Olympic training site gives big boost to US athletes

American athletes pointing for the 1984 Olympics and other big international competitions have many advantages in terms of training, facilities, and support that their predecessors of just a few years ago could only dream about -- and one of the most important is the US Olympic Training Center here.

Now in its fourth full year of operation, the 34-acre site has reached the stage where it houses approximately 10,000 visitors (including athletes, coaches , trainers, and officials) each year. And in the next couple of years, as the Olympics draw nearer, that figure undoubtedly will increase.

The center still has a long way to go to reach its full potential, with many millions of dollars worth of construction either still under way or awaiting the necessary funds. Even in its current incomplete state, however, it has already more than justified its existence by helping numerous individual athletes get ready for competition and by bolstering the whole idea of creating national teams.

The best-known example of the latter is the women's volleyball team, which grew from obscurity to the rank of a world power during its two years in residence here.

"They showed that the national team concept worked," says Bob Mathias, the two-time Olympic decathlon champion who serves as director of the center.

That effort had a sad ending, of course, for after working so hard to become contenders, the women saw their hopes go down the drain along with those of other US athletes in the boycott of the Moscow Olympics. They subsequently moved away and are now based in California, but Mathias says this was primarily a case of fallout from the boycott, and that they could conceivably come back later.

"The boycott decision really devastated them, he explains. "Their morale was so low, and their future so uncertain. To revive and start all over again, they needed a change of scenery. Some wanted to go to school, some wanted to get jobs, and there were just more opportunities there.

"Also, the idea of separate living quarters appealed to them after being so close together living in dormitories here for so long. But they might come back when its gets closer to the Olympics. That would be up to them."

The center's main feature as far as athletic facilities are concerned is the 400-meter artificially surfaced track, complete with electric testing and timing devices, pits for field events such as jumping and pole vaulting, and a Super-Turf infield in which soccer and field hockey teams can practice.

For the moment, athletes in most other sports still have to be transported from the center to pools, gyms, rinks, and other training sites at the nearby US Air Force Academy or to local schools, parks and clubs. Construction is already under way, however, on a $4 million field house which will include seven separate gymnasiums equipped for various sports, while a Natatorium housing a 50 -meter Olympic pool plus a separate 10-meter diving platform is in the planning stages.

"The first priority was the track," Mathias explained. "Next was the field house, and the money for that was approved in the latest budget. After that, comes the swimming pool. The next budget won't be until 1985, but there's always the chance we could get the money privately and do it earlier."

There is a recreational pool which can be used to some extent for training, and there are some gymnasium facilities including a fully equipped weight room. But obviously it will take the two big construction projects above to really complete the picture.

Even as is, however, the center is quite impressive, with dormitory space and dining facilities able to handle more than 500 athletes a day -- and these, too, are being expanded.

In a typical month, the center hosts athletes in a wide variety of sports such as track and field, volleyball, cycling, swimming, field hockey, weightlifting, etc. And although the facilities are for summer sports, the winter athletes are frequent visitors, too.

"People don't realize that winter athletes do a lot of their conditioning in the summer," pointed out a US Olympic Committee (USOC) spokesman. He noted that Eric Heiden, winner of five gold medals at Lake Placid, was here twice with the speed skaters, and that cross country skiers and biathlon competitors have also used the facilities.

Athletes are chosen by the national governing bodies of their sports, while the cost (except transportation between hometowns and the center) is paid by the USOC.

Mathias, whose gold medals in 1948 and 1952 make him the only two-time Olympic decathlon winner, served four terms in Congress in the 1960s and '70s, during which time he continually pressed for legislation aimed at coordinating the often helter-skelter administration of national sports programs. His efforts and those of others eventually bore fruit, though he was no longer in Congress when a bill was finally passed in 1977 giving the USOC authority over Olympic amateur sports and providing it with federal backing.

It was in that same year that the USOC embarked on its training center idea, opening the one here and another at Squaw Valley. The latter site, troubled by the high cost of operation and its relative inaccessibility, was closed in 1980. But the one here, with Mathias in charge from the beginning, has flourished.

"The most exciting part was when we started from scratch," Mathias says, recalling the day when the USOC took over the old Ent Air Force Base here and told him to turn it into a training center. The base had been abandoned for two years, and it took a lot of repairing, wiring, painting, etc., before he could even think about anything else. Even that first year, though, the center hosted a hockey team for training and a couple of organizations for meetings. In 1978 it was far enough along to bring in 6,000 people, and the total has increased each year since.

Ideally there would be at least one other center somewhere else in the country -- probably in the East, and preferably containing winter training facilities. The 1980 Winter Olympic site at Lake Placid has been mentioned, but there may be too many administrative and logistical problems. In fact it is difficult to find any one place that provides the necessary facilities for training, housing, and feeding the athletes, plus accessibility -- all at a cost the USOC can afford.

So Colorado Springs may be it for a while -- but even so. US athletes are obviously far better off these days than anyone dared hope just a few years ago.

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