BUTTE, Mont. (AP) _ American speed skaters set the pace in the 1980 Winter Olympics behind Eric Heiden’s five gold medals. Four years later, they were shut out when the Olympics moved to the mountains of Yugoslavia.
Now supporters in the mountains of Montana hope to regain the 1980 fortunes with construction of the nation’s first high-altitude training center for speed skaters.
The U.S. High Altitude Speed Skating Foundation hopes that by building a 400-meter refrigerated track in this mile-high city, American skaters can regain a competitive edge in time for the 1988 Winter Olympics at Calgary, Alberta.
″We want it to be the very best track in the world,″ says the foundation’s president, Martin White, president of Western Energy Co. and a former Olympic speed skating contender himself.
According to White, development of a high-altitude speed-skating track, similar to those in the Soviet Union and Europe, is essential to rejuvenating American chances at Calgary.
″It is a golden opportunity for American business, once again, to demonstrate its ability to concentrate resources and produce a rewarding national result,″ the foundation says.
The foundation’s board includes Heiden, the featured speaker at a fund- raising banquet in Butte that attracted 1,400 people this winter, and Olympic coaches Mike Crowe and Dianne Holum.
″This facility will give a big boost to our program on the regional, national and international levels,″ Crowe says. ″The weather conditions in Montana will offer the U.S. national team the longest ice training season of its history, and the high-altitude location will give our skaters the opportunity to compete with the Soviets for world records.″
The foundation currently is seeking corporate help for construction of a $6.5 million training facility that would include an outdoor 400-meter skating track, an indoor Olympic-sized skating rink and a regulation velodrome for bicyclists.
It has asked McDonald’s USA to donate more than half the cost, but White is optimistic the center will be built regardless of whether the hamburger chain joins in.
The foundation has already raised more than $1 million and has individual contributions from the Butte area equaling more than $2 for every man, woman and child in a mining community that saw its major industry close three years ago.
″We’re planning to begin construction in the fairly near future,″ White says. ″We’re going to bid on a meet here next January, so we’re sticking our neck out. But we think we have a pretty good product to sell.″
According to Holum, an Olympic medalist in 1968 and 1972 and Olympic coach since then, lack of adequate facilities in the United States has limited national ice training to just 90 days a year.
″Montana is the perfect setting for long seasons, fast ice and good training, making this facility a big asset to our program,″ she says.
Butte has a proud speed skating tradition, producing four national champions, five national records and nine national speed skating team members since 1980.
But developing a world-class speed skating training facility wasn’t what a half-dozen community leaders had in mind a few years ago when they started kicking around the idea of building a speed skating rink.
″There was a group of us trying to raise money to send our homegrown skaters to Europe to train at high altitudes,″ White said, ″and we thought, ’Gee, this is kind of crazy, why not train right here in Butte?″
At first they decided to build a concrete rink, painted white to reflect the sun and expand the season, at a cost of about $300,000. But when they consulted with Crowe, he advised refrigerating the track to attract world- class skaters.
Crowe also suggested locker rooms with space for conditioning and separate locker rooms for Eastern and Western bloc countries.
″Then we said, ‘Shucks, if we’re going to build all that, let’s make it the best in the world,’ ″ White said.
White, 44, skated in 13 national championships and the Olympic trials in 1959 and 1963, and although he didn’t make the Olympic team, he retains an enthusiasm for the sport.
″We were real novices,″ he recalled. ″I had a pair of dyed longjohns, and we looked hickey as could be. But we didn’t do too badly considering. My skates were way too short.″
White’s goal now is to see the United States get back on track at Calgary - and put Montana’s mile-high mining city on the world speed-skating map.
″We’d like to break some world records,″ he said.
End Adv Tues PMs April 22