Eugene is serious about sport. Running attire shows up more often than lumberjack plaid in the piney woods that are crisscrossed with jogging paths. Here in Eugene, there are more Olympians per capita than in any other city in the United States. The school district has even tailored scheduling so that students can have their afternoons free to pursue sports training. And Eugene's centerpiece, the University of Oregon, has the oldest school of physical education in the world and a reputation to match.
So it's an appropriate atmosphere for the Olympic Scientific Congress, an Olympic spinoff that will convene here in July.
An officially sanctioned part of the Olympic Games, the congress is a behind-the-scenes event that has accompanied all of the modern Olympic Games. While the Olympic events themselves will bring hoards of spectators to Los Angeles this summer, Eugene will attract more than 4,000 international scholars, administrators, and trainers to think about sport.
The intellectual side of sport is not limited to calculating batting averages or memorizing play books. There's a whole world of thought devoted to sport that the average sports fan knows nothing about.
''Take the International Commission for Fair Play. Who's ever heard of that? You ask the man on the street or the television-addicted sports aficionado and they don't know,'' says Dan Tripps, executive director of the congress. So what kind of influence, he asks, does international organizations like the congress have on sports?
''The analogy is akin to a stage crew on a Broadway production,'' Dr. Tripps says. ''Everyone knows the stars and loves the music, but no one knows the thousands who paint, light, and stand in.''
Through the years the congresses have been the only avenue for disseminating an array of sports information, including major advances in sports sciences. Academic papers are presented on subjects like equipment design, computerized athletic training, youth and senior-citizen programs, sports medicine, genetic manipulation, and the politics and ethics of sports.
One innovation, the ''hips and heels roll'' used in the breast stroke, first received international attention at the 1972 congress, Tripps says. The technique is credited with recent improvements in breast-stroke times. ''Hips and heels'' was developed when it was determined the old frog kick created too much drag in the water.
Though technical advances are important, Tripps says, there's a need to monitor the ethics behind them. ''When you make changes in sport, what have you done to the performer or to the observer?'' he asks.
For example, when the pole-vaulting world changes from bamboo poles to the new flex poles, has the athlete really improved? Or does the pole allow for more height with the same performance? Similarly, does the athlete's performance really improve if a bobsled is made more aerodynamically sound? When medical technology is used to improve athletic performance, is it the surgeon, the druggist, or the athlete who has actually bettered an athletic record? Does sport encourage violence, or is it an outlet for violence in society? To what extent should children be encouraged in competitive sports?
Naturally, these are questions that come up every four years - complete answers won't come in a single one-week Olympic Scientific Congress. But, with this year's Congress, a new International Institute for Sport and Human Performance will be established on the University of Oregon campus. More than $ 350,000 worth of equipment and all the academic papers will be left to help start the world's first sport think tank.
The institute would collect and distribute data, explains Mike Ellis, a congress organizer and head of the university's physical education department. (The department already locates (on request) and sells any published thesis from universities around the nation.) Further, using computers, the institute would expand the physical education department's enrollment by offering correspondence classes to students abroad. And the institute will take up sports exchange functions when the United States withdraws from UNESCO.
''Sport is a cultural phenomenon of great importance. How it affects the lives of people who participate and watch is equally important,'' Tripps says. ''And yet the people considering these things are a minority.'' The congress and the spinoff institute may change that, he says.