On June 27, 11 members of the 1968 U.S. Olympic men’s track and field team returned to the Eldorado National Forest to commemorate the site that helped catapult them to 24 medals — including 12 gold — in the Summer Games that year.
Nearly 46 years ago, Echo Summit, on the forest 10 miles west of South Lake Tahoe in California, was the site of a high-elevation training facility. At an elevation of 7,377 feet, the 400-meter oval track, carved out of a stand of pine trees, was designed to prepare athletes for high-altitude conditions that were similar to those in Mexico City, where the Games would be held. The site was later declared a California historic landmark.
“I want to acknowledge the courage and leadership demonstrated so visibly by the Olympians who trained here before going to Mexico City,” said Laurence Crabtree, Eldorado National Forest supervisor. “Their athleticism attracted the world’s attention and they then had the courage to direct that attention to a much larger issue for us in this country than their speed and their strength.”
Some of the greatest athletes in U.S. track history arose out of the Echo Summit training facility. During the Olympic Trials there, athletes broke four world records—John Carlos broke the 200-meter sprint record with a time of 19.7; Lee Evans broke the 400-meter sprint record with a 44-second dash; Geoff Vanderstock set the 400-meter intermediate hurdles record with a time of 48.8 seconds; and Bob Seagren set the pole vault record with a vault of 17 feet, 9 inches.
“I’ve heard many people talk about how great this team was. Well, the greatness came from this location. This place breathes, it sweats, it gets cold, it warms up, and more than anything, it manifests love. Because this is where the love and the bonding started amongst all these individuals,” said Carlos, who attended the commemoration. “I think this particular environment kept us mellow and serene for what we had to do in Mexico. We realized all the time we were up here training what we were training for. The medals were great, but we had a greater mission.”
A month later at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, the track and field team set six world records, more than any other team prior. Tommie Smith and Carlos won gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meter dash. Smith’s world record of 19.8 seconds stood for 11 years. Smith and Carlos may be best remembered not only for their athletic achievements, but for their raised fists and bowed heads on the medal stand – a statement protesting human rights conditions.
Other highlights included: Jim Hines taking gold in the 100-meter dash; and the Americans sweeping the 400-meter event, with Lee Evans, Larry James and Ron Freeman taking gold, silver and bronze, respectively. The U.S. also won gold in 110-meter hurdles, shot put, discus throw, long jump, high jump, pole vault, 4×100-meter relay, 4×400-meter relay, and decathlon.
The track was torn out and reinstalled at nearby South Tahoe Middle School, where it remained until 2007.