Turf of heroes
Not everyone can have the raw strength of wrestler Rulon Gardner or the flexibility of gymnast Nadia Comaneci. Oh, and forget about having the blinding foot speed of sprinter Michael Johnson. But with the Games of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing to inspire us, even the flabbiest and clumsiest mortals can soak in the spirit of camaraderie, competition and corporate sponsorship at one of these 10 locations.
McDONALD’S OLYMPIC SWIM STADIUM
When the United States boycotted the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, discouraged National Collegiate Athletic Assn. champ Ambrose “Rowdy” Gaines thought his swimming days were over. But encouraged by his father to keep going, Gaines made the team for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, where he was not expected to place. Undeterred, he won the 100-meter freestyle and swam the anchor leg for two relay medley teams that placed first. The pool, on the campus of USC where Gaines won three gold medals, is open to the public daily. (The nearby Coliseum, where sprinter Carl Lewis made his first Olympic appearance and where U.S. distance runner Mary Decker collided with runner Zola Budd is usually not open to the public.) For pool hours and fees, call the General William Lyon University Center, (213) 740-5127, or go to www.usc.edu/recsports.
HOME DEPOT CENTER, CARSON
Baseball may be America’s pastime, but soccer is far bigger worldwide. So the eyes of the world were on the Home Depot Center in March, when the sports complex in Carson, 20 minutes south of downtown Los Angeles, hosted one of three Olympic qualifying tournaments for men’s soccer. Teams from the U.S. and Honduras won the two spots to play in Beijing. The facility doesn’t offer regular public tours, but visitors can bask in the Olympic afterglow during other events at the center, such as the X Games or L.A. Galaxy soccer matches. For information on upcoming events, call (310) 630-2000 or go to www.homedepotcenter.com.
MUHAMMAD ALI CENTER, LOUISVILLE, KY.
“The Greatest.” “The Louisville Lip.” “The Champ.” Whatever you call him, you can’t deny that Muhammad Ali is a living legend and one of the greatest athletes of the modern era. He launched into boxing history with the name Cassius Clay at the 1960 Summer Games in Rome, where he won a gold medal in the light-heavyweight division. Later, as a professional boxer, Ali won the world heavyweight title three times by floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. At the Muhammad Ali Center, in the champ’s hometown, you can see video of his greatest fights and pound the heavy bag in a re-creation of Ali’s training facility. For more information, call (502) 584-9254 or go to www.alicenter.org.
HERB BROOKS ARENA, LAKE PLACID, N.Y.
“Do you believe in miracles?” That was the exclamation from sportscaster Al Michaels when the U.S. hockey team upset the favored Soviets at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics in 1980. Bedlam broke out on the ice as the underdog Americans celebrated the most improbable victory. The arena (which was later named for the team’s coach) is also where in 1932, figure skater Sonja Henie won the second of three consecutive Olympic gold medals. Visitors can step on the same ice rink and visit an Olympic museum in the same building. For more details, call (518) 523-3330 or go to www.orda.org.
U.S. OLYMPIC TRAINING CENTER, CHULA VISTA, CALIF.
The $65-million ARCO Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, south of San Diego, is one of three that American athletes use to prepare for the Olympics. In this complex, competitors train for track and field, canoeing, kayaking, field hockey, soccer, archery and rowing. Free tours are offered daily, starting at the Copley Visitor Center, where tourists can buy Olympic memorabilia and souvenirs. Visitors walk through an elevated promenade as they watch athletes train below. For details, call (619) 482-6215 or go to www.teamusa.org/content/index/1375.
U.S. OLYMPIC TRAINING CENTER, COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO.
When you see the state-of-the-art training facility in Colorado Springs, you will understand why the U.S. has dominated in the medal totals at almost every recent Olympics. This sports medicine and training complex can house and train up to 557 coaches and athletes. The showcase facility here is USA Swimming’s International Center for Aquatic Research and its 50,000-gallon flume that works like an underwater treadmill for swimmers. Free public tours are offered daily. For hours, call (719) 632-5551 or go to www.usoc.org/content/index/1377.
ENERGYSOLUTIONS ARENA, SALT LAKE CITY
During the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002, American figure skater Sarah Hughes was in fourth place after the short program. She would have to pull off a miracle to win gold. She did, landing seven triple jumps in her long program, including two triple-triple combinations. Hughes’ improbable victory took place in what was then called the Delta Center and later was renamed EnergySolutions Arena. Visitors can arrange free tours by calling (801) 325-2554.
GEORGIA DOME, ATLANTA
The women’s gymnastics competition at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta came down to one vault. The American team needed a high score on the last vault to defeat the Russian squad. American gymnast Kerri Strug had twisted her ankle on the previous vault but did not pull out of the competition. Instead, she did a nearly flawless vault, landing on one foot to give the U.S. team the gold medal. If you want to see the arena where Strug’s vault launched her onto the cover of Sports Illustrated and Wheaties boxes worldwide, join an hourly tour, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. For details, call (404) 223-8687 or go to www.gadome.com/tour/overview.html.
THE BEACH AT ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND
If you saw the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire,” based on the true story of British athletes preparing for the 1924 Summer Olympics, you know the beach scene. In fact, you have probably reenacted it yourself, running in slow motion as Vangelis’ theme song for the movie plays in the background. Why not reenact it at the beach at St. Andrews where it was filmed? And while you’re at it, bring your clubs. St. Andrews is also the birthplace of golf. For travel information, go to www.standrews.co.uk
Several months before every Olympic Games, 11 women, in the roles of priestesses, perform a ceremony in which a torch is lighted by reflection of sunlight in a parabolic mirror at the restored Olympia stadium. The lighted torch is then transported to the place where the Games are held. You can see where it all began, eons ago, by visiting the ancient stadium in Olympia. While you’re there, consider dropping by the Archaeological Museum of Olympia to see some of the world’s most important artifacts, including the sculptured ornaments from the temple of Zeus, dating from the first half of the 5th century BC. For more information on visiting Olympia and the museum, go to www.olympia-greece.org.