It’s hard to say which stood taller in the tumultuous summer of 1968 – the men or the mountain.
Forty-six years ago, Echo Summit was transformed into California’s answer to Mt. Olympus. On a 400-meter oval carved out of the Eldorado National Forest, the United States selected an Olympic men’s track team that made history one month later in the less idyllic setting of Mexico City.
While the exploits of the 1968 U.S. Olympic track team were etched into stone years ago, a plaque marking Echo Summit as a California Historic Landmark was only recently set in a granite boulder just off Highway 50.
Friday, the U.S. Forest Service is hosting a “Return to the Summit” to honor Tommie Smith, John Carlos and other members of the 1968 Olympic team and acknowledge the role they played in the civil rights movement. The Olympians will then be introduced Friday night at the USA Track & Field Championships in Sacramento.
The U.S. men won 12 gold medals in Mexico City behind the efforts of such legends as Al Oerter, Bob Beamon, Bill Toomey, Randy Matson and Dick Fosbury. It was a track team for the ages, but it was more than that. One of the most searing images of the 1960s remains the clenched-fist salute on the victory stand by Smith and Carlos following the 200-meter dash.
Beginning in late 1967 and continuing the through the winter and spring of 1968, Smith and Lee Evans were the most prominent supporters of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at San Jose State, was the media-savvy face of the group advocating a black boycott of the 1968 Olympics.
By the time they arrived at Echo Summit in July 1968 for a high-altitude training camp and the Olympic selection meet, the black athletes contending for spots on the Olympic team had essentially decided against a boycott.
Instead, they settled in for an extended stay on the mountaintop above Lake Tahoe. Harold Connolly, the great hammer thrower who qualified for his fourth Olympic team at Echo Summit, later called the 1968 Olympic Trials one of the most important meets in U.S. history.
“Because of the setting and the circumstances, we were never closer than we were at Echo Summit,” Connolly said. “It wasn’t one lonely voice in the wilderness.”
The voices were certainly diverse. There were the introspective Smith and bombastic Carlos, polar opposites temperamentally but two of the fastest men the world had ever seen. There was Fosbury, a 21-year-old engineering student who revolutionized the high jump with the backward flop that bears his name. Oerter was the ultimate Olympian, barely punching his ticket at Echo Summit before rising to the occasion with his fourth gold medal in the discus at Mexico City. Decathlete Tom Waddell, an Army doctor who was nearly court-martialed for refusing to go to Vietnam, became a prominent gay activist before dying of AIDS.
The setting was surreal – “magical, a fantasy” in Fosbury’s words. The Echo Summit track had hundreds of Ponderosa pine dotting the infield. Runners disappeared from sight on the curves and backstretch. Javelins came flying out of the trees. When Bob Seagren won the pole vault with a world-record clearance of 17 feet, 9 inches – one of four world marks set at Echo Summit – he said the towering pines made the bar look like it was set at seven feet.
In one of the most divisive years in American history, Echo Summit was more of a respite than a sanctuary. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were fresh wounds, and the rioting at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago took place days before the Olympic Trials began.
Time has altered the vitriolic reaction to the protest Smith and Carlos initiated on the victory stand in Mexico City. An action seen at the time as hateful and disrespectful is now widely viewed as a nonviolent act of conscience. When today’s athletes are criticized for being apolitical and not speaking out, the names of Smith and Carlos are invariably resurrected as a counterpoint.
It was a troubling, confusing time in 1968. For a brief few weeks, a California mountaintop provided a remarkable group of individuals shelter from the storm.
Bob Burns, a former Bee sportswriter, is assisting with the USA Track & Field Championships this week in Sacramento.