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A Visit to Olympic Gold Country

September 25, 1988|JOEL SILVERMAN | Silverman is a Malibu free-lance writer. and

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — It's difficult not to wax patriotic walking through the U.S. Olympic Training Center here. Everything is awash in red, white and blue, USA and that old "going for the gold" spirit.

"We're becoming a real attraction because people go for the 'rah-rah, apple pie' atmosphere," says Marguerite Gigliello, manager of operations at the 36-acre facility.

With the 1988 Summer Olympics now in full swing in Seoul, South Korea, interest in the facility has heightened. By August, attendance had already surpassed last year's total of about 50,000 visitors, Gigliello said.

The first thing you'll notice about the Olympic facility, which was built in 1977, is that admission is free and there's plenty of parking. There are 1 1/2-hour tours, including a 20-minute film, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Tour highlights include the U.S. Olympic Shooting Center, largest indoor range in the Western Hemisphere, completed in 1985 at a cost of $2.7 million.

Swimming Flume

And a must-see is the $1-million swimming Flume, constructed this year with surplus revenue from the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games.

The Flume, only one in the United States, is a steel channel of circulating water in which researchers can simulate altitudes from Death Valley to Pikes Peak. Altitude is a major influence on athletic performance, and now U.S. swimmers can prepare for all conditions.

The tour passes through the Sports Science Building, where you can watch athletes being scrutinized for cardiovascular efficiency and biomechanical technique.

If you don't mind getting in a little workout of your own, walk the half-mile to the U.S. Olympic Training Center Velodrome, a banked track for cycling. You may get a glimpse of the spokeless, $45,000 carbon fiber track bikes that the U.S. team uses. Better stay off the track, however; bikes reach speeds of more than 40 m.p.h. and they don't have brakes.

If you are more inclined to four wheels, the only banked roller-skating track in the country is within the Velodrome.

Athletes in Action

Olympic and other elite athletes live and train year-round at the 750-bed Olympic facility, so you are likely to catch some of the action. You're free to wander throughout much of the facility.

On my own walking tour, I saw a free exhibition team handball match between the U.S. women and the Hungarian National Team.

Team handball--an Olympic sport since 1972--is "a combination of basketball, soccer, water polo without the water and probably a few other things," says Amy Gamble, 23, of Glendale, W. Va. She plays a position called circle runner on the women's team. "It really is hard sometimes, dedicating yourself to a sport no one really understands."

Fact is, if you expect to find prime-time jocks like Carl Lewis or Matt Bionditraining here, you'll be disappointed. The big names, along with athletes in revenue sports like basketball, are usually subsidized, thus they can train in their own environment.

In Colorado Springs you'll find mostly athletes in the so-called minor sports, including table tennis, weightlifting and cycling.

Free Room and Board

"They're the athletes who need us the most," Gigliello says. "We give them free room and board so they can train."

The athletes' accommodations are rather austere, resembling military barracks. The facility is, in fact, on a former Air Force base. The city of Colorado Springs, home of the Air Force Academy, leases the land to the U.S. Olympic Committee for $1 a year.

There are two additional Olympic training centers--in Lake Placid, N.Y., and Marquette, Mich., but the Colorado Springs facility is by far the largest and most comprehensive.

About the only thing planners forgot was a place for the public to eat. The dining hall is closed to visitors. But you can pack a picnic lunch and throw a blanket down at Olympic Park, a football field's worth of grass bounded by the five interlocking rings of blue, yellow, black, green and red that symbolize the Olympic Games.

Room and board in Colorado Springs are free only for athletes. Most prized are accommodations closest to Pikes Peak, the 14,110-foot beacon that inspired Katherine Lee Bates to pen "America, The Beautiful" in 1893.

Timber Lodge offers cabins (beginning at $35 double occupancy) among pine trees in the foothills of Pikes Peak. Contact Timber Lodge, 3627 W. Colorado Ave., Colorado Springs 80904, or call (719) 636-3941.

Rooms at the Adobe-styled El Colorado Lodge in nearby Manitou Springs start at about $30 and feature high-beamed ceilings and fireplaces. Contact El Colorado Lodge, 23 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs 80829, or call (719) 655-5485.

The creme de la creme of hotels is The Broadmoor, with its bell tower and Italian Renaissance decor. Rooms start at $170. The Broadmoor, P.O. Box 1439, Colorado Springs 80901, or phone toll-free (800) 634-7711.

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