Lake Placid recalls '32 -- the charm's still here

It was a year when Sonja Henie was everybody's sweetheart, a year when the United States gained prominence in winter Olympic competition for the first time. It was 1932, when the US hosted the third winter Olympics, here at Lake Placid.

The Adirondack resort hasn't changed much in character or even size in the nearly five decades that have elapsed since then. Although the atmosphere and scale of the 1980 Olympic Games will be very different, strong links to the past are evident.

A tour of the Olympic facilities stirs up memories. Let's start our visit on Main Street at the Olympic speed skating oval across from Town Hall. There is a connection between the two, and it is more than just municipal funding.

Jack Shea, the town supervisor and one of the most active organizers of the 1980 winter games, can look out his office window and recall his own glorious victories in the 500- and 1,500-meter speed skating races of 1932. The son of a local butcher, he was a 21-year-old Dartmouth sophomore when he dashed around the oval on his way to two gold medals.

Another New York boy, Irving Jaffee, completed an American sweep of the speed skating competitions by winning the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races. It was the first time American pack-style skating had been used, and the Europeans set up a howl. Up to this time, the host nations could choose the ground rules, ad the protests led to the establishment of the current paired racing format.

If sidewalks were made of ice, a skater could glide from the oval toward the indoor skating rinks, which include the 1932 Olympic Arena and the brand-new two-rink Field House. Its arched roof an Adirondack landmark, the arena was the site for the second of Sonja Henie's three Olympic figure-skating golf medals. While some of the early-round hockey games will be held in the older building this month, the new Field House, with a seating capacity of 8,500, will host the figure skating and key hockey games.

There was no downhill skiing in the 1932 Olympics, and Whiteface Mountain, site of the alpine events this year, was an almost untouched wilderness.

Cross-country skiing and ski jumping, however, had long been established in the region, and it was probably for this reason that Lake Placid was awarded the 1932 winter games. The exclusive Lake Placid Club had heavily promoted winter recreation from 1904, when it remained open over the winter months of the first time. Up until World War II there were five ski jumps in the village, and during the war US Army ski troops trained on the trails here.

Then, as now, there was one factor that could not be counted on -- the weather. Just as today, Placidians waited with bated breath in late January for the season's first major snowfall. It was the warmest winter anyone could remember. Athletes were sitting around Lake Placid for a month, unable to train. Across the country, trials had to be postponed, and there was a strong possibility that the bobsled and skating teams would have to be chosen without them.

With the opening ceremony one week away, six inches of snow fell Jan. 28.

Midway through the Olympics, the games were threatened again. As the temperatures rose, workmen rushed to pack snow from shaded areas onto the ski jump, but the jumpers still had puddles to contend with in the landing area.

Olympic officials are betting on a heavy dose of modern technology this year. Everything that should be icy has been refrigerated, and for the rest, well, there is so much snowmaking equipment that the entire network of Olympic alpine trails at Whiteface can be covered with an inch of snow per hour.

In 1932, the solution was to postpone events. The glamour event that year, the four-man bobsled at Mt. Van Hoevenberg, had to be held after the official closing ceremony. The Stevens brothers, local boys, had already captured the two-man title, and they were soon joined in victory by their teammates in the four-man competition.

In total, American athletes won 12 medals, including 6 golds. Norway, the unofficial champion of the first two Winter Olympics, had to settle for 10 medals, of which 3 were gold.

Lake Placid had a folksy quality in 1932. Many local spectators arrived by horse-drawn sleigh, and security was provided by 43 state troopers chosen on the strength of their courtesy and tact. This year, 700 state police officers are assigned to the games.

Housing arrangements could also be less elaborate in 1932.The smaller number of national teams -- 17 to be exact -- were accommodated in local hotels and rented homes, in contrast to this year's enormous Olympic Village, housing most of the more than 1,200 athletes from 38 countries.

There was tremendous excitement in Lake Placid when it was the site for an international competition, but at the same time little of the promotional and commercial activities that surround the Olympics today. The local organizing committee distributed just two designs in posters publicizing the games, and there was no logo or mascot.

The Olympics brought a real change to Lake Placid. In the 1930s and '40s, it was known as one of the premiere winter sports resorts in the United States. Several motion pictures were made here, and the arena attracted ice shows and pageants.

As memories of 1932 faded and the popularity of downhill skiing grew, the community found its winter tourism winding down in the 1950s, because it lacked a major alpine ski center. The full potential of Whiteface Mountain was not realized until 1958, after the "Forever Wild" article of the state constitution had been amended to permit extensive development of trails. By this time it was too late. The business had gone elsewhere.

While the resort hopes the 1980 Olympics will restore its winter business, it does not want to see development that would cause it to lose its character. "There were conscious decisions not to have big public-improvement projects," says Ruth Mary Ortloff, the archivist for the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee. That is why the village remains much the way it was, and its special charms unspoiled.

As a result of these decisions, the committee planned what it calls "an Olympics in perspective," designed primarily for television. Capacity for most events had deliberately been limited to ease congestion in the village. Access to Lake Placid will be restricted to residents and to daily ticketholders who will be bused in from parking areas 15 miles away. Still, more than 50,000 persons are expected to pass through everyday.

The same cautious approach was applied to the Olympic facilities. Those remaining from 1932 or built for more recent competitions were upgraded, and only where necessary have new ones been constructed. When the games close Feb. 24, the resort will be left with some of the world's best winter sports facilities.

Lake Placid already has the nation's largest summer figure skating session, and it hopes to be named an official US Olympic training site. Several well-known figure skating coaches reside year round in Lake Placid, including Gustave Lussi, who coached such famous stars as Dick Button and Dorothy Hamill.

Business on the slopes of Whiteface Mountain should increase, and cross-country skiers may also flock here once they view on television the unparalleled beauty of the Adirondacks.

All fo this activity should lift the region's sluggish economy such that, it is hoped, the little village will no longer have to rest on its laurels as host to the Olympics.

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