Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 1980, the talk of the Adirondacks was the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. After years of preparation and anticipation, the games went off much as expected, with a few surprises. Paul Vincent’s prediction of American bobsled medals did not come true, and no one foresaw the U.S. hockey win over the U.S.S.R., in what came to be known as the Miracle on Ice.
Most people admire Paul Vincent’s optimism. He says bobsledders from the Adirondacks will win two Olympic medals this year.
Handicappers would rate that achievement a stunning upset, but despite the long odds the 28-year-old Keene Valley resident and his local teammates stand the best chance of any competitors from the region to capture honors on the home grounds. Vincent has been the top American driver in the World Four-Man Bobsled Championships the past two years, and his sixth-place finish in 1978 at Lake Placid is the closest any current competitor from the Adirondacks has come to international honors in any winter sport.
The 1980 Games will give Vincent an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong ambition and he is not particularly burdened by any added pressure to keep some of the Olympic hardware from leaving the area.
“This is why bobsledders compete seriously. An Olympic medal is something we all dream about.”
Dreams are what the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid are all about. For many people in the village and in the Town of North Elba, it is almost impossible to imagine that February 25 will ever come and the Games will be over. It has been more than five years since the October day in 1974 when the church bells rang and the sirens sounded, signaling to citizens that the International Olympic Committee, meeting in Vienna, had awarded the 1980 Games to the local organizing group. The successful effort capped two decades of trying, attempts that had been squashed repeatedly on the international level and even snubbed here in the U.S. Despite the failures, and the frustration of witnessing the Denver debacle and the refusal of Salt Lake City to take up the crusade, the local group persisted.
Sports Illustrated described the bid triumph this way at the time: “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.”
Then the motto was “an Olympics in perspective”; the projected budget was $30 million; and the controls were firmly in the hands of local citizens alone.
The motto still exists today, but the perspective has certainly broadened from what the sloganeers had in mind at the start; the budget covers most of the same ground but the figures will have stretched by six times or more by the end; and the controls, once jealously guarded, have been diminished and sometimes surrendered outright as the requirements of hosting an international event of Olympian magnitude became more complex and specialized.
Despite all, Lake Placid has defied the doubters. The village of fewer than 3,000 permanent residents will host the world, the Games will occur on schedule, and barring an incredible collapse or natural disaster, they will be a success. The village and the region will bask in the spotlight of international attention, many residents will benefit financially, the area will inherit matchless winter sports facilities, and at least one individual will depart the scene with a global reputation as an event manager.
Petr Spurney can’t lose. Summoned in the fall of 1978 at a time when Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee’s problems with budgets had been trumped by a touch of scandal, the 45-year-old engineer was given the title “general manager” and carte blanche to take charge of all Olympic planning and operations.
Spurney is a pro, and at $100,000 per year plus incentive clauses, he is paid like a pro. A kind of project Palladin who can manage and will travel, he earned his spurs by drawing the 1974 Spokane World’s Fair and the American Freedom Train of the Bicentennial out of the organizational quicksand.
The general manager has his fans and his detractors in Lake Placid and he is required to work with folks on both sides of the fence each day. Even those who don’t like him, however, credit Spurney with one achievement: he has become a lightning rod for local criticism, which has served to diminish some of the intramural bickering that went on before his arrival.
“Finally we have somebody to blame it on,” one key LPOOC member says, only half facetiously.
Spurney has been around long enough to develop a tough skin and an ability to duck the bricks flying in his direction. “As long as there is money and time, there are no problems. However, when these become tight, efficiency is the question. Under the circumstances, some people groan and achieve. Other people can’t take the pressure,” Spurney says.
“There has never been a total realization that outsiders are necessary to help stage the Olympics. This has always been a community project and an important element in the future of the entire area. It is dear to people’s hearts, and sharing the responsibility was a major decision.”
When Spurney was recruited and hired, he came in not as a project fireman but as the chief of a fire department. It was clear in his mind that somebody had to be boss. Before agreeing to come, he insisted on terms which gave him that authority, and immediately upon arrival he asserted his managerial prerogatives.
Jack Wilkins is a wealthy Lake Placid businessman who has prospered over the years by knowing how to get things done. In the process, he has built a considerable reputation and bank account, principally through his dealings in insurance and real estate. When Olympic affairs were solely in local hands, he was an obvious choice to head the immensely important marketing committee, the group being counted on to raise the money to finance the administration of the Games.
By the fall of 1978 Wilkins had become a center of controversy. First there was the question of an insurance contract issued to a firm just established by two of his nephews. In a small village, conflicts of interest are so common—even inevitable—that no one paid much attention to the matter locally, but it created a major stir outside the area, particularly in Washington. Eventually that contract was approved, and on a subsequent contract the nephews came in with the low bid. But the damage had been done. Then there was a dispute over the amount of money that had been raised by the marketing committee.
Petr Spurney fired Jack Wilkins. If nothing else, Spurney gave everyone a quick course in muscle-flexing, and it worked. Fair or not, the Wilkins firing gave the world outside the village the impression that the new man was quickly getting down to business and cleaning up things. Fair or not, the Wilkins firing was seen as evidence that things were changing in Lake Placid; implicit in change was the notion that things were getting better.
LPOOC Vice President Art Devlin, a Spurney supporter and a Wilkins friend, has a somewhat puckish view of what happened and why: “When Spurney sat down with the Organizing Committee for the first time, he looked around the room and sized us all up. He saw that Jack Wilkins was the only one of us who was smarter than he was, so Petr got rid of Jack.”
Devlin, a man in his 50s who could pass for 20 years younger, was an Olympic team member four times and now operates a motel in Lake Placid. Through his contacts with ABC television he has been involved with the Games as a commentator since 1964. He is not one to confine his remarks to ski-jumping.
Of Spurney, Devlin says, “He has the image and we needed it. He’s comfortable around Washington, he has experience; and he has a stake in making things go well. He’s a freelancer who knows that his next assignment will depend on how well he does here.
“All of us from town grew up together, we have been working together and we are going to live together after the Games. He’s from outside. We weren’t all his friends. He could fire people. That’s important. The Olympics is not a club, it’s a business operation.”
The flip side of that view is expressed by another member of the LPOOC’s executive committee:
“Spurney has the power to do anything he wants. If it succeeds he can take the credit. If it fails, he can claim he was brought in too late. He has the final say over everything. But we are the ones who will have to live with the effects of his decisions long after he is gone.”
The debate over the virtues of the general manager sometimes obscures many of the very real problems that have been faced in preparing for the Games.
Few events in the world are as involved or complex as the Olympic Games. No campaign, coronation, or convention offers a greater challenge to organizational skill, imagination, initiative and, most of all, perseverance. The summer Games are larger, but so are the host cities. Organizers of the winter Games must contend with the additional problems of remote locations and severe seasonal weather.
If the Olympics were only a sports competition, it might be different. But the Games are more than games. International politics and protocol are involved, the finances are staggering, the planning and operational concerns are enormous, every twitch is examined under the microscope of the media, and, finally, there are the athletes and the events themselves.
Incongruous as it seems, the competition is the easiest part to prepare. This is certainly the case in Lake Placid, where everyone involved on the Committee and among the nations seems pleased—or at least not displeased. By the time the Olympics begin, each one of the sites will have been used for an international event at least once during the previous year. As a test of the facilities, these trials have served their purpose well; overall, the facilities have earned top marks. Where there have been problems, as with the refrigeration balance on the luge run, the trial has provided time to correct the difficulty.
For each event, there is a chairman, a local person who has been involved with the sport or with organizing sports competition for years. If Lake Placid can point to one thing distinguishing it from all other places in the country and perhaps the world, it is the remarkable number of residents who are internationally certified or recognized as experts in one winter sport or another. With this talent and expertise to draw on, plus the contacts these people have with others in their sports, it has been a comparatively trouble free task to line out the requirements for international competition.
Ray Pratt, a former Lake Placid High School teacher and coach, is sports director for LPOOC. It is no surprise that he is bullish about his events chairmen. “These people just fall into the job naturally. They are the ones who have been carrying the ball in winter sports in this community for many years.”
Handling the downfield blocking for these local ball carriers have been the state and federal governments, which have poured more than $100 million into the improvement of old sports facilities and the construction of new ones. Thanks to the folks in Washington and their Economic Development Administration, Lake Placid has a new Fieldhouse with North American and international-sized ice rinks and spectator seating for 8,000; the old 1932 Arena has a new roof and improvements inside; the speed-skating oval, now that it has its own separate refrigeration system, is considered so fast that many are predicting a rash of new world records in February; the luge run is the only one in this hemisphere; and the ski jumps, concrete intruders on the Adirondack landscape, are considered by many the best and safest in the world. From Albany and the citizens of New York have come the improvements at Whiteface Mountain, most notably the extensive snowmaking system which will guarantee Olympic conditions for Olympic events and afterwards; and the work at Mt. Van Hoevenberg on the cross-country and biathlon trails and the bobsled run.
And so athletes, officials and spectators at the sites and around the world will know who won and how fast, an ultra-sophisticated system of timing, results and scoreboards have been installed. Assuming everything works—and since there is a computer back-up for every computer operation, there is at least a fighting chance it will—up-to-the-second standings will be tabulated and leaders posted almost the moment each competitor crosses the finish line.
Finding out who’s doing what during the events at Lake Placid should not be difficult. Sorting out what’s been happening during the five years of preparation for the Games is more difficult. Progress has not always been smooth and when the stumbles have come to light, reports in the press have often been painful for local residents.
One long-time observer of Winter Olympic developments likened the relationship of the press to the Organizing Committee with that of a mosquito to an elephant: “It doesn’t stop the beast but it sure can pester it, distract it, and slow it down.”
A major difficulty for people in Lake Placid is the realization that if the new Fieldhouse stands up, there isn’t any news; it’s supposed to do that. But if someone says it may fall down, that’s news and is reported. People in town grouse that all their best efforts go unnoticed, while attention is given only to the unusual or the abnormal. The press would argue that the latter is what often defines “news.” It is a definition that doesn’t sit well with those who believe they have worked hard and honestly to see a dream come to life but now must suffer while reporters overlook achievement and concentrate only on the shortcomings.
“It’s very difficult when people never read anything nice about themselves,” says one Olympic official, over-stating the case but perhaps not the morale problem.
The Organizing Committee does have a department to deal with the press, but controlling the flow of information to the media is an impossible task. In Lake Placid, just about any discussion, no matter how private, is generally grist for conversation on “the street” that same day. And most people in the village have an opinion on every topic and are willing to share it for the asking—or even without.
“The problem here is that everyone likes to talk. They just don’t like to see what they say in print,” says one observer of the local scene.
The press is the most obvious, the most convenient, and the most direct method of getting the message of Lake Placid out to the world at large. The message being sent, however, is not always what the townspeople had in mind. An article last summer, focusing on purported greed in the local housing market, earned one New York Times reporter the lasting enmity of many residents. William Oscar Johnson of Sports Illustrated is still viewed with suspicion for his characterization of the village as a “seedy little town.” That happened four years ago, but many people still remember it, despite the fact Johnson has written a great deal on the Olympics since, much of it favorable to Lake Placid. Another “outside” journalist was called “a liar” by an LPOOC member during a television interview.
While there have been several such low points, those in Lake Placid who have had the broadest experience with the press in the past generally give it good marks overall. If there has been one source of regular discomfort, it has been the Adirondack Enterprise, the Saranac Lake–based daily published by William Doolittle. Some people in Lake Placid cite the historical antipathy between the village and Saranac as the cause of the tough treatment; others point the finger at Doolittle himself; while still others maintain that the Enterprise, because it is local and because the Olympics is a major story, just devotes more time and attention to the project. And constant companionship can lead to annoyances.
As if to underline the latter point, one reporter who has covered the local scene for some time, and in the process come in for a share of the criticism, says, “After years of talking to the same people and writing about the same people, the Olympics has just become pretty tiresome.”
If the press is an occasional headache, then Olympic planning and operations is a full-scale migraine. It is transportation, housing, communications, security, services and supplies—all those issues ancillary to the competition but essential to the Games. These have caused the thorniest problems.
“The paperwork alone is enough to stop the Games,” says Bob Allen, an LPOOC executive committee member and manager of the North Elba Park District whose Arena office has been in the middle of a construction site for the past year.
As with all large-scale productions, there have been retreats and snafus along the way. There are time-consuming trivia, too, such as the meetings and memos on the environmental impact of the three ice-sweeping Zamboni machines. But despite the sometimes stuttering progress, there has been movement on all fronts and almost everything that can be planned has been.
Which is not to say there won’t be problems. One area of major concern is transportation. The combination of remote location, only three principal access roads, and the time of year, make any plan something less than surefire. In the end, success will be measured not so much by the absence of trouble—which is inconceivable but by how quickly changes can be made once flubs and flaws are spotted.
The key is how efficiently a parking and shuttle system from Wilmington, Saranac Lake and Keene will move people from private and public transportation to the various sites of competition. Can spectators come into the area, connect with local transportation, and arrive at venues in time for the competitions, some of which begin before 10 a.m.? The answer, of course, is: not in all cases. The roads, the parking, the transfers, the traffic, the ticket checking, and, of course, the weather—any of these, alone or in combination, will prevent smooth, trouble-free operations. Knowing all the ingredients and preparing contingencies will reduce the difficulties. But the problems are inherent in the situation. The crucial issue will be keeping them to a minimum. Despite the predictable criticism of such a move, the marketing of a large share of the tickets through tour agents was a major step in helping to avoid some of the difficulties which would have been created by unlimited use of private vehicles.
Traffic from outside the area is just one category of transportation concern. There are the residents, Olympic officials—at least 13,000 in the “official family”—and a variety of service suppliers who must also be able to move about. Special stickers will permit local and Olympic vehicles to travel area roads, and a system of one-way traffic should help the flow. Suppliers, from beer distributors to refuse collectors, face certification procedures and travel restrictions requiring that most deliveries to stores, shops and restaurants must be done at night.
Sleep will be a precious commodity during the two weeks of the Games, says one local restaurant owner.
“I expect to be operating 24 hours a day during the Games. Just about every place within walking distance of the center of town is making plans to handle customers all day long. And without rushing anyone, we should be able to turn over the dining room at least three times a night. Rather than closing afterwards, we will be busy, cleaning up and stocking up, getting ready for the next day.”
There is at least one special group of visitors whose possible concerns about transportation, or dining, or anything else for that matter, will be the worries of others. The International Olympic Committee is the royalty of the Games, and where there is rank, there is privilege. The IOC has an enormous handbook which dictates how an Olympics must be run and it comes as no surprise that in establishing the pecking order, the nine-member international board perches at the top of the list. For instance, when the IOC meets in February at the Lake Placid Resort Hotel, its headquarters during the Games, the nature of the arrangements is so detailed that even the order of seating is carefully prescribed. The shape of the table must be such that no member sits facing the back of another member, and the delegates must be seated in a specific order determined by the date each individual was first elected.
At least IOC procedures are laid out in print. When it comes to national officials or visiting royalty, ad hoc decisions are sometimes required. Where to seat Idi Amin is a problem Lake Placid won’t have to face, but it drove planners at Montreal dizzy for a time in 1976 until the former Ugandan dictator cancelled his plans to attend the Summer Games.
In charge of sorting out who gets what and when is J. Stephen Stanton, Director of the Division of Protocol for the LPOOC. He is a former Rockefeller administration official who served as New York State’s representative in Europe; his regular business now is marketing health care packages in the Middle East.
Protocol, he says, is easy. “Courtesy and common sense always work well. A little creativity helps too.
“If arrangements appear to pair people whose proximity would be awkward, it is always possible to in-vent an aide or a security person to sit between the two.
“But it is impossible to please everyone. No doubt somebody will complain about crummy accommodations, no matter how good the lodging actually is. We can’t spend much time worrying about it because there is nothing we can do. Besides, there are crummy hotel rooms in every country, so people will have to live with it here, too.”
When not engaged in defending the reputation of local hotel rooms, Stanton will oversee a large organization that includes operations as diverse as relaying the Olympic torch from Greece to Virginia and up the East coast to Lake Placid; certifying and providing credentials for people who must have access to either the area or the events; arranging for the opening and closing and the awards ceremonies, with all the attendant pageantry; and staging the National Fine Arts Program, a $1.5 million IOC-mandated program of exhibitions, events and performances that will take place throughout the area during the time of the Games. Stanton’s group will take care of cut flowers in the hotel rooms of IOC members and make sure the music at the opening ceremony is played at precisely 128 beats a minute, among other incidental functions.
Coordinating the assignments of all the people involved is one thing. Finding them a place to live is another. Of all the organizational problems faced by the planners, the housing issue is the one that may never be satisfactorily, or perhaps even minimally, resolved. The situation is so tight that an expected visit by Jimmy Carter has local officials wringing their wrists. No one knows how many people will accompany the President and where those people can be lodged upon arrival.
Hotel rooms, even certifiably crummy ones, have long been reserved by the LPOOC itself. Olympic officials, critical support personnel, and the press were more then enough to gobble up all available space in what any reasonable person would agree is “the Lake Placid area.” The big bedrooms of New York City and Montreal aren’t much use to the person required to be in Lake Placid daily.
Even if the American Broadcasting Company and its union relent and permit more than one person per hotel room, the shortage of beds for critical personnel will likely be as high as 2,000 or more. The crunch comes in handling the estimated 1,700 to 2,500 volunteers who handle all sorts of chores, from ski patrol and trail maintenance at Whiteface to weather monitoring and ski checking at Mt. Van Hoevenberg.
One aspect of the housing question which was resolved a long time ago, but which has persisted as an issue, is the athletes’ village—also known as the federal prison in neighboring Ray Brook.
The customary solution for housing athletes at the Olympics has been for host cities and countries to build apartment dwellings which later serve as low or middle-income housing. These developments are inevitably criticized by some team officials and athletes as too small, too crowded, and too uncomfortable.
Lake Placid, with no visible demand for additional housing on the Olympian scale in post-Olympic years, came up with a different approach.
With area congressman Robert McEwen leading the interference in Washington, planners landed the correctional facility.
The prison is generally defended on three levels: it is modern, close by, and, with some temporary units added, large enough to accommodate the number of athletes and officials on hand; it offers built-in security arrangements, which are an essential part of any post-Munich Olympics; and after the Games, it will provide steady employment for local residents without sticking the area with a big surplus of vacant housing.
Plausible as those arguments may be, the prison remains controversial. The critics don’t want a prison or anything like it in Lake Placid at all. The loftiest of the opponents argue on the basis of physical incompatibility—that the spirit and nature of the Olympics is contrary to the idea of incarceration and punishment. Some attack the plan on the grounds that prisons should be located near metropolitan areas where—presumably—most criminals come from. Then there are those who simply don’t like the idea of prisoners’ families coming into the area in the future to visit inmates. And there will always be some team officials and athletes who will find the facility too small, too crowded, and too uncomfortable.
Lake Placid insurance man Harry Fregoe carries the title “Mayor of the Village.” Like all mayors, he is a defender of his turf.
“We are building an athletes’ facility which will be converted after the Games to a correctional facility. People react negatively when they first hear of our plan, but when they visit us, they are surprised. This isn’t like the prisons in the old movies.”
Olympic planners like to characterize the village as a hotel accommodations approach—small sleeping quarters with shared large common social areas. For the athletes during the Games, these lounges will have modern furniture, televisions and other recreational apparatus. In the compound or available nearby are physical training and exercise facilities, personal services such as a post office, barber shops and currency exchanges, and a discotheque and nightclub with a full schedule of entertainment.
“No matter what we do or provide, some people will never be satisfied,” Fregoe says. One important group apparently satisfied was the International Olympic Committee. The IOC formed an ad hoc committee to review the facility last spring and in June gave it high marks as an athletes’ village.
“If we didn’t have the prison, we would have to build something like it,” says another Olympic official, hardened to the protests.
With athletes and officials from 38 countries housed in one spot, feeding is a major chore. During the Games, the main dining area at the village will be open 24 hours a day with an around-the-clock buffet available for the taking. The breakfast, lunch and dinner periods will each be five hours long and the main meals, each featuring five entrees, will be served both at midday and in the evening to accommodate the different dining habits of the various nations. Rice, noodles and pasta will be served at every meal, and there will always be soup at breakfast. While there will be no alcohol served officially, individuals will be allowed to bring in their own beverages. Teams can also bring their own chefs if they wish—and even their own food, if they can manage to get it through U.S. customs.
Hotel accommodations may be unavailable and the athletes’ housing controversial, but the question of private rentals has made local residents bristle.
One innocent soul purchased a home on Mirror Lake for just over $80,000 two years ago. Much to his astonishment, three days later he found himself staring at an offer of $45,000 for the two-week period of the Olympics. But such incidents have been more the exception than the rule. Most rental deals involved owners of large homes and major corporations needing quarters to house a substantial staff in the village during the Games. A lot more local people expected to cash in on the opportunity. Most have not and never will.
“Anyone who hasn’t sold or rented is damn mad,” says one local resident. “But the boom will end. Anyone who can come up with $75,000 can take their pick of property in town in 1981.”
By far the greater excesses have come in the apartment rental market, where a number of people, most under 30 or over 60, have been faced with either drastic increases in rent or eviction from their quarters during the period of the Games. A group calling itself the Renters Association of Concerned Citizens on Ousting Our Needed Services—RACCOONS, as in the LPOOC mascot—was formed to draw attention to the problem. Even ministers in town have addressed their congregations on the subject, appealing for restraint in dispossessing tenants. But in the normally casual rental atmosphere of Lake Placid, where leases are usually not required, there isn’t much that can be done. As a result, a number of village residents will be on their own this February. In addition to what it says about opportunism and human nature, this development has a practical side effect. Many of the evicted tenants ordinarily work as bartenders, waitresses, and in other similar jobs, and they are being made homeless just at the time when their services are especially needed.
Although the tasks of the moment occupy most people, there are some who never lose sight of a fundamental issue: money.
“The first measure of success in our efforts will be if the Olympics pays all the bills,” says General Manager Spurney.
Town of North Elba Supervisor Jack Shea goes further: “If the Olympics are not fully funded, we won’t do it. Absolutely not!
“The Olympics are a project important to New York State and to the federal government. We can’t carry it alone, particularly when it comes to supporting these facilities after the Games. We are going to need help,” Shea says.
Although Lake Placid organizers have sometimes had to roll over and jump through hoops to get it, financial help has always been forthcoming during the development of the Games. But there have been disappointments as well. The New York State Olympic Lottery has failed to generate much excitement, and the money raised has been nowhere near the amount expected; in all likelihood, it never will be.
More puzzling is the failure of the village to be named an official U.S. Olympic Training Site, a designation that would open the door to subsidies in the years to come.
Despite television messages to the contrary, America does provide support for its athletes officially, or at least that is what Congress had in mind when it appropriated money three years ago for the U.S. Olympic Committee to develop national training sites. The USOC quickly named Colorado Springs as one such site and afterward moved its headquarters there. Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, was also named. That development frosts some in Lake Placid, who complain that the California facility is incomplete and in some areas even run-down.
Although the selection of Lake Placid was expected as early as 1978 and there has been continuing contact with USOC officials, National Committee Chairman Robert Kane says no official designation for the village is forthcoming immediately.
In this instance, most of the 1980 planners are willing to accept the blame for the lack of action, but they don’t necessarily cite the same reasons.
Says Shea: “We have been so damn busy with the Olympics, that we haven’t been able to go through the formalities of getting the training center.”
Art Devlin adds another dimension. “The federal government through EDA gave Lake Placid money for construction based on the idea of continued operations of the facilities beyond the Olympics. Our problem is that we haven’t yet learned how to be nice to the U.S. Olympic Committee. We haven’t courted their favor, so they haven’t moved too quickly in our direction.”
The International Olympic Committee hasn’t been overly sympathetic, either. According to another LPOOC executive committee member, the IOC at one point told the village planners to forget the training center designation for the time being and get on with the business of preparing for the Olympics.
Although there is nothing in hand, most people in Lake Placid believe that selection as a training center is only a matter of time, particularly since New York State, with its control of key facilities, is behind the project. There have already been informal assurances that the designation will come.
The prospect of continued subsidies warms the heart of Jack Shea and others. The hopes of some for personal prosperity, however, have failed to materialize.
“We simply overestimated the number of people who would be hired,” admits Shea.
One area resident who has observed the employment situation closely for some time expresses stronger views on the subject: “Local people haven’t gotten the jobs. There was a lot of work out there, but our residents weren’t getting it.”
Essex County unemployment figures seem to support that contention. During the height of the pre-Olympic activities last winter, the county’s out-of-work rate was 19 percent—as usual, the highest in the state.
The New York State Labor Department comes in for some criticism here. “They have done a very good job for people coming in from outside the area,” one Lake Placid native says. But a more widely held view blames the labor unions involved with Olympic contractors. The difficulty often takes the form of a classic Catch-22: To be hired for a job, a person must have a union card; to join a union, a person must have a job.
“To have the Olympics in your own backyard but to still be only on the fringe has been very disappointing to many young people in the area,” says one area anti-poverty agency employee. “This is particularly true for women. They haven’t fared very well at all. There are not many in an administrative capacity with the Committee itself.”
The employment issue has an element of the outsider-versus-local issue built in.
As one native says, “What bugs many of us the most is that we have been doing the work for years on a volunteer basis. Now people are being brought in and paid for doing the same thing. In many cases, these outsiders don’t get very tired or get their hands very dirty. There sure seems to be a lot of inspection tours.”
One form of inspection visit that hasn’t met expectations is tourism, although much of this was due to circumstances beyond any local control. Everyone in town points each spring toward the summer season and 1979 was expected to be a banner year. But the gas crunch in June and early July kept vacancy signs lit, and that meant trouble for many people. Things got better as the fuel shortage eased, but as one local merchant says, “You never make up for lost business.”
With the early summer trade off by as much as 50 percent according to some reports, the money doesn’t flow and seasonal workers find themselves without jobs. At one point, the mammoth Lake Placid Resort Hotel had only five guests registered and many on the staff were furloughed.
But area optimism has not been killed. Despite the setback, even the most disheartened predict a postGames boom in tourism. With one third of the U.S. population and two thirds of the Canadian population within a day’s drive of the area, that may well be a reasonable expectation.
“1932 turned Lake Placid from a sleepy winter village into an internationally known resort. 1980 will renew our facilities and our reputation,” says Jack Shea.
“Without the Olympics, we would just be an intersection on the highway.”
There is no question that by February Lake Placid will again be a household name around the globe. The combination of media exposure and improved facilities should serve the community’s mercantile interests well. And in addition to the expected designation as a training site, there should also be a steady stream of international activities hosted by the village in future years.
The bidding and hosting of major events, apart from the Olympics, is the province of the North Elba Sports Council, an advisory group to the Park District and the Town Board. All local sports groups are represented on the 45-member Council.
Kenyon Abbott, who owns a local trophy and awards business, is the current chairman of the Council. “Every sporting event is a convention. We look at each one as a business venture,” he says.
Another Council member is more specific. “We may lose $15,000 hosting a major championship, but the event will fill the community for two weeks, so everyone benefits. With the facilities, the contacts and the experience we now have, we should have a major international championship and be on network television at least once every year.”
That once-a-year schedule is at least two years from starting, though. Like the training center designation, the bidding for future winter championships has been temporarily lost in the shuffle. There are no major world events currently scheduled for the village in 1981 and none signed on for 1982 yet, either.
With so many facilities now in place, no one in the village seriously argues the merits of hosting future sporting events. Another venture that could have a substantially greater economic impact, however, is not universally welcomed.
The state legislature in Albany has taken the initial steps that may put the issue of casino gambling before New York voters in the next couple of years. A gubernatorial panel has advised limiting the opportunity for casinos to only four areas of the state, none of which is in the Adirondacks. If the question does come up for a vote, however, there is a strong likelihood that home district pressures will encourage the legislature to expand the number of places allowed to develop casinos if approved by local referendum.
“Sure, we ought to have legalized gambling here,” says one lifelong village resident. “What do you think we’ve been doing all these years? We’ve been gambling on the Olympics.”
Twice in recent years, North Elba voters have turned down another form of legalized gambling, offtrack betting. But Roger Tubby, who heads the state’s Lake Placid Accommodations Control Corporation, sees casinos as having a much greater appeal than the horse parlors. “People’s view on casinos tends to reflect their station in life. The merchants and most businessmen will see opportunity in the proposal. The older people who fear the rising cost of living and the wealthy ones who picture a Lake George Village development will oppose it.”
General advantages and disadvantages aside, casino gambling may be the only hope for the Lake Placid Club. Begun in the 1890s, the once elegant private club overlooking Mirror Lake is a dinosaur today. Despite efforts to spruce it up and open it up, including the recent change of name to the Lake Placid Resort Hotel, age has caught up to the 80-year-old facility. There are serious doubts that the tremendous cost of modernization could ever be recouped under the present circumstances, and the need for an overhaul can’t be postponed much longer. Despite its liabilities, the club is an institution in the village and its taxable real estate value alone is an enormous financial asset. It would be ideal as a casino, adding a sense of style to legalized gambling that is missing elsewhere in the United States. But the 1980 Games may be its last hurrah as a hotel pure and simple.
The Club isn’t the only thing that may be used up by the Games. The 1980 Olympics is the product of the “generation of 1932,” a group of Lake Placid residents who grew up with memories of the earlier event and who have been the leaders for more than 25 years in the effort to bring it back to the village.
Stan Benham, Bunny Sheffield and the late President of the LPOOC, Ron MacKenzie, all devoted their energies and talents towards bringing back the Games but did not live long enough to see it happen. MacKenzie’s death in particular robbed the community of its most visible and respected sports leader. “He was our symbol of dignity,” says one committee member. Of the others who have been involved for years, the youngest are in their 50s, and it is unlikely any of these organizers would be centrally involved in future bids.
And almost inevitably, future attempts will be made. With costs soaring, the time will come very soon when only places with facilities in place already will be able to compete for the Games. That leaves Lake Placid as a member of a very small group of potential hosts, so it becomes only a matter of time until the Winter Olympics return.
“In 1954, when we didn’t get the ’60 Games, we were discouraged. But we didn’t quit,” says Luke Patenode, Essex County Publicity Director and a member of the LPOOC executive committee. “We felt getting the bid was inevitable. It just meant we had to stick with it. That’s what we will have to do again.”
Of the original group, Patenode is the most unabashed cheerleader for repeat Olympics in Lake Placid: “We should have a shadow organizing committee formed at all times. We should start bidding again in earnest for the 1992 Games, and we should be a strong contender at least by 1996. In any case, we should never wait another 40 years for the Games again.”
With the current leadership a mix of long-time local organizers and specialists from the outside who will move on after the Games, future Olympic efforts will have to be directed by people who have not been among the key organizers for 1980.
Serge Lussi is the youngest member of the present organizing committee. He is a native, a motel owner in the village, and chairman of the alpine events in 1980. By virtue of present involvement, he would be a logical candidate to lead future efforts. For a variety of reasons, however, it is unlikely he will emerge as head of a local organizing group. There are several others however whose names are mentioned as potential leaders among the younger group, people like LPOOC member Joe Brooks, an attorney; LPOOC Sports Director Ray Pratt; Chris Ortloff, who is coordinating the Olympic ceremonies; Jay Rand, manager of the ski jump venue; Tom Oddy, assistant to LPOOC President J. Bernard Fell; and Joe Lamb, a 1972 Olympian in the nordic combined and son of current LPOOC Executive Committee member Vern Lamb.
There are those in town who, for various reasons, do not believe that the younger group has the commitment and dedication necessary to organize another Olympics in Lake Placid.
But at least one person counters that pessimism by noting “it’s in the blood here. After all, who would have believed 20 years ago that Fells and Lambs and Devlins and Allens and Sheas and Hurleys and Patenodes could have pulled off an Olympics in 1980.”
Says Petr Spurney, “There will be an enormous amount of experience gained this year. Much of that will remain in town after the Games, so another try makes sense in the future.”
“I look at the 1980 Games almost as an apprenticeship,” says Jay Rand, an Olympic ski jumper in 1968.
Discussions of the future make for interesting hypotheses but the problems of the moment are much more pressing. And the difficulty that may take the heaviest toll locally is one which few have considered at all. It is the post-partum, that period following the Games when, for some, the ordeal of February will seem trivial in comparison with the inevitable depression that will set in once the Games are over, the crowds have departed, and the excitement of the moment has faded.
All projects run through cycles. They begin when a small, close group of crusaders sets a goal and reaches an early peak of temporary euphoria when the initial objective is met. The next stage is marked by confusion and some dismay as the initial group becomes operational by expanding, which brings with it a loosening of the reins, a delegating of some authority, and the loss of some personal contact. There is a second peak at the time of the trial or dry run, when confidence grows that the project can work. Almost immediately, this is followed by a letdown, marked by griping and slackened pace. This passes and is replaced by hard work arid determination as the ultimate goal comes into view. Then comes the flat-out, adrenalin-only effort during the event itself. What follows is an incredible psychological drop, a deflation that can be so severe it takes an extended period of time for “normalcy” to return.
So far, Lake Placid hasn’t strayed one centimeter from this pattern.
The small group formed in the ’50s worked closely for 20 years to get the Olympics and basked in the triumph of getting the bid in 1974 and seeing the ceremonial groundbreaking on the high school lawn in 1977. Then came confusion and dismay when the staff expanded, the personal contact diminished, and the organizational problems that led to the hiring of Petr Spurney. The success of the test events last winter brought spirits back to a peak, but the flush of enthusiasm waned with the crowds. The determination and hard work phase began in earnest as the “Flaming Leaves” figure skating event approached in September. By now, it has given way to the all-out effort of managing the Games.
The spring of 1980 will be tough for all involved. “It is a phenomenon that most can’t escape,” says one knowledgeable staffer who has gone through the experience before. “It’s like a prolonged hangover without having ever touched a drop.”
Roger Tubby recalls a similar experience from his days as a member of the Truman administration.
“It will be a lot like the letdown after an election day. Some problems are inevitable. But people will bounce back. The inner satisfaction of having hosted the Games will take over and there will always be future events to plan.”
Petr Spurney, who has survived at least two major projects with his psyche intact, agrees with Tubby.
“There will be an incredible sigh of relief sweep through the village when the Games end. By April, Lake Placid will be closed down tight as everyone gets away for rest and relaxation. And if the summer tourist season is as good as it should be, everyone who stays will be back to normal soon.”
At least one recent Olympics group, Munich in 1972, anticipated the letdown and handled it by requiring that everyone be back at a desk almost immediately after the Games ended. Work was assigned to keep people busy. As the days passed, the load was lightened gradually and the effects of the psychological aftershock were minimized. In Montreal in 1976, counseling sessions were organized to deal with the problem. Lake Placid has taken no formal steps in this regard and the only post-Game staff plan in effect now is a modest placement and job referral service.
Despite the constant and sometimes serious turmoil that has marked the planning, and despite the almost constant state of emergency for the Committee and the staff, the Games will succeed and Lake Placid will win out in the end. The operations will never be perfect and not every goal will be met. But the village will have its moment in the sun and the glow from that intense exposure will last for years.
Success is inevitable for many reasons: difficulties have been faced and overcome, facilities, particularly those for the competition, are acceptable, and the lead time has proven adequate to address most problems. But most of all, the Games will succeed because they won’t be allowed to fail.
While Lake Placid is carrying the banner, the state of New York and the federal government have a major stake in the event. Despite regular and repeated protestations to the contrary, they will rescue the organizers if serious difficulties remain near the end. The Soviet Union is hosting the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, and the Olympics are no longer solely a sports event. And it is a presidential election year.
Paul Vincent and his fellow Adirondacks teammates—driver Wade Whitney, Bob Hickey and Bill Lane, all from Keene, Brent Rushlaw from Saranac Lake and Howard Siler from Brushton—won’t have such a lifeguard on duty when they toe the mark at the top of the Olympic bobrun.
“But,” says Vincent, “If we get the practice we have been promised, I think we will do very well.” So will Lake Placid in hosting its Olympics.
For most local residents, the intensity of preparations has made it difficult to picture Lake Placid without an Olympics to prepare for. And even those who’d like to try will discover that their village has been irreversibly changed by the Games. Once the psychological aftershock passes, the sense of satisfaction will set in. For many it will be the boot-camp syndrome: it was an ordeal at the time but it will make for great stories ever after.