Lake Placid snag brings new event: hitchhiking

By , Sports writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Nobody ever said hosting the Winter Olympics would be easy, and now this once-quiet Adirondack Mountain hamlet knows the feeling of having 50,000 daily visitors land on its welcome mat.

A bungled transportation system has been the biggest snag leading up to today's opening ceremony.

"Everything else is going smoothly; this is our only problem," said Ed Lewis, press director for the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee, when confronted by disgruntled journalists in the Olympic Press Center.

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Writers who had anticipated catching buses from outlying motels where disturbed when none arrived and they had to resort to hitchhiking.

The problem arose when 80 instead f the expected 300 buses were in service earlier this week. The chief hassle revolved around who would drive the buses. The Canadian company that manufactured them apparently wanted Canadian drivers instead of area residents seeking short-term employment.

Objections to this resulted in a squabble over work permits for the imported workers. Evntually the organizing committee took steps to resolve the problem by hiring a new transportation boss, agreeing to put 50 members of the Teamsters Union in the drivers' seats, and hurriedly contracting for a new fleet of buses from American companies.

Because of hte committee's master plan that bans unauthorized vehicles from driving within a 10-mile perimeter surrounding Lake Placid, any transit breakdown is critical. Many of the Olympic workers, including some bus drivers and radio dispatchers, were late to work Monday, setting off a mini avalanche of transportation-related problems.

Eddie's Taxi, not surprisingly, has been very busy. As the operator of Lake Placid's oldest cab company, though, Eddie is disturbed by the blockades, checkpoints, baffling traffic patterns, and circuitous routes he now must tackle on his rounds. Furthermore, he's angered that only three of his four cabs are allowed on the roads during the Olympics, whent he needs are so great.

Meanwhile, he pokes along in his dependable, if dilapidated, Ford, telling customers how lucky they are to have called him.

Like so many other longtime Lake Placid natives, Eddie has grown restless, frustrated by the escalating prices, crowds, and inconveniences brought on by the '80 games. "If you plan on eating you'd better have your lunch in your hip pocket," he says, alluding to skyrocketing prices and long waits.

One Pinkerton security guard, cornered in a crowded bus, told of a friend who found his regular drugstore soda fountain charging a $4 minimum no matter the order. And $30 for a dinner that once cost half as much is not uncommon in the town's finer restaurants.

Other locals simply find the main street, now closed off as a pedestrian mall , a bit disorienting. Many storefronts have temporarily been occupied by international companies intent on marketing their producs and names to a Whole Earth Catalog of visitors. The Finlandia Ski Club and Nikon cameras, among others, stand cheek by jowl with old- guard shopkeepers, vying for attention.

Meanwhile, everyone has been trying to get his bearings -- and for skiers, that has meant getting the feel for the man-made snow blown onto the slopes and trails during the past month or so. Normally Lake Placid would be buried under a deep blanket of natural whiteness this time of year, but flurries are about all anyone has seen so far.

The artificial snow, has received the stamp of approval of both Alpine and Nordic competitors, who will be the first ever to ski on manufactured flakes in the Olympics. Because of the difficulties in covering miles of cross-crountry trails, they have been shortened. Consequently, the Nordic racers will be making more loops over the same tracks.

Ironically, the Olympics might be better off without real snow at this point. A veneer of powder would have to be swept off the artificial base, some say, because the real and man-made flakes mix poorly, turning into slush at warmer temperatures.

The mercury, incidentally, has held steady during the week leading up to the games. Temperatures have generally been in the teens, quite comfortable for those bundled in the colorful parkas and moon boots so common here. If it gets much below zero, though -- and it hit 47 below last winter -- some outdoor events could face postponement.

The ticket situation has been the source of much talk during the countdown to the games. While an organizing committee spokesman reported recent sales as "very, very brisk," thousands of admissions, ranging from $10 to $60, became available recently when unsold foreign allotments were returned. An understaffed box office in the heart of town was doing business at a snail's pace only days ago.

Since nobody without a ticket or Olympic credentials can enter Lake Placid, it has become necessary to devise an alternative plan to allow would-be buyers past the checkpoint.

Now people are permitted to order tickets over the phone, using an American Express number. Then at outlying parking areas they inform attendants of their reservations. This information is relayed to the ticket office, and, if verified, the individual is allowed to hop aboard a shuttle bus headed for town.

Organizers had hoped such complexities could be avoided during these "Olympics in perspective." That they haven't been has just made everyone a little more eager for the curtain to go up and the games to begin.

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