Fifty years ago this October, the U.S. Track and Field team went to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and proceeded to have America’s greatest-ever Summer Games.
“I speak for what the experts say now: more gold medals, more world records, more silver medals, more bronze medals, more American records, the greatest team in Olympic history,” 1968 Olympic track coach Payton Jordan famously said when he revisited the site of the Echo Summit track in 2000.
The Americans were indeed dominant, winning 24 medals — including 12 golds — and setting six world records during the course of the 1968 Games.
Perhaps part of that success can be attributed to where the athletes trained before heading to the high altitude venues of Mexico City — about 15 miles south of South Lake Tahoe at Echo Summit, where the U.S. Men’s Olympic Track & Field Trials were held from Sept. 6-16, 1968.
At 7,300 feet, Echo Summit closely matched the elevation of Mexico City. While training at that altitude was grueling, the athletes fell in love with the unique track setting and the beauty of Lake Tahoe.
‘Lake Tahoe was a dream’
For the event, the National Forest Service gave permission for the installation of a temporary all-weather Tartan track that was laid out at the location of what was then Echo Summit Ski Area, with the understanding that the event would have as little impact on the environment as possible.
Author Bob Burns — whose book, “A Track in the Forest: The Creation of a Legendary 1968 Olympic Team,” will be published in October — writes the following about the temporary track: “The Echo Summit Track had hundreds of pines dotting the infield. Runners disappeared from sight on the curves and backstretch. Javelins came flying out of the trees.”
Fans would climb onto giant granite boulders among the tall trees, or sit on the slanted hillside to watch the event. There was limited grandstand space, and the middle of the forest atmosphere was different from the usual venue for track and field events: a stadium in the middle of a city.
Bill Toomey, the American gold medalist in the 1968 Olympic decathlon, held such fond memories of his experience at Echo Summit a half-century ago that he moved to Incline Village on Lake Tahoe’s North Shore several years ago.
“Lake Tahoe was a dream,” Toomey said in an interview with Tahoe Magazine. “Making the Olympic team there ingratiated me into the whole environment; you would get lost in the trees and find yourself on the way back.”
It was not all fun and games, however. Toomey recalls the 1968 event near Lake Tahoe as the, “roughest trials in the history of trials because of the altitude, especially for distance runners.”
The trials also took an emotional toll, Toomey recalls, since athletes’ dreams to make the Olympics were either realized or dashed while atop Echo Summit. While Toomey just missed qualifying for the Olympics in 1964, he found success in September 1968 at Echo Summit, leading to his gold medal feat a month later in Mexico City.
Walt Little — ‘the driving force’
What made this improbable event happen 50 years ago was largely due to the hard work of Walt Little, who served as parks director for the then-3-year-old city of South Lake Tahoe.
Little had been a sports writer and was a close friend of U.S. Track and Field’s Jordan. Little’s son also worked at the Echo Summit Ski Area at the time and suggested it to his father as a potential site.
The Littles worked to convince the U.S. Olympic Planning Commission to go with Echo Summit, obtained financial support from Harrah’s resort on Tahoe’s South Shore, and instituted a 5 percent hotel tax to provide the $250,000 needed to purchase the aforementioned temporary Tartan track.
Trailers went up onsite for some of the athletes to live in, while others stayed in hotels in South Lake Tahoe. Walt Little even arranged part-time jobs for some of the athletes to make ends meet.
And when the budget couldn’t pay for athletes’ meals, Little paid for them himself, Toomey recalled.
“Walt Little was the driving force to make it happen — he knew what the impact of the trials would be on the community,” said Toomey. “He is the unknown hero of the entire trials.”
Inspired by the unique conditions in the forest, the American track and field athletes set four world records on Echo Summit, en route to their dominant medal-winning run in Mexico City.
Forever a historic landmark
A half-century ago, 1968 was the year of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and a time of great political and racial unrest.
With that, the 1968 Olympics are not only known as the best-ever for the American track and field team, but the Games are remembered for the iconic, gloved-fist protest on the podium by American Gold and Bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
Echo Summit, however, served as a respite for the athletes. Burns writes: “It was a troubling and confusing time in 1968. For a brief few weeks a California mountaintop provided a remarkable group of individuals shelter from the storm.”
Fifty years later, the only vestige of this great moment in Tahoe history is a plaque at the Echo Summit site, which in 2013 was designated as a California Historic Landmark.
Eleven members of the 1968 Track and Field Team came back to Echo Summit and Lake Tahoe the following year to commemorate the landmark designation, including sprinters Smith and Carlos, as well as 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 (4x400 relay).
These days, the site also doubles as a summer trailhead for the Tahoe Rim Trail/Pacific Crest Trail, and the winter home of the Adventure Mountain Tahoe sledding resort.
But, as Bill Toomey looks across the lake from his home in Incline Village, he remembers the location served a much more important purpose five decades ago: “Tahoe was a place that made gold medals.”
Editor’s note: This story is adapted from the summer 2018 edition of Tahoe Magazine, a specialty publication of the Sierra Nevada Media Group. The magazine, which is packed with plenty of features and advertisements about all that the Tahoe-Truckee summer has to offer, is on newsstands now across Lake Tahoe, Truckee and Reno. Go to tahoemagazine.com to read it online.