The official proclamation describing the new Olympic Village at Lake Placid fairly rings with optimism. Not to mention idealism, goodwill and a heaping of old-fashioned boosterism. It speaks of "comprehensive facilities, coupled with attentiveness to detail and optimum service" so that the place will be remembered as congenial. It also looks forward to "...one of the best Olympic Villages in the history of the Winter Games.... On January 28, 1980, the Olympic Village will open its doors to athletes and officials from nearly 40 countries of the world. The primary goal of the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee is to insure a happy, memorable visit for these world class athletes, to create a home away from home."
If all this sounds suspiciously like a hard sell for happiness, perhaps it should be said that what the 12-page document fails to make clear at any time is that this bit of heaven-sent Olympic real estate is, in fact, a jail. And around this jail a revolt, unprecedented in Olympic history, has broken out. In fact, a growing number of teams refuse to be incarcerated there.
The Village cost some $49 million to build, the funds coming from the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide a future minimum-security facility for first-time offenders. One measure of the weird tenor of the times is that security precautions for keeping would-be escapees inside such a prison are almost exactly the same as security precautions for keeping would-be terrorists out of an Olympic Village.
The facility lies seven miles west of Lake Placid on 48 acres of land. It is—again quoting the relentlessly upbeat proclamation of the LPOOC—laid out according to "a campus-like design [which] complements the graceful mountain peaks which surround the sheltering forests in which the site is situated." There are 14 buildings of muted-yellow brick, most of them curving in a serpentine shape and arranged, indeed, to resemble a college campus.
April 9, 1979
The Village has 937 "sleeping rooms"—later to be known as cells—which will be occupied by either two or four Olympians. The rooms have bunk beds, wardrobe and equipment lockers and a writing table and chair for each occupant. There is also a towel bar, a sink and a mirror. The majority of the rooms have one window, a tall, narrow aperture that isn't barred, but has a steel rod running down the middle of the glass to discourage escape—or, in the case of Olympic terrorists, entry. The windows are 8'10" high and 15" wide, and there is some question as to whether or not they can be opened. There also are a number of rooms that have no windows at all. The doors are made of heavy steel with small peep-windows that will be used by prison guards in the Village's next life.
The rooms are arranged in two tiers around a large, brightly decorated and carpeted "leisure area." There are sofas and banquettes, and by next winter each of these 20 or so areas will be equipped with vending machines, television sets, games and other entertainment devices. Although the rooms are tiny to the point of incipient claustrophobia—about 10' by 10'—there is an aura of pleasing spaciousness in the lounges. Toilets and community showers are down the hall.
The "campus" is agreeable enough, although it is surrounded by two 12' concentric chain-link fences set 20' apart. The fences will be electrically sensitized; if anyone touches them, alarms will sound in a guard station at the Village entrance. The perimeter will be lit by night and, according to Lake Placid officials, "specially trained teams will be available around the clock to respond to any attempted penetration."
The only entry to the Village will be through a double gate kept under a rigid surveillance system. One must present a credential first at an outer gate in Building C. He will then be allowed to proceed while the gate is locked behind him. He next advances through an inner gate in Building Q. Besides the gates and visual examination by guards, there will be an electronic screening system consisting of three metal-detecting arches.
Also planned are a recreation center with a discothèque, "live disco superstars" and dancing lessons, two theaters, a weight room and snack bar and a shopping center. A swimming pool, massage rooms and a gymnasium will be available at a community college three miles away. There will be more than 250 TV sets in the public areas throughout the Village, daily maid service in the rooms, and the cafeteria will be open 24 hours a day. For all this, the national sports federations are to be charged $27.50 per day per athlete. (An estimated 2,000 athletes are expected to take part in the Games.) To hear the Lake Placid hosts rave about the Village, the accommodations would be cheap at thrice the price.
Unfortunately, almost no one else has joined in singing the committee's hymns of glory. Quite the contrary.
During this winter's pre-Olympic competitions at Lake Placid—in which all of the competitive venues received high marks—foreign athletes and officials were given tours of the Village. At first there was only isolated grumbling—an Austrian downhiller here, a Finnish ski jumper there complaining about the cramped rooms and the penitentiary atmosphere. But the protest grew. Now it seems that each Olympic nation is trying to outdo the other in the ferocity of its denunciations.
Gianfranco Cameli, a member of the Italian Olympic Committee, toured the Village, then fired off a report to Rome: "After four years of hard training we cannot expect competitors to live in such a lousy place. The rooms clearly show what they are meant for. Two persons cannot be in them. If two stay inside with the door closed for privacy, they'd feel as if they were in prison—suffocating. It is impossible for anyone with heavy winter gear to squeeze into the tiny rooms. If they open the door, whatever they do is done before dozens of strangers."
An official spokesman for the Swedish Olympic Committee said bluntly, "The facilities are rotten, to say the least." The veteran West German ski racer Christian Neureuther told a reporter: "We are not spoiled and we had all heard about this Lake Placid prison before. But we didn't expect how bad reality turned out to be." Tsuyoshi Miyakawa, a member of the Japanese Olympic Committee, said, "The Village facilities are the worst I have ever seen. Standing in the middle of a stark plain, the Village is a really lonely place."
Dr. Peter Pilsl, the secretary general of the Austrian Olympic Committee, said that the tiny rooms might be in violation of the International Olympic Committee policy on accommodations. Said Pilsl, "In his book on the administration of Olympic Games, Lord Killanin himself asks that a single room in an Olympic Village should have at least 10 square meters, a double room 15, and a triple 20. In Lake Placid, the double room with double bunk beds has nine square meters, and a room for four—something Lord Killanin did not even mention—is not much larger. And quite a few of these rooms do not have windows. It is enough to give you claustrophobia. I have been told that when the Village is converted to a penitentiary for young criminals, the double rooms will all become singles. The lawbreakers will be much more comfortable than our athletes."
Johan Schonheyder of the Norwegian Olympic Committee was asked his first impression of the Village and uttered one word: "Shocking." He then recovered to add several more. "One has built a prison and invited the world's best winter athletes to live in it for three weeks," he said. "Well, I am personally in favor of constructing buildings that can be of use afterward. Lake Placid was granted the Games, I guess, for precisely the reason that one should do them as cheaply as possible, and one needed a juvenile jail, and so they killed two birds with the same stone. I do have a certain sympathy for Lake Placid. We will, however, rent on our own two villas in the vicinity of Lake Placid. These villas will cost us a total of $30,000, but we must have a place where our active sportsmen and women can go to relax in different and, above all, spacious environments."
As more and more officials toured the Village, there was a steadily increasing rush by various national federations to find their own accommodations. The Swedish committee rented four houses for a total of $52,000 and may rent one more. The Italians rented two houses; one will sleep 20, the other eight. The West Germans and East Germans also are going elsewhere, and the Austrians are said to have bought a block of apartments for $150,000, which they will sell after the Olympics. Other nations are shopping for houses.
The unexpected boom in real estate has created a climate of avarice in Lake Placid. It seems most threatening to local low-rent, no-lease apartment and shop renters. They fear that their landlords will evict them next winter, because an apartment that might rent for $250 a month in normal times will draw $4,000 for the Olympics. A number of the tenants who work as bartenders, chambermaids, clerks or waitresses have formed an organization called Renters Association of Concerned Citizens on Ousting Our Needed Services, whose members are trying to find some way of protecting themselves from being kicked out of their apartments during the Games. It is a nice touch, considering that the acronym is RACCOONS and the official Lake Placid Olympic mascot is a raccoon cartoon character. But there is no legal recourse, it seems, because most RACCOONS have no leases.
A few weeks ago the revolt over the Village produced yet another unprecedented act by the IOC. Ordinarily, a country must pay for Village accommodations for each athlete whether or not all are used. But not in 1980. Monique Berlioux, a director of the IOC, said, "This time the accommodations are so poor that delegations will not have to pay for them if they move somewhere else. However, security is another matter. Suitable security has been arranged for the Olympic Village, but teams living elsewhere will have to be responsible for their own security."
The warning on security did not even produce a pause in the angry rush to get out of the Village. Austria's Pilsl said, "Faced with the choice between a security risk and unacceptable living quarters which will affect our athletes' performance, we shall most likely choose the security risk."
In Italy, Milan's Il Giornale Nuovo played up the search for alternative housing, headlining one article THE ATHLETES "ESCAPE" FROM THE LAKE PLACID PRISON EVEN BEFORE ENTERING IT. The paper went on to note that in some cases rental housing wouldn't accommodate entire teams, however. "It will be interesting," the newspaper said, "to see which criteria the teams will follow in deciding the rotation of 'punishment' terms."
There will be no such rotation for the estimated 140 members of U.S. Olympic teams and their 60 coaches and trainers. They will stay in the Village. This is more than a show of solidarity on the part of the host nation, according to Bob Paul, director of communications for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "We always stay in the Village provided," he says. "We ask no questions." As for the revolt, "We have no reaction to it because we're not part of it."
Hank Tauber, the U.S. Alpine director, admits that facilities have been better at past Winter Games. The Lake Placid Village, he says, is, well, utilitarian. "The basic promise is that they feed you and give you a flat place to lie down," he says, "but I would recommend that we pick teams made up of emotionally strong and well-balanced athletes for this Olympics."
For his part, Lord Killanin seemed to be looking firmly the other way, merely noting that the federations had inspected the venues and pronounced them perfect. But then came the glimmer of a sly revolt from within his own ranks.
The IOC officials, a closed circle of doughty, blue-blazered and often over-aged gentlemen, will be staying at the Lake Placid Club, a tastefully elegant old mausoleum overlooking the lake. But the International Ski Federation's Marc Hodler, who is also an IOC executive, insisted last week that he was firmly determined to move into the Village, "in one of those windowless cabins where the air-conditioning noise is horrible, so that my quarters at the club will be available for athletes. They need all the rest they can get."
Moreover, Hodler said he will offer a motion at the forthcoming IOC meeting in Montevideo that other IOC officials also give up their rooms at the club for the bunk beds of the Village. "With the exodus of national teams from the official Village, and with IOC officials making their club quarters available, I think we can relieve most of the overcrowding in the future prison compound," he said.
Meanwhile, at Lake Placid the controversy has created conflict among other factions in the town that normally would stand well above such secular matters. In February, a group of 62 clergymen, most of them Protestant, sharply criticized the idea of using a prison as an Olympic Village as being "morally wrong" as well as "generally grotesque." Scarcely had this statement been released when the Senate of Priests and the Bishop of the Diocese of Ogdensburg, which includes Lake Placid, cracked back with its own declaration: "Concerning the sleeping quarters, some have objected that these will be rather small. We hope that the Olympic athletes and their coaches will be patient. Such an understanding attitude will promote a spartan spirit which has been a tradition among athletes since the beginning of the Olympic Games.... At least the quarters will be warm and safe and the services will be adequate."
All of which leaves it up in the air as to exactly who stands on the side of the angels in this controversy—the prisoners or the Olympians.