It was a preview of things to come in the winter of 1980, and in Lake Placid last weekend both questions and answers were afloat in the cold gray air. Could the faded resort village in the Adirondacks hope to stage a XIII Olympiad in the style of Winter Games past? Two years is precious little time. And could that Wisconsin collegian, Eric Heiden, continue to be a world-beater at speed skating, reappearing two Februarys from now to win all the gold medals?
The answers—well, some of the answers—were falling nicely into place for the 8,000 or so folks attending two major winter sports events in this quiet and remote Upstate New York setting. The world sprint speed skating championships were taking place on the brand-new refrigerated oval atop the football field in front of Lake Placid High School in the first major test of a finished Olympic facility. The two-man and four-man world bobsled championships (see following story) were rattling away at nearby Mount Van Hoevenberg.
The skating competition was not quite Olympian in either size or quality but it was strong enough, with 57 skaters from 15 nations. Most celebrated among them was Heiden, at 19 the reigning all-round champion, and his sister Beth, 18, both of them fresh from the world junior championships at Montreal, where they had swept every event, each taking home four gold medals.
The meet opened on a biting cold morning with light snow falling on a crowd of less than 1,000. Fittingly, the opening speech was made by Jack Shea, who during Lake Placid's tidy little Olympics of 1932 won two gold medals in speed skating. Shea spoke with pride about what had been accomplished at Lake Placid; it was something bordering on the miraculous, he said. And indeed, progress at the site has been little short of a miracle. From the start, skeptics have been sniping at the doughty village citizens who believe they can stage an Olympics. They have been nagged at by environmentalists and accused of sinister intentions to foul the air, water and woods with their construction of ski jumps, racing courses and parking lots. Often discouraged and sometimes outraged, the Lake Placid organizing committee has kept plugging along. And by last weekend, Jack Shea's talk of miracles had been echoed by Lord Killanin, president of the IOC. Killanin had toured the facilities, and when a member of the Lake Placid Olympic Committee asked him what problems he foresaw, the genial old pipe smoker said, "Gentlemen, I would say that you have conquered your greatest problems. You have made far more progress than anyone could have expected."
The new skating rink pretty much symbolized that progress. Although there were a few trivial criticisms—soft spots from sun reflections, the fences perhaps too close for the safety of falling racers, some dissent about the way shadows fell across it—most competitors felt it was a good, fast rink. Certainly it proved to be to the liking of the American team generally and to the Heidens specifically.
A sprint speed skating competition is slightly different from a classic overall speed skating championship. In Montreal, for the junior (20 and under) world titles, the Heidens had competed in four different events, at 500 meters, 1,000, 1,500, 3,000 (women) and 5,000 (men). The results were shattering, for never has an individual—either man or woman—swept all four events in that competition. For a brother and sister to do it in a single meet borders on the supernatural. In Lake Placid one of the questions was whether Beth, the 5'1", 100-pound junior, could hold her own with the big seniors. The sprint competition consists of two 500-meter races and two 1,000-meter races, with one 500 and one 1,000 to be skated on each of the two days of the event.
On the first day Beth raced furiously in the 500 and finished first in a satisfactory, but not overwhelming, 42.97 seconds. Behind her came Russia's 26-year-old Liubov Sadchikova in 43.32, with Connie Paraskevin, 16, of Detroit, third. In the 1,000 meters Beth weakened a bit and finished second to Kim Kostron, 21, of St. Paul, the women's world junior champion in 1977. When the first day's competition was over, Beth led by .65 of a second overall.
For those watching, it seemed impossible that this childlike mite could be threatening the finest female speed skaters in the world. She presents a startling contrast to the more classic bulky configuration of world-class women skaters, many of whom are built like defensive tackles. How can she excel in this game? Dianne Holum, who won a gold and a silver in the 1972 Olympics, coaches the two Heidens. Beth, she says, "is an all-round athlete. She was a diver and she is a runner and a cyclist. She gets maximum efficiency out of her strokes when she skates. She is extremely bright and she is constantly thinking about her form, her style, the efficiency of her skating."
On Sunday, Beth faded slightly in both the 500 and the 1,000, and in sprint racing that's enough: thundering up from behind came the big Russian, Sadchikova. She nipped Beth by .51 of a second in the 500, and by .82 in the 1,000. When all the intricate arithmetic was done, Sadchikova, whose profession is listed as "full-time professor of speed skating," had won the title by .18 of a second, shouldering Beth into second.
As for brother Eric, it wasn't even close. After the first day's competition, in which he skated a stirring 500 in 38.22 seconds and a 1,000 in 1:17.47, he was 1.98 seconds ahead of the runner-up, Terje Andersen of Norway. On the second day Eric turned in a sound 500 in 38.69—but a slight slip on one turn cost him an eyeblink of time, and Norwegian Frode Ronning cracked ahead of him in 38.52. But in the 1,000 Eric exploded in a powerful, punishing run, churning home in 1:16.52, the best performance of the meet. The championship was his, and another question had been answered.
By now the world is fairly well acquainted with the Eric Heiden phenomenon, but his success is still so new as to be worth reviewing. He did no better than 19th in the Olympic 5,000-meter race in Innsbruck in 1976 when he was 17. Then in the 1977 men's world championships in Heerenveen, The Netherlands, he stunned everyone by winning the overall title—the first American to do so in the 76-year history of the event. That year he also won the world sprints and world junior championships. At this point he is a superstar who is still ascending and he could rule speed skating for several years to come. Peter Schotting, the feisty Dutchman who is one of the American coaches, says, "He is now becoming a class of his own. He will not flash out, I think. Eric is a champion for some time to come, I think."
And what makes him such a phenomenon? Schotting says, "It is because of his commitment. He is very mind-strong. He is very confident because, after all, he has never had a defeat. He has continuously gone up and up, so he cannot believe he could go down. Mostly, though, he is this good because he works so hard. If I give the team the afternoon off, of their own choice most of them will take it. But I always know that I will see one lonely figure still working, running down a road to keep up his condition. And that will be Eric."
And so, with completion of this world championship, the questions about Lake Placid's Olympic facilities continued to be answered affirmatively. Though there could be snafus and crises aplenty in the days leading to and during the XIII Olympiad, at least the beginnings were well made. And as for the chances of the brilliant young Heidens to bring home the gold in 1980, for the moment at least there were no better bets in the country.