Olympic Flames?

by Alison Haas | August 2019

Considering the “what-ifs” in the wake of Notre-Dame

t is early in the morning,
a day after the Notre-Dame fire in Paris, and I can’t sleep. I can’t stop thinking about work. I’m the director at the Lake Placid Olympic Museum, where I’ve worked for 15 years, and I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights thinking about “what-ifs.” Right now it is: what if there were a fire?

One of my jobs is to protect all the things inside the museum, some 25,000 artifacts. We have an emergency plan, but I don’t know how anyone can be truly prepared for such a catastrophe.

People ask me all the time what my favorite item in the museum is or what I’d save first. I can never answer that. How am I supposed to decide?

I would be devastated if the archives were on fire—thousands of documents and photographs that tell us about our heritage. Letters that show the desperate pleas of townspeople to Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for more money to fund the 1932 Olympics so they could become the first U.S. site of the Winter Games. There are heartfelt letters tucked away in archival boxes from a Keene Valley bobsledder, Ivan Brown, who, with Alan Washbond, won the only gold medal for the U.S. at the 1936 Olympics in Bavaria. Brown’s love letters to his wife describe seeing flags of different nations flying in the wind at the opening ceremonies, seeing Adolf Hitler during the Parade of Nations, and dreaming about his wife and baby in the night. These words would be gone forever. 

I can’t stop thinking about the photographs: black-and-whites of the first winter, in 1904, that Lake Placid Club members scraped the ice to create their own skating rinks; volunteers at the ’32 Games feeding eggs and broth to cross-country skiers along the Clifford Falls trail; shots of Wilmington’s Jeanne Ashworth, the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic medal in speed-skating, in ’60, setting up a campsite below Whiteface Highway the night before she jogged to work at the North Pole theme park as part of her training. These images would disappear.   

Would I be able to grab all the oral histories that tell us about how a village came together twice to host the Games, and what it felt like for athletes to push themselves to the limits while the world was watching?  In one, you can hear Eric Heiden choke up as he recalls his memories of 1980 and how it felt to become the only athlete in the history of speed- skating to win five events in a single Olympic Games.

Athletes put their trust in the museum to protect their medals and keep them safe. Among them, Saranac Lake’s James Bickford, who won a bronze medal with his four-man bobsled team in 1948; Lake Placid’s Gordy Sheer’s 1998 silver medal that he earned at Nagano in doubles luge; Andrea Henkel Burke’s collection of four Olympic medals, including two golds for biathlon at Salt Lake City in 2002, the silver medal she won in Italy in 2006, and the bronze awarded to her in Vancouver in 2010. These medals were placed around their necks as the world watched, an accumulation of blood, sweat and tears. Their stories inspired, and continue to inspire, generation after generation. In a fire, would the medals turn to liquid?

I feel like I would let down an entire nation if I could not save the netting on the cage that captured the final goal when the 1980 U.S. Ice Hockey team defeated the Soviet Union. I would not be able to carry the weight of it alone—physically and emotionally. Aspiring hockey players would no longer be able to take photos in front of the “Miracle on Ice” hockey net.

Roni Raccoon, the official mascot of Lake Placid’s 1980 Olympics, brought spirit and humor to the ’80 Games as he mingled with fans from around the globe. Roni’s costume burning? That would be heartbreaking. I would want to run out of the museum wearing it. 

I’d even mourn the loss of a white plastic Frisbee with the vibrant logo of the ’80 Games in its center that spectators purchased and played catch with in backyards with their families. Then there are the beautiful prints and posters that trace the visual history of artwork created for each Games: French painter and designer Auguste Matisse’s tribute to the first Olympic Winter Games in 1924, featuring a golden eagle hovering above a bobsled team; Witold Gordon’s modernist design of a ski jumper soaring across North America, pinpointing Lake Placid on the map for the ’32 Games; and Robert Whitney’s abstract logo for the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, with its double cauldron from which the Olympic rings issue as flames. All of those up in smoke?

I love a pair of wings that 1980 Olympic torchbearers were given to wear around their ankles, paying homage to a Greek God as they carried the sacred Olympic flame from Olympia, Greece, to Lake Placid. I can only hope that someone else would acknowledge the importance of these items and grab them, because my hands would be full.

I would want to go back into the burning building for more things. Sonja Henie’s pink leather figure skates, Jack Shea’s 1932 Olympic speed-skating sweater emblazoned with the American emblem, the massive aluminum Olympic rings that athletes walked beneath as they marched into the Opening Ceremony in 1980, joining together in the spirit of friendly competition. I would want to save everything.

Am I comparing the Lake Placid Olympic Museum, a 3,500-square-foot gallery on the ground floor of the Olympic Center, to Notre-Dame? Not exactly, but maybe. Would our fire be the featured story of every media outlet around the world? Of course not. Our history is young in comparison, but does that make it less important? Not to me or the 40,000 visitors who tour the museum annually, and especially not to the Olympic athletes who come back to touch pieces of their lives.

I’d like to say that everything in the museum’s collection would get saved, but even with the best disaster plan in place, I know that’s not true. 

So, what if the museum went up in flames? It’s my job to think about this and that’s what keeps me up at night. Maybe because of the thousands of hours I’ve spent archiving, curating exhibits, and caring for the museum’s collections. But also because I know how the Olympics bring people together, and that every single one of these artifacts tells a story of hope, pride and how dreams come true.   

The Lake Placid Olympic Museum (2634 Main Street, in the Olympic Center), is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Learn more at www.lpom.org or by calling (518) 302-5326.

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