The Olympic mantle fell again last week—at long last—upon the peaceful Adirondack Mountain village of Lake Placid. The International Olympic Committee, assembled in Vienna in its traditional setting of splendor and quasi-royal indifference, selected the unpretentious upstate New York town to stage the XIII Winter Games in 1980. The choice was not unexpected. Indeed, it could scarcely have been avoided, for by the time the IOC convened, Lake Placid had come to be the only place in the world that wanted the job.
This was victory by attrition. Still, the logic of the selection is both geometric and poetic—a perfect circle finished. It was in 1932 that Lake Placid became something more than a frozen flyspeck on the U.S. map. That was the year this cold, hick village of just 2,930 North Country folks conducted the III Winter Olympiad. Those were times of simplicity: no more than 331 athletes turned up to compete in a mere 14 events, hand-twined ropes made of real evergreens festooned the single main street and a good time was had by all. Games in those days, even Olympic Games, were something played rather than propagandized. Technocracy and power politics had not fully infected international sport, and the Olympics had not yet been overwhelmed by numbers.
Nowadays well over a billion dollars is routinely spent on the Games, winter and summer, in an average Olympic year. Entire cities are refurbished, even rebuilt. The number of winter events has grown to 34 and, the last time around, the roster of athletes had swelled to 1,130. It seemed that nothing would ever be simple any longer.
But now we return to Lake Placid, current population down to 2,731, surrounded by the notably un-Alp-like prominences of the Adirondacks, whose simple, slope-shouldered old hills are covered with green fir and delightfully pocked with placid lakes. No sense of tension or immensity, no roar of Sapporo traffic, no rush of Grenoble throngs, no hint of Innsbruck's police battalions. Lake Placid is not a city. Neither is it a gaudy winter-sports confection spun yesterday at the edge of some megalopolis. Lake Placid is a village, isolated and real, far from madding crowds.
November 4, 1974
And therein lies the beauty, at least potentially, of the XIII Winter Olympiad: a return to a mountain village setting, a return to naturalness, an Olympics scaled to decent size.
Almost all of the men who have led Lake Placid's patient quest to restage the Winter Games are Adirondack Mountain born and bred; "North Country Boys," they're called. They were raised on small-town notions of neighborliness, loyalty and something elusive and old-fashioned called community spirit.
The major source of energy behind the Olympics bid was a markedly Main Street form of kinetics—voluntary participation powered by the same civic excitement that once was harnessed to raise money to buy uniforms for the fire department drum and bugle corps. The whole town seems to be as committed to the righteousness of returning the Olympics to a proper honest human scale as it is to the merchants' projection of wholesale free publicity, and subsequent business, that will be generated both during and after the Games.
Chairman of the organizing committee is the Rev. J. Bernard Fell, 52, a Methodist minister who was formerly a village cop. About 20 years ago Officer Fell was shot in the stomach by a deranged fugitive who had already killed two people while fleeing through the Adirondack woods. Fell nearly died. When he finally emerged, healthy, from his ordeal he decided that Officer Fell would become Pastor Fell and dedicate the rest of his life to Christianity. Bespectacled and ascetic, the Rev. Bernie Fell has further devoted himself in recent years to bringing the Olympics back to his hometown. And so have many others.
Norman Hess, 52, is a country lawyer, for 15 years a loyal member of the town sports council, a solid no-nonsense attorney who has lived in Lake Placid for 20 years. Luke Patnode, 46, graying and portly, was born the son of a carpenter in Lake Placid, played basketball and football for Lake Placid High School, once ran the Chamber of Commerce and now is publicity director of Essex County. Jack Shea, 64, is a big, gentle fellow, a longtime storekeeper in Lake Placid who was a justice of the peace for years. A famous speed skater in his youth, Shea won two gold medals before ecstatic hometown fans in the 1932 Olympic Games. He is now the elected supervisor of the town of North Elba in which the village of Lake Placid lies.
Ron MacKenzie, 71, is the retired postmaster of Lake Placid as well as a longtime ski-area expert who was instrumental in getting nearby Whiteface Mountain developed by New York State and was one of the founders of the National Ski Patrol. James (Bunny) Sheffield, 64, has a real-estate and insurance office on Main Street, and was a daring bobsledder, speed skater and barrel jumper in the old days. Art Devlin, 52, runs a motel on Main Street and is assuredly more famed for his exploits as an international ski jumper than as an innkeeper. Vern Lamb, 49, is the scion of one of Lake Placid's founding families and runs Lamb's Lumberyard. Bob Allen, 50, is manager of the North Elba Park District, meaning that he operates the skating rink, the 70-meter ski jump, the golf course, the airport and the horse-show arena outside town. Mayor Bob Peacock, 54, makes his living as a milkman. Serge Lussi runs the Holiday Inn. And there are many others who have tossed in their talents to help their hometown become an Olympic town once more.
While there is an ordinary sound to these people, Lake Placid is not quite an ordinary mountain village. It is winter-sports-minded to the point of obsession. The little town has all the history and most of the statistics necessary to prove that it is not only a good selection for the Winter Olympic Games but that it is the perfect selection.
Citizens will begin by informing anyone who will listen that the very first gold medal ever won in a Winter Olympics was won in 1924 at Chamonix by Speed Skater Charlie Jewtraw of Lake Placid, N. Y. And they will go on to say that Lake Placid has supplied no less than 64 members of U.S. Olympic teams and that 10 of them won gold medals. And that Lake Placid has the largest instructional program in figure skating in the world; that there are probably more accredited world judges or experts on ski jumping, figure skating, bobsledding and speed skating per capita here than anywhere outside of a real Olympic Village; and that the village of Lake Placid has held enough world-championship events to rank No. 1 in the U.S. in that category, events that include Nordic skiing (1950), the biathlon (1973), the World University Winter Games (1972) and the bobsled competitions of '49, '61, '69 and '73.
And they will conclude by saying that they probably know more about the intricacies of staging the Winter Olympic Games than any other group of citizens in the world. Not only have they experienced an Olympics in the past, they have spent the last 20 years trying to get them back.
"There is not much we don't know about the ins and outs of Olympics—politically, technically, esthetically," says Luke Patnode. "It has been a way of life for most of us for years."
Too true. When it comes to understanding the machinations of Olympic gamesmanship, the North Country Boys are experts. Not counting the 1932 Games, they have tried six different times to bring home the Olympic bacon. Lake Placid began bidding for the Games in 1954, but that year the U.S. Olympic Committee chose Squaw Valley, and the 1960 Games were held there. In 1963 Lake Placid launched a mammoth campaign to get the Games of 1968. It won the USOC's backing that year, then began a 15-month drive to woo the members of the International Olympic Committee. Teams of Lake Placid men took off to visit every IOC member in Europe and South America.
Bob Allen, the rink manager, recalls part of that campaign: "We'd just go in and sit down across the desk from those guys as if we were selling insurance or something. We sent a local minister to talk to the IOC man in Israel and we sent a priest to South America. It was fairly low-key. One old, old IOC member in Czechoslovakia said, "I don't see why you want the Games again. You just had them in 1932, didn't you?' We were convinced, though, that we were doing a great selling job."
Norm Hess, the attorney, says, "Everyone was very polite, very agreeable. In Warsaw we saw the whole Polish winter-sports delegation at once in a giant reception room. In Zagreb the IOC man took us to lunch. In Liechtenstein, Prince Franz Josef himself took us through his castle and gave us lunch. It was a very educational year for us."
Luke Patnode says, "We spent $150,000 on that bid. We had a fantastic exhibit set up in Innsbruck when the IOC met to vote that year. We had this general in the Air Force behind us. He arranged special jet flights from the States to Austria for us. He had a huge cargo plane—the biggest plane that had ever landed in Innsbruck—bring in our big electronic exhibitions. One of them was like a computer. It had 120 buttons on it and it gave print-outs in six languages about any winter sport and what Lake Placid had to offer. It sounds great. It was a dud. Hardly any IOC people even looked at it. What they liked was the slide projections we had of dog-team races and they watched them over and over.
"We thought we were really going great that year. We had arranged a big reception for the IOC after the vote. Our general had arranged to fly in Virginia ham and smoked turkey and salmon. We figured we had it in the bag. By our count, we figured we'd have 14 votes on the first ballot and we'd get the rest—we needed 27—on the second. All we had to do was celebrate."
Unfortunately, the North Country Boys were tenderfeet in the labyrinthine world of Olympic bidding: they got a grand total of three votes and were eliminated after the first ballot. At the reception, delegate after delegate came up to say that he was so sorry that Lake Placid had lost, but that, of course, he had voted for them. "Nearly 20 guys claimed they were for us," says Luke Patnode. "We've argued for 10 years over exactly who those three votes came from." That year the IOC picked Grenoble as host of the 1968 Games on the third ballot. In hindsight, many Lake Placid men think that the Communist bloc switched to France because the day before Charles deGaulle had officially recognized Red China, the first major Western leader to do so. Smoked turkey, Virginia ham and computer readouts in Swedish could scarcely compete with such a magnificent power play.
The North Country Boys were crushed and humiliated by their defeat. "When we opened the box with our big electronic exhibit in it, someone had put in a note: IF YOU DON'T WIN IT, DON'T COME HOME. We didn't want to come home, believe me."
In 1966 Lake Placid campaigned to get the USOC's backing for the 1972 Games, but lost to Salt Lake City which, in turn, was annihilated in the IOC vote. Sapporo won. Olympic Gamesmen recall that the Japanese made a big hit with IOC delegates that year by giving each of them a pearl before the voting.
In 1968 Lake Placid was turned down again by the USOC in its bid to make this country's pitch for the 1976 Gaines. Governor Nelson Rockefeller himself starred in the Lake Placid presentation; he promised full state funding for any Olympic facilities that would be needed. "It was a blank check," says Patnode. But both the USOC and the IOC went for Denver.
In November of 1972, after Colorado voters had decided overwhelmingly to reject the Olympic ideal in favor of good sense and a clean environment, the USOC began blundering about in its search for a replacement site. Once again, doughty Lake Placid stepped forward and offered to sweep up the shattered remains of Denver's bid. But the USOC, led by President Cliff Buck of Denver, insisted that Salt Lake City be the U.S. representative. Arms were twisted, and Salt Lake agreed to bid. Unfortunately, the state of Utah really wasn't enthusiastic about hosting the Olympics, and when both the mayor of Salt Lake City and the governor of Utah declared that they would not spend a penny to boost the Games, the USOC was left once more without a viable bidder. With just five days left before the IOC was to vote in Lausanne on a new site for '76, the USOC turned to Lake Placid. Hat in hand, it implored the North Country Boys to save America's face by appearing in Lausanne with at least a token bid to stage the Olympics in the U.S. during the bicentennial anniversary. Showing good grace and patriotism well beyond the call, Lake Placid agreed.
Once more, the Boys lost, this time to Innsbruck, but even with a scant five days for preparation they managed to pull together a presentation that was impressive enough for Lord Killanin, the IOC president, to tell Norm Hess, "We'll be looking forward to seeing you with a bid for 1980."
It is probable that there never has been an Olympic bid better prepared and more soundly based than the one Lake Placid brought to Vienna last week. For one thing, it was realistic—even honest. There was none of the obfuscation and exaggeration that Denver dealt in when it blithely reported to the IOC that its Alpine events would be held on Mount Snitkau, a totally undeveloped slope whose snow cover was suspect, and that its cross-country skiing would be run in the suburb of Evergreen, a community that promptly raised hell when it heard the news.
Before presenting the bid, Lake Placid arranged for the backing of such powerful environmental groups as the Sierra Club and the Adirondack Mountain Club, as well as absolute support from the New York Environmental Controls Commission and the state legislature. The U.S. Congress passed a resolution backing Lake Placid, and strong letters from both the Governor of New York and the President of the U.S. went out to Lord Killanin and all IOC delegates. To demonstrate public backing, Lake Placid held a local Olympic referendum in October, 1973. The Games won 726 to 576.
Lake Placid already has many of the facilities it needs for the Games, including cross-country ski and biathlon trails, a 70-meter jump, a 2,200-seat figure-skating arena, a functioning, FIS-approved Alpine ski slope (the state-operated Whiteface ski area offers a 3,212-foot vertical drop, greatest in the East) and the only bobsled run in North America. No proposed venue is more than 8½ miles from the center of Lake Placid. People traveled 65 miles between sites in Grenoble, 45 in Sapporo, and Denver planned to spread the Olympics all over the Rocky Mountains, with the skating events in Denver and the Alpine competition in Vail, 115 miles over the mountains.
Lake Placid still must build a 90-meter ski jump, a stadium for opening and closing ceremonies, a press administration building, another figure-skating and hockey arena, an Olympic Village and refrigerate its speed-skating track. It must install a network of snow-making equipment on the windy upper reaches of Whiteface to insure adequate snow cover for the proposed downhill courses. Some new ski lifts, trails, spectator stands and parking areas also will have to be constructed.
All told, the Lake Placid Olympic committee figures that it will have to spend $30 million to put on the 1980 Games. The estimate is probably low; Sapporo spent $700 million, Grenoble $400 million. Neverthless, the slogan for the Adirondack Olympics could well be: Think Small. A low budget, plus low-key production is the basic philosophy. The breakdown of the costs as now estimated reads: $1,400,000 for improvement to existing facilities, $2,400,000 for administration and $23 million for new construction that includes $6 million for the Olympic Village apartments, $1,500,000 for a speed-skating track, $1 million for a 90-meter ski jump, $4 million for an indoor-skating arena, $8 million for the snow-making and other work on Whiteface.
Lake Placid is situated in Adirondack State Park, an area that long has been rigidly controlled by the state as a "forever wild" preserve. This not only increases the ecological restrictions but allows for relatively routine New York funding of many of the improvements, such as refrigeration of the bobsled run, work on the cross-country and ski runs, building new parking and spectator areas, plus the snow-making equipment. Some of these facilities would have been improved anyway as part of an expanding state recreational program.
The Lake Placid committee figures that New York State will spend about $10 million on the Olympics and that the Federal Government will contribute about $20 million. And while no funding bills have passed Congress yet, New York Senator Jacob Javits has said he will introduce the appropriations legislation when it is necessary. Although some may doubt easy passage of such financing in these days of economic uncertainty, one must note that even the totally fouled-up Games of Denver had received a Congressional guarantee of at least $15.5 million in Federal money before they went down in referendum flames.
The Rev. Bernie Fell is a man who has learned from all his years of bruises and bumps in unsuccessful Olympic campaigns to be essentially pessimistic, although he is by nature an evangelist. Fell said, not long before the IOC was due to vote, "I would not for one second predict that the IOC will select Lake Placid for 1980. However, we have left nothing unturned that I know of. Funding has traditionally been the biggest public headache in the Olympics, but behind that is always the question of preserving the environment. We have gone far out of our way to guarantee full protection. As for the money, I remember that a Soviet member of the IOC, Mr. Adrianov, asked me not long ago, 'How can a tiny place with only 3,000 people expect to put on a giant spectacular like the Olympic Games?' And I said, 'Sir, I have confidence that my government is the kind of government that backs its commitments.' And I believe that.
"I also believe that the time has come to return from the spectacular to the human-sized Games. Yes, we do need a certain amount of circus atmosphere to an Olympics. You can't expect gold-medal winners to have to run down the middle of the street to show people what they have won. No, you need some spectacle, if for no other reason than as a forum for recognition. But, you know, the Winter Olympics haven't grown much in terms of competitors in the past 20 years. Television is the way people see the Olympics. We don't want a million people to come to our town to see the Games. We don't want 5,000 members of the press. We want to keep it all in scale. Why shouldn't the Olympic Games be held in a mountain village? They are just games. We're not going to have a lot of big black cars and cocktail parties, we're not able to entertain on the scale of Roman emperors, which is what some IOC people see as the purpose of Olympics. We think the Games should be low-key, like they were 40 years ago."
So the circle is now to be completed. Lake Placid's Games of 1932 were simple and warm, cozy in contrast to the sprawling extravaganzas that have come since.
The whole show cost $1.2 million. There were no Alpine skiing events then. Indeed, there were only 12 events for men, one for women, one for both (figure skating pairs). The dimpled Sonja Henie, the most famous Olympian of them all, was just 19 that year and won her second figure-skating medal. The U.S. team was good that year, winning six gold medals, the best it has ever done in a Winter Games.
Jack Shea, then a rosy-cheeked hometown hero, became the No. 1 American performer with gold medals in the 500-meter and the 1,500-meter speed-skating events. He is an open, congenial man, but he also carries a certain small-town caution about him, the kind often found in storekeepers who have seen both good times and hard. "I was never really against having the Olympics here again," he says. "After all, Lake Placid has been living and thriving for more than 40 years on our reputation from 1932. We would have been a wide spot in the road had it not been for the Games. But I didn't want it to cause us to go into debt. You know, the town floated a $350,000 bond issue in 1930 to pay for the Games then, and we didn't pay that darn thing off until nearly 10 years ago. I just didn't want to have this town get a reputation for a lot of bonded indebtedness, so I was not wholeheartedly behind the campaign until I saw we could do it without big debts."
Today there is no one in Lake Placid more enthusiastic about the Games than Shea. "We have done so little in this country for the amateur athlete," he says. "Now we have the chance. With the Olympic facilities we'll have here, we can have a full-scale winter-sports training center. There'll be nothing like it in the country, maybe not in the world. We can finally begin to give something back to our athletes with these facilities. We have colleges around here, too, and we'll arrange courses in the psychology of competition, in physical education. We want to return the Olympics to the athlete, we want to return sports to the athlete. We aren't just trying to get a one-shot, one-week show from our Olympics, we're tying our whole future to it."
The proposed winter training center also would enable Lake Placid to become one of three or four alternating Olympic sites if the IOC ever makes the wise and inevitable decision to hold the Games every 16 years at the same site. However, the 1980 Olympics alone will bring an economic windfall to the area. Northern New York State has long been a depressed region; Lake Placid's own Essex County had the terrible unemployment rate of 16.6% last year.
A study on just what economic impact the Olympics might have on the region was concluded recently by a group of professionals at the state college in Pittsburgh. Among other things, they predicted that the Games themselves, through construction expenditures and tourism, will bring nearly $32 million flooding into the area in the next six years. And after the Olympics, the survey predicted, another $30 million will be generated over the next 10 years by tourists, competitors and athletes training at the facilities.
In all, it seems the IOC has done a right, and very bright, thing in selecting the little town in the Adirondacks for the Games in 1980, if for no other reason than that it was always considered inevitable by the North Country Boys of Lake Placid. As Luke Patnode says, "If we didn't get it this time, we'd have been trying for 1984 and '88, '92, '96 and 2000. We'd never stop trying, because God meant the Olympic Games for Lake Placid, and God meant Lake Placid for the Olympic Games. Sooner or later, it could not be avoided."
NESTLED COZILY in the Adirondacks, Lake Placid's Olympic setting puts every venue within 8½ miles of town. Main sites are the Mount Van Hoevenberg Recreation Area (A), the town (B) and Whiteface Mountain Ski Area (C) Spotted around the valley are sites for biathlon (1), Nordic events (2), bobsled and luge runs (3), indoor curling rink (4), ski-jumping complex (5), speed-skating stadium (6), hockey and figure-skating arena (7), Olympic arena and convention center (8), Olympic Village (9), International Olympic Committee headquarters (10), restaurants, shops and public housing (11) and the Alpine ski areas (12).