Lake Placid will always have Olympic aura
It is the gift that keeps on giving.
The 1980 Winter Olympics happened 34 years ago. Most of the athletes who will compete in the Winter Games at Sochi, Russia next month weren’t born when the “Miracle on Ice” happened, and Eric Heiden scored his remarkable sweep of all five gold medals in speed skating. The alpine ski racing twins Phil and Steve Mahre have been AARP
eligible for several years now.
But every four years, the memory of Lake Placid comes alive once again. Part of it is just good fortune with memorable events — quick, name a highlight from the 2006 games at Torino — and part is the result of hard work by the Olympic Regional Development Authority which, since 1981, has been in the business of not letting the Lake Placid Olympic torch go dark.
The first Lake Placid Olympics were held in 1932. The Winter Games returned to Lake Placid in 1980 in large part because no one else wanted them. A local committee had been at work since the 1960s to get the games back to the Adirondacks as a way to re-invigorate the area where the glow of hosting the 1932 Winter Olympics had long since faded.
Chances of getting the games again anytime soon were considered pretty slim when Denver was awarded the competition for 1976.
But Colorado voters balked at hosting the games. Innsbruck, Austria, which was the site of the competition in 1964 and had Olympic-quality venues already in place, was given the games. So, International Olympic Committee, what to do about 1980?
There was Lake Placid ready and willing.
Now it is March, 1980. The games are over. Lake Placid, despite organizational snafus at the start, pulled off the competition and, with the help of New York state, came away without significant local debt. The events, led by hockey and the speed skating, were not only successful, but were magnificent. And because they were held in the U.S., most Americans got to see the competition on prime-time television. Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig became national heroes.
But what to do next? Once the competitions ended, the venues were turned back to the local Town of North Elba Parks District and the Olympic organizing committee, its work complete, was on to other things. There was no afterlife in place. No further international events were scheduled for the venues, and there was no significant organizational structure in place to carry on the legacy of the games.
But at least it was better than 1960 host Squaw Valley, Calif., where the cross country trails built on privately owned land had been turned back to the owners; where organizers, after getting the bid, never built the promised bobsled run; and where the hockey rink which had also hosted its own miracle-on-ice U.S. victory over the Soviets had deteriorated so badly that in 1983 it collapsed and the land was turned into a parking lot.
No. New York didn’t want that to happen to its investment and, in 1981, the Olympic Regional
Development Authority was created to manage and promote Olympic facilities. ORDA still plays that role today.
It hasn’t always been a smooth ride.
Lake Placid, like many small towns, isn’t especially welcoming to outsiders, especially those who come in to run things. There were difficulties with that before the 1980 games and the issue didn’t go away when Ned Harkness was named by the state to head up the newly created ORDA.
Harkness, as many local sports fans will recall, had extensive ties to the Capital District from his days as hockey and lacrosse coach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the 1950s to building Union College into a national power in hockey in the mid-1970s .
By the early 1980s, he was in Glens Falls, where he had turned a sleepy professional hockey town program and arena into a popular regional hot spot.
Harkness arrived at ORDA with a well-earned reputation for being a “my way or the highway” manager who got results by building a network of enthusiastic supporters and ignoring those who weren’t. He built programs, improved venues, attracted world-class events and enjoyed the support of legislators in Albany.
His greatest achievement was overseeing the construction of the Olympic Training Center which was dedicated in 1989. That facility has since cemented Lake Placid’s reputation as a national center for winter sports, allowing for athlete lodging and training year round and making international competitions possible at Olympic venues.
Although he was a never accused formally of any wrongdoing, Harkness left his position under a cloud of suspicion in the early 1990s. His legacy will always be the establishment of Lake Placid as a sustainable international winter sports destination.
Ted Blazer, then just 39 years old and whose executive experience was managing the Whiteface Ski Facility, was later named ORDA executive director. Blazer, who owned a bed-and-breakfast in Lake Placid, made up for his relative youth with exuberance for winter sports. He also understood that hosting competitions was not enough. It was very important to put heads in beds by supporting local tourism.
Twenty years later, Blazer remains ORDA director. He is well known in Albany, he is well known throughout Lake Placid, and he enjoys general public support for the job he has done keeping winter sports in the public eye.
He and ORDA have a tailwind, of course, with the Olympic tradition behind them. But it is more than just memorable events in the past and a menu of international competitions ever since. It is an organization that has worked hard and succeeded in keeping Lake Placid in the winter sports conversation throughout the world.
Think that happens automatically? Check out Nagano, host of the 1998 games, or Torino, Winter Olympics host in 2006: empty venues and nothing going on.
And Squaw Valley? It is a wonderful ski area, but there has not been a World Cup event there since its Olympics ended in 1960.
In contrast, Lake Placid hosts about five of these events each year, plus a regular menu of other championship competitions. In an age of international television, these are wonderful opportunities.
As NBC and its affiliate networks host hundreds of hours of coverage from Feb. 6-23 from Sochi, count how many times Lake Placid gets a favorable mention. That is no accident.
The Winter Olympics always brings back special memories for Olavi Hirvonen, who for more than 30 years has operated the Lapland Lake Nordic Ski Center in Benson. Hirvonen competed in the 50k and 15k events for the U,S, cross country team 54 years ago at Squaw Valley. He made the team by training at night while working days building a lodge in Vermont. He couldn’t afford to attend the national team training camp, but finished second in the U.S. trials, nonetheless.
The Lake Placid Loppet, the largest cross country race in the region, originally scheduled for this weekend, has been postponed. The 25k and 50k races will be run March 8 on the course at Mt. Vanhoevenberg.