THE MORE PLACID OLYMPICS
Lake Placid, N.Y. — For nearly three decades Lake Placidians have tried to return the winter Olympics to this isolated Adirondack town. Now that they have them again, the challenge is to put on an "Olympics in perspective," as promised.
Meeting that challenge will be difficult. The winter games have grown to more than double their size since Lake Placid last hosted them in 1932, and TV has come along to beam the spectacle to millions of viewers around the world. Furthermore, the specter that this may be the last Olympics, at least as now constituted, could draw even more attention to the competition, which opens Feb. 13 and concludes 12 days later. President Carter's threatened US boycott of the Moscow Olympics may be the straw that breaks the camel's back -- a measure that stamps the Olympics as hopelessly political.
If the cold war manifests itself at Lake Placid, it will likely be on the slopes, rinks, and sled runs, where a battle for medals -- gold, silver, and bronze -- will be waged. During the 1976 winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, the United States finished behind the Soviet Union and East Germany in the final medal tabulations. And although this order may be repeated here, the US anticipates making its best showing in years, thanks to such athletes as Eric and Beth Heiden, Bill Koch, and a star-studded cast of figure skaters.
The fact that the Olympics are being held in the United States for the first time since 1960, when Squaw Valley, Calif., hosted the winter games, should serve as extra incentive to Uncle Sam's skiers, skaters, and sledders. Besides having whatever "home field" advantage may exist, they enter this quadrennial sports festival as the first beneficiaries of the newly created US Olympic training facilities. They are also the first American Olympians supported by the free-enterprise system in a big way.
Corporate connections have infused the American Olympic effort with a commercialism it has never known. More than 70 sponsors have gotten into the act, each forking over a minimum contribution of $50,000 to the US Olympic Committee for the right of stamping the Olympic logo on everything from cars to beer cans.
At the same time, the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee, acting separately, has conducted its own fund-raising operation through Capital Sports Inc., which promised the financially strapped committee at least $10 million from merchandising its raccoon symbol. Roni the Raccoon's popularity and the hiring of professional manager Petr Spurney two years ago have helped the committee bail out of some potentially serious problems.
Inflation, environmental demands, labor strikes, and the like sent the overall tab for the games soaring far beyond their $30 million projection. Now the sticker price is estimated at $150 million, two-thirds of which will be picked up by the state and federal government.
While it's true that the past two Olympics, in Sapporo, Japan, and Innsbruck, were considerably more expensive to produce, it's also true that Lake Placid's attempts to rein in runaway costs have not really worked.
An Olympics in perspective, townspeople have discovered, is a lofty ideal not easily achieved, no matter what the effort. The Olympics are just so big these days that Lake Placid really couldn't expect to keep the lid on. After all, when the village welcomed the world in 1932, the winter games were a relatively chummy festival atttended by 306 athletes from 17 nations. Today the US delegation alone, largest of the 37 scheduled to participate here, numbers 124.
Close to 2,000 journalists will cover the spectacle, a number scaled to the size of the games. In addition, ABC-TV has enlisted an army of 700 workers to handle its global telecasting responsibilities. The network has spent countless hours plotting 50 camera locations and laying 33 miles of cable, but almost as much planning went into the acquisition of living quarters for its oversize staff. To counter the area's housing pinch, 15 modular living units were ordered by ABC to help lodge the network's personnel.
Housing has generally been one of the greatest concerns of Olympic organizers. Tucked into an interior fold of one of America's largest wilderness areas, Lake Placid has a very limited number of accommodations. Much of the housing in and around the town itself was blocked out months ago for Olympic officials, members of the press, and support personnel, with athletes assigned to a newly constructed village eight miles away.
The paying public, meanwhile, has been left to scramble for available rooms within a 2 1/2 - hour commute, thought reasonable under the circumstances. Some corporations, willing to pay the price for its people to be closer, have reportedly paid as much as $35,000 to lease area homes this month.
The temptation to capitalize on this demand for beds has not gone totally unchecked.An Olympic Accommodations Control Corporation, formed by the New York Legislature, placed a ceiling on rates charged for commercial rooms surrounding Lake Placid. Roger Tubby, the group's chairman, contends that premium prices, as long as they're within reason, are justified. "Those with accommodations in or close to Lake Placid should pay something more for easy access to the games than those farther away, who will have to spend time and money to get to the events," he says.
Within the town itself, only one new hotel has gone up, and this simply replaces another that was torn down. The community is committed to retaining its mountain village flavor, a task made easier by Lake Placid's relative inaccessibility.
Only three highways, all two-lane roads, lead into town, which is situated some 200 miles north of New York City. Because no major airports are in the area, most people arriving for the Olympics will do so in cars or buses. An elaborate transportation setup, using a free park-and-ride system, has been devised to avoid traffic jams. Instead of driving cars into the "primary area," those attending the games will have to park them in lots about 10 miles out of town and catch a shuttle bus to the various Olympic venues.
If and when heavy snows do hit the area, state workers will be well prepared to clear the roads, having recently completed a five- day snow-plowing school.
One of the biggest questions Lake Placid organizers have had to answer is: How many visitors can an Olympics hosted by a one-traffic-light town absorb? After researching the impact these visitors might have on the area, the Economic Development Agency advised keeping the total to about 50,000. Considering that Lake Placid's permanent population still hovers around its 1932 figure of 2,800, inviting so many guests might appear ill advised.
Lake Placidians, though, are a proud and confident lot. Selected to host the games by default when no other city bid for them, the town is approaching things with a "little engine that could" determination. Organizers intend to show the world that a group of civic-minded volunteers can put on the Olympics and do a good job.
"If a community the size of Lake Placid can carry out the objective [of an Olympics in perspective], then we will have realized our goal," says the Rev. J. Bernard Fell, president of the organizing committee."Other small mountain communities will be able to follow our example in the future and stage winter games instead of relegating them to large cities, where athletes fade into the city commerce."
To say the least, Lake Placid has had to pay a price for hosting the games. For example, some apartment dwellers and shopkeepers have been displaced to make room for free-spending, short-term tenants. In addition, certain issues arising over the Olympics, such as the athletes' village (slated to become a prison), have divided opinion in the town.
Pupils of Lake Placid High School have even been affected, yet no one has heard them complaining about giving up their school for a month to the organizing committee, which has converted it into a press center. Many youngsters are serving in Olympic-related roles, but are scheduled to make up for lost classroom time with shortened summer and holiday vacations.
The people of Lake Placid have never quit relishing their finest hour to date -- the '32 games -- or the town's record of producing 49 Olympians. But returning the Olympics here has been more than just a way to relive fond memories. The Olympics have rejuvenated the economy.
A thriving resort community following the third winter Olympiad, Lake Placid gradually fell out of prominence as other winter vacation spots were built and promoted. Until an extensive program of Olympic construction began for the current games, the area's unemployment rate was a staggering 12 to 15 percent. Now it's in single digits.
The future looks bright as well. Fifty hours of live television coverage will soon emanate from here, catapulting Lake Placid back into the international spotlight. And with $85 million in new sports facilities, it should stay there for years to come.
"The real benefits to this area," Rep. Robert C. McEwen, who represents the area in Congress, has said, "Will come after the games. We will have the best winter sports complex on the face of the earth. That's when the dividends will roll in."
Some of the facilities used in 1932, such as the bobsled run and speed-skating oval, were updated with refrigeration systems. The luge run, however, is brand new, built next to the bob run at Mt. Van Hoevenberg, 6 1/2 miles from town.
In Lake Placid itself, a new 8,000-seat field house was built next to the 1932 Olympic Arena, creating an Ice Center with more enclosed area to skate on than anywhere else in the world.
Forming a striking silhouette against the sky at Intervale Hill are the 70- and 90-meter ski jumps. These breathtaking towers, the largest of which is the tallest structure between Albany and Montreal, were once the target of environmentalists.
The most controversial new facility, however, is easily the Olympic Village, which sits quietly in the hamlet of Ray Brook amid an evergreen forest. The village's curved dormitory buildings huddle together to form a campuslike effect , yet the compound's depressing after-Olympics use is hinted at by the electrically sensitive chain-link fences surrounding the grounds. Inside, the cramped sleeping rooms have either no windows or very narrow ones.
The athletes will be encouraged to mix in spacious "living areas," which include lounges, a cafeteria with around-the-clock service, a disco, and a movie theater. Despite attempts to make the facility attractive, some countries have arranged for their athletes to stay outside the complex, even though this means stepping out from under the village's security umbrella.
For weeks now, the event sites of most concern have been the skiing venues, Whiteface Mountain and Mt. Van Hoevenberg, where snow has been so scarce as to force cross- country and biathlon athletes to train in Canada. Mother Nature hadn't cooperated before the '32 games, either, but at least there was no downhill skiing on the agenda that year. Fortunately the current drought of snow has lifted, but snowmaking machines, active for weeks, still stand at the ready just in case.
A trial run of opening ceremonies, using local youngsters, has already come off without a hitch; the athletic delegations are beginning to trickle in; and more than 450,000 of the 500,000 total tickets have been sold, many as part of tour packages.
About the only thing left to do is to await the arrival of the Olympic torch, which has reached the United States from Greece and is being transported here in a nine-day running relay. Once the Olympic flame is lighted, the action begins in earnest, with countries ranging from the world superpowers to tiny Liechtenstein and even tinier Andorra vying for the honors.
Whether any athlete can match the breath-taking drama of Franz Klammer's electrifying downhill race during the '76 Olympics or the beauty of Dorothy Hamill's free-skating routine remains to be seen. Some 1,400 competitors will be trying, though, and that should keep the frigid air over Lake Placid charged with excitement.