Commentary: Common knowledge today no secret 50 years ago
There’s been much talk and media attention over the past 10 years about Flagstaff being a mecca for Olympic-level endurance training.
The truth, though, is that it’s hardly a new phenomenon. Further, there is ample evidence right here in the Verde Valley that many of the world-class athletes who converge on Flagstaff today have eaten their way out of house and home when it comes to finding suitable places to train.
Prior to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, Discover Flagstaff reported there are more than 10,000 world-class athletes, coaches and sport scientists from 29 countries that have made Flagstaff their altitude training site of choice.
“If Flagstaff were a country, and could lay claim to its athletes the way actual countries do in their tallying of medal counts, it could boast being a top 10 nation over the course of the last five quadrennial cycles (the four-year summer Olympic cycle). That’s out of over 200 participating countries,” Discover Flagstaff reported in 2016.
The spillover effect of this involves the scheduling of “track time” in Flagstaff. There are more athletes vying for the use of tracks than there are available tracks. That’s why it’s not uncommon to see world and national class athletes training on the high school tracks in Sedona and Cottonwood on a regular basis. So much so, in fact, that many of the coaches and athletes from the Norwegian, Swedish, Belgium and Canadian national teams – not to mention American-based teams sponsored by the Asics and New Balance shoe companies -- are on a first-name basis with the high school coaches at Mingus and Sedona-Red Rock.
While the numbers of such Olympic-level athletes training in Flagstaff today are staggering, world-class distance runners swore to the benefits of training in Flagstaff more than 50 years ago.
That was especially true prior to the high-altitude 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. While the U.S. Olympic Committee that year created a high-altitude training center near Lake Tahoe in Nevada, a small group of American distance runners eschewed that site in favor of Flagstaff.
Arizona’s George Young convinced U.S. teammates Jim Ryun, Conrad Nightingale and Billy Mills to train in Flagstaff over the official team training center in Nevada. An Aug. 19, 1968 Sports Illustrated story described them as a group of “rebellious runners.”
Fifty-one years later from his summer home in Pinetop, Arizona, Young said the choice to move from the official team training center in Tahoe to Flagstaff had a lot more to do with sanity than it did with rebellion.
“There was too much commotion,” Young said of the Lake Tahoe Training Center. “There were sports writers everywhere as there was all this talk of a protest being planned by (Tommie) Smith and (John) Carlos.”
Indeed, the racial tensions that existed in 1968 had prompted talk of a complete boycott of the Olympic Games by African American athletes. In the end, they chose to compete, but not without controversy as the bowed head and raised fist salute by Smith and Carlos during the medals ceremony following the 200-meter dash is one of the most indelible memories in the history of sports.
What’s more, this was a U.S. track and field Olympic team that is still today regarded as the best in American history. Never before, or since, did athletes who made the 1968 U.S. team receive so much media attention.
“The truth is,” Young said in response to the “rebellious runners” label pinned on the quartet by Sports Illustrated, “Flagstaff was nice and quiet and a place where all we had to worry about was training. That’s all we cared about.”
Not at all surprising to Young, when the Flagstaff-based runners joined their U.S. teammates for an intra-squad meet at the Tahoe Training Center in the summer of ‘68, Ryun won the 1500-meter race, Mills won the 10,000 and Young won the 5,000, just missing the American record in the process despite the elevation.
It wasn’t just the American quartet that opted for training in Flagstaff in 1968. Young said the German National Team also set up camp for a few weeks in Flagstaff that summer in preparation for the Mexico City Games.
Four years later, Young once again found himself pounding out long runs along Shultz Pass Trail in preparation for what would be his fourth and final Olympic Games in 1972 in Munich.
Earlier, after setting indoor world records at both 2 and 3 miles in 1969, Young had retired from the sport. But by 1971, while he was working toward a post-graduate degree at Northern Arizona University, Young found himself running again on a regular basis, and running quite well. So well, in fact, that he would go on to become the first runner in American history to make four U.S. Olympic Teams, and he did it in three different events and claimed a bronze medal in the 68 Games.
When told Friday that Flagstaff has become the training site of choice for long-distance runners from all over the world, Young just laughed.
“We knew that 50 years ago.”