The class of the Nordic world was in Lake Placid last week, and for six bone-freezing days the little town's spruced-up Main Street was filled with wide-shouldered men and broad-backed women speaking in a variety of tongues. The occasion was the first major international competitions on the 1980 Olympic sites for cross-country skiing, jumping and the biathlon.
All week a record cold front threatened to overshadow the action. At one point the prize for manly animalism seemed to have been won by a giant bearded Finn named Juha Mieto, who raced the 15-kilometer cross-country course with bare hands on a 10-below-zero day. Mieto was later one-upped by Nikolai Zimyatov, a pale, glaring Russian who not only skied the course without gloves but was also reliably reported to have done it sans underwear.
There were also more standard heroics: a rangy Norwegian with a name fit for a medieval troll king—Oddvar Bra—won both men's cross-country races. And a muscular Soviet woman, Raisa Smetanina, who hails from the sub-Siberian village of Syktyvkar, where there is snow 300 days a year, won both women's races. Finland's Pentti Kokkonen, this year's star on the international circuit, finished second in the 70-meter jump and was so upset by failing to win that he scrambled over three snow fences in an attempt to evade the crowd. "His face was black like thunder," said an awed compatriot. Two days later Kokkonen's face reflected pure sunshine as he won the 90-meter jump.
Almost as impressive as the performances by these athletes was that of Lake Placid's hometown organizers. After months of doubt and doomsaying over the state of the 1980 Winter Olympics, no one would have been surprised if the events had been a frostbitten fiasco from start to finish. As John Bower, director of the U.S. Nordic team and a sometime critic of Lake Placid, said, "Nobody knew quite what to expect, and I think a lot of people, particularly the Europeans, had a pretty low level of expectation. But the meet was excellent in every respect. The facilities are fine, the organization of events was smooth and the efficiency was tops."
The cross-country courses, set among the birch and pine woods of the Adirondacks, proved to be first-rate both in design and condition. As for the jumps, the 15-story 70-meter and the 26-story 90-meter towers had long been referred to by environmentalists as "high-rise pollution." Indeed, they are perhaps less esthetically pleasing than technically perfect. Though their lines are clean and the architecture appears simple from a distance, they do look like gargantuan coal conveyors looming over the woods. The fact that they have been built side by side (as the environmentalists insisted) is a plus; in effect, it makes for one eyesore rather than two. But if one is interested in jumping from jumps instead of looking at jumps, there is no quarrel; they have been called the best in the world by experts.
The only serious setbacks that occurred during the meet were not man-made but heaven-sent: weather so biting and icy that even those practitioners of Nordic sport—who must be the toughest humans on earth—complained that it was too cold. They were right. Temperatures sank to—38° at night and rarely rose above zero.
The races were consistently delayed from scheduled early-morning starts so that the day might warm up enough to avoid wholesale frostbite. As it was, there were dozens of cases among racers. There was the danger of freezing eyelids if one didn't wear glasses to shut out the wind; but if one wore them, the glasses deflected the sub-zero air downward, resulting in frozen cheeks. One inexperienced young skier, who was an early starter and a late finisher, arrived with both earlobes frozen white and hard as pearls. The biathlon, which involves both crosscountry racing and target shooting, was frequently fouled because the friction caused by condensed moisture inside rifle barrels slowed the velocity of the bullets and affected shooting accuracy. As if that were not bad enough, competitors often pull off their gloves to shoot, and at Lake Placid they found their bare hands stuck to the rifles. One could picture the snow covered with frozen bullets. "What do you guys do in a real war?" asked one spectator.
Aside from the freaky cold, which Lake Placid boosters insisted was fluky, because it usually strikes in January, the competition proceeded without incident, and predictably. The double victory of Oddvar Bra was impressive but not amazing. Bra is currently leading the 1979 Nordic World Cup competition and, though he is only 27, has been in world-class competition for a decade. A farm boy from near Trondheim, he is a celebrity in his country, last year winning national titles at 15, 30 and 50 kilometers. At Lake Placid he won the 15-kilometer event in 43:36.39, an impressive 26 seconds ahead of Sweden's Thomas Wassberg. Bra's victory in the 30-kilometer two days earlier came in a respectable 1:26:05.41, with the gloveless and presumably underwearless Zimyatov in second place, 25 seconds back. Bra's domination of the Lake Placid events could well make him the overwhelming favorite to win an Olympic gold medal or two on the same tracks next February.
Billy Koch, the premier U.S. racer who won a silver medal at Innsbruck, did reasonably well. He finished eighth in the 30-kilometer and seventh in the 15, and in a field of this caliber these are commendable results. "I've been working for three years to peak at the Olympics," Koch says. "I'm happy with my results." He added that he had never raced in colder weather than at Lake Placid. On the downhill legs of the course, where racers hit speeds of about 30 mph, he had peeked through the fingers of a gloved hand held across his face to defend against frostbite. Between races, he tied a bandit's bandana over his chin.
In the women's races the Soviets continued their grand dominance. In the 10-kilometer, behind the magnificent Smetanina, who won an Olympic gold medal at Innsbruck and a silver medal at the 1978 world championships in Finland, came Galina Kulakova, 36, winner of seven medals in three Olympics. (Kulakova is so tough, said one Soviet journalist, that "she has stones in her veins.") Next were Nina Rotcheva and Zinaida Amosova to produce a U.S.S.R. sweep of the first four places. In the 5-kilometer the Soviet women were only slightly less overwhelming. Rotcheva was third behind Smetanina and the Swede Lena Carlzon-Lundback, followed by Kulakova in seventh and Amosova in eighth.
The U.S. hope, Alaska's Alison Owen-Spencer, finished a creditable 12th at 5 kilometers but was a dismal 20th at 10, largely because her skis were badly prepared; they had become slightly warped under the hot waxing iron. It was a sharp disappointment, because she had won a world-class race in Wisconsin last December and recently had twice finished in the top 10 against this same strong competition in Europe.
For the Americans, the finest hour came at the most dramatic event of them all, the 90-meter jump. The U.S. hero was Jim Denney, 21, a slim and shy accounting major from the University of Minnesota at Duluth. In a startlingly strong and polished performance, Denney produced the second-longest jump of the day, 112 meters, and displayed fine form in both leaps to finish third behind the moody Kokkonen and East Germany's Harald Duschek.
Denney's finish was his best in major competition, although he has leaped into the top 10 occasionally, and it was the best individual American mark in 15 years. It was all the more surprising for Denney, who is recovering from an attack of flu, because he had finished 26th in the 70-meter jump two days earlier, an event won by Peter Leitner of West Germany.
"I think the hometown crowd helped," Denney said. "There weren't all that many people, but they were Americans and you could feel their support." And apparently the crowd of some 4,000, largest for any event of the week, also boosted along another American. Chris McNeill, 24, of Polaris, Mont., came in ninth to mark the first time in memory that two U.S. ski jumpers have been in the top 10 of such a classy field.
Perhaps none of the events at Lake Placid can be read as reliable form sheets for the Olympics. Weather conditions will almost certainly be less chilling in 1980—no place could be that cold two years in a row—and the pressures will be more killing. But as for Lake Placid itself, unless the Olympic venues are buried in snow or sabotaged by a thaw—or stomped underfoot by the crowds—the 1980 Olympic Winter Games should be an efficient and happy operation.