Early on a spring morning near Flagstaff, the foreign athletes
are out in force. A pair of French cyclists zips along Lake Mary
Road, while out on the lake the Norwegian rowing team is
grunting through a workout. Close to town a Czech runner veers
off the lake road, picks up a wilderness trail and disappears
into the pines.
Elite athletes from all over the world have flocked to this
quiet mountain town, which has become an Olympic training mecca.
Between the end of February and the start of the 1996 Summer
Games on July 19, 400 potential Olympians will train in
Flagstaff. You know the word is getting out when the Bangladeshi
rowing team signs up to come to northern Arizona.
Part of the attraction is the 7,000-foot elevation. Proponents
of training at altitude believe it allows the body to use oxygen
more efficiently, giving athletes a competitive edge. "We sell
thin air," says Dr. Richard Smith, director of the High
Altitude Sports Training Complex on the campus of Northern
Arizona University (NAU). "But we also sell this town and its
The complex, a joint venture of NAU, the city and the state,
opened last year. Staffers make hotel reservations and airport
pickups, offer translation help, and provide mail and fax
service for the athletes.
If a team needs specially catered meals, Smith's staff will find
a chef to provide them. When Norwegian kayakers wanted to have
their blood drawn and analyzed on the spot at Lake Mary, Richard
Coast, of NAU's exercise physiology lab, rented a 10-kilowatt
generator and towed it out to the lake to help with the tests.
Directing the high-altitude complex has turned out to be a
bigger job than Smith anticipated. He never imagined needing
the services of a retired intelligence officer. But Dr. Ben
Brown, who spent 14 years as a political analyst for the CIA,
has proved invaluable, counseling Smith on such matters as
dealing with foreign embassies and ambassadors and handling
security for international teams.
"We thought we were just going to bring athletes and coaches
here to train," says Smith, a 46-year-old former high school and
college football coach. "But it's gotten complicated. First
thing every morning I log on to the Internet to check the value
of the dollar to help with our overseas marketing."
It helps that foreign visitors are not a new phenomenon in
Flagstaff, which is located 80 miles from the Grand Canyon. Last
summer the city wanted to give German speed skaters permission
to train with in-line skates on the parking tarmac at Pulliam
Airport, but some plane owners feared that the skaters would
crash into their Cessnas and Piper Cubs. After watching a
workout, some of the pilots were so impressed with the Germans'
skill that they spent several mornings taxiing around the space
to help melt the early morning frost.
When a snowfall hit Flagstaff the day U.S. rowers arrived to
begin workouts on Feb. 26, Smith persuaded a friend at the
highway department to plow the road to the lake. Then coach Igor
Grinko needed to store the team's shells, but the trailer that
Smith had delivered to the lake was locked, and no one had the
key. Grinko solved that with a sledgehammer. But when the rowers
pulled open the trailer's back door, they discovered that it was
filled with someone's household goods.
Smith quickly ordered a replacement that arrived within three
hours. Grinko was impressed.
The Italian swimmers were just as pleased with Smith's staff. It
set them up with John Cavolo, a Flagstaff city councilman who is
a second-generation Italian-American and, more important, the
chef-owner of The Pasta Works restaurant in town.
"This place is such a long way from the rat race in Toronto,"
says Canadian swim coach Mike Pliuskaitis, whose team spent the
last weeks before its Olympic trials training at NAU's 50-meter
pool. "Everything is taken care of, so you can focus on work."
When the Atlanta Games begin, the residents of Flagstaff will be
watching to see if that work pays off.
Leo W. Banks, of Tucson, is a correspondent for The Boston Globe.