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’68 Olympians returning to Echo Summit

Special to The R-C
The Echo Summit track, site of the 1968 Olympic Track and Field Trials, is shown from above. The site was approved as a California Historical Landmark.
File photo |

Echo Summit, the ethereal site of the 1968 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, will welcome back many of the men who made history there 46 years ago.

On Friday, a group of 1968 Olympians will attend a “Return to the Summit” celebration organized by the U.S. Forest Service. A plaque set in a large granite boulder will be displayed, marking Echo Summit as a California Historical Landmark.

The event begins at 10:30 a.m. and is open to the public.

Record-setting sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, known for their gloved-fist protest on the victory stand at the Mexico City Olympics, are expected to be joined at the reunion by Olympic teammates Ed Burke (hammer throw), Ron Whitney (400-meter hurdles), Ed Caruthers (high jump), Norm Tate (triple jump), Larry Young (50-kilometer walk), Reynaldo Brown (high jump), Dave Maggard (shot put) and Vince Matthews (4×400 relay).

Representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, California Office of Historic Preservation, USA Track and Field, El Dorado County and the City of South Lake Tahoe will also attend the event.

Following the 90-minute ceremony, the Olympians will head to Sacramento, where they will be introduced to the crowd that evening during the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships at Sacramento State’s Hornet Stadium.

There are more than 1,000 state historical landmarks in California, and Echo Summit is just the fifth sports-related site.

In presenting the nomination to the commission, William Burg, a state historian in the Office of Historic Preservation, cited the success of the 1968 U.S. men’s Olympic team in Mexico City and its commitment to the civil-rights issues of that tumultuous time.

To replicate the high altitude of Mexico City, site of the 1968 Summer Olympics, officials from the U.S. Olympic Committee selected Echo Summit as the site of a high-altitude training camp as well as the 1968 U.S. Men’s Final Olympic Track and Field Trials from Sept. 6-16. Echo Summit’s elevation of 7,377 feet is 28 feet higher than Mexico City’s. Of interest, an early snowstorm dropped a couple of inches of snow at Echo Summit the first week of September that year, however, ideal weather conditions greeted athletes for the Trials.

The man most responsible for convincing the USOC to choose Echo Summit was Walt Little Sr., South Lake Tahoe’s Recreation Department director. Two of Little’s sons – Walt Jr. and William – will speak at the event.

The Forest Service approved the construction of a 400-meter track in the middle of the forest atop Echo Summit. Hundreds of Ponderosa pine remained inside the oval.

Four world records were broken at the Echo Summit Trials — Carlos (19.7 seconds in the 200 meters), Lee Evans (44.0 in the 400 meters), Geoff Vanderstock (48.8 in the 400-meter hurdles) and Bob Seagren (17 feet, 9 inches in the pole vault).

The records set by Carlos and Smith at Echo Summit were never officially ratified because of the PUMA “brush” spikes (68 spikes designed specifically for the Tartan all-weather track) on their shoes, though statisticians have always considered their marks legitimate. In an odd twist, the 44.1 clocked by runner-up Larry James in the 400 meters was ratified as an official world record.

The men’s team selected at Echo Summit was one of the strongest in Olympic track history. The U.S. men won 12 gold medals and broke six world records in Mexico City.

Following the Olympic Trials, the Echo Summit track was disassembled and transported to South Tahoe Intermediate School, where it served the community for several decades. The outline of the long-removed track can still be seen at Echo Summit, which is now the site of Adventure Mountain, a winter recreation park.

The only other sports sites to be designated California Historical Landmarks are the Los Angeles Coliseum, Long Beach Marine Stadium, Squaw Valley Ski Area, and the Pioneer Ski Area in Johnsville.