hosts athletes in such diverse sports as volleyball, soccer, shooting, judo, cycling, track and field, speed skating, field hockey, basketball, synchronized swimming, and ice hockey.
Mathias sees the training center as providing more than just help to individuals. He notes that a couple of weeks working together can help mold real teams. "Take cycling, for instance," he says. "Individual cyclists belong to clubs all over the country. The US Cycling Federation brought in 50 juniors last year. They got to know each other for the first time. The federation also brought in two or three of the best coaches in the country. When the cyclists left, they had developed a camaraderie and also gotten the best coaching available in their sport."
The Pan American Assembly was held in Colorado Springs for the athletes selected for the Pan Am Games. They got to know each other -- and in some cases , work out together -- before going to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for the competition.
"The women volleyball players are now based here," adds Mathias. "They are the first of several sports teams that are trying the concept of a national team. We can provide facilities and support for them."
Colorado Springs, which is situated at about 6,000 feet, provides an altitude which athletes find beneficial for conditioning, and an experiment in real high-altitude training is being conducted over the next year.
The USOC took a one-year lease on remote acreage at the 10,000-foot level near the hamlet of Divide, a 45-minute ride from Colorado Springs. The property is still primitive -- dirt roads for running, a parking lot for calisthenics, a recreational swimming pool, and a small food-service center. Mathias is polling the incoming sports groups to see if they are interested in trying out the facilities. The speed skaters, who were the first to accept the offer, liked the idea but wished that the dirt roads weren't quite so dusty.
If the USOC ultimately decides to buy or take out a long-term lease on the property, there is talk of having the current owner exercise his rights to dam a small stream, thereby creating a lake. It would freeze in winter for hockey and speed skating training. The addition of a large Jacuzzi-type mechanism could turn all or part of this lake into a flume for summer workouts in canoeing, kayaking, rowing, and swimming.
The US Olympic Committee currently operates another training center at the 1960 Winter Games site of Squaw Valley, Calif. It has world-class ski slopes and a fine ice-skating arena. There is hope that a training center may also eventually be established at Lake Placid to take advantage of the 1980 Winter Olympics facilities, which in addition to ski slopes and a skating arena include North America's only bobsled and luge runs, its newest ski jumps, and one of the United States's two artificially refrigerated speed skating ovals.
Whether or not this happens. American athletes already are far better off in terms of such facilities than anyone could have dreamed just a few years ago.