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In an effort to rekindle memories of miracles, Lake Placid officials relighted the village’s Olympic cauldron in a ceremony on Feb. 7. The flame will burn through the end of the month—a daily reminder of what was and what could be again.
Yes, there are those in this picturesque resort area at the foot of Whiteface Mountain who still hold a flicker of hope that the Winter Games will someday return to the Adirondacks. They continue to carry the torch despite the odds being about the same as those of the Jamaican bobsled team returning to the Caribbean with a gold medal.
Sadly, the Winter Olympics, which were staged in Lake Placid in 1932 and 1980, have become too big and too costly for small, intimate settings such as this one. And Lake Placid (population: 2,500) is partly to blame for this development because it triggered the humongous growth spurt that has seen the past four Winter Games opt for metropolitan areas such as Vancouver (603,000) and Sochi (343,000).
Before 1980, the Winter Olympics was considered a poor stepchild. Thanks in large part to the U.S. hockey team’s stunning upset of the mighty Soviets and Eric Heiden’s speedskating gold rush, the Lake Placid Olympics provided great theater and produced robust television ratings. It brought the Winter Games out from the shadow of its summer sibling. Television executives clearly took notice. ABC spent $15.5 million for the rights to the last Olympic Games in Lake Placid but paid nearly six times as much to televise the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo. By contrast, NBC shelled out $775 million to carry this year’s Winter Olympics—nearly 50 times the amount spent for the rights to the ’80 games.
The expense to host the games also has risen exponentially. Russia will spend in excess of $50 billion when all is said and done to stage its five-ring circus in Sochi. While a goodly portion of that cost was the result of building new facilities, a huge amount also was devoted to increased security in response to numerous terrorist threats. Lake Placid is a U.S. Olympic training center, but some of its facilities still would need upgrades and others would have to be built from scratch to accommodate X Games sports, such as snowboarding and aerial skiing, that have been added to the Winter Games lineup in recent years.
None of this, though, has deterred people in the North Country from continuing pursuit of their dream. They are a persistent, patient lot. They know from experience that landing a bid can take decades. Heck, it took nearly a half-century for them to land a second Olympiad. So after 34 years, they hold out hope.
The Lake Placid bid delegation decided long ago that in order to lasso a third Olympiad it probably would have to take a regional approach, using venues as far away as Albany and Utica. There’s even been talk of a unique, two-country, two-city collaboration that would include Canada and 1976 Summer Olympics host Montreal. But that idea has been bandied about for years without any traction.
Lake Placid’s delegation delivered a powerful pitch to the International Olympic Committee in Atlanta 28 years ago in hopes of hosting the 2002 games. However, the IOC determined Salt Lake City was more deserving. Since that time, there havebeen other unsuccessful bids on behalf of this miniature, Swiss Alps-like village—including one spearheaded by former Gov. George Pataki.
Lake Placid failed to meet the most recent application deadline last November for the 2022 Winter Games. (Pyeongchang, South Korea, will host in 2018.) The five cities vying for the Olympics eight years from now are: Almaty (Kazakhstan), Krakow (Poland), Lviv (Ukraine), Oslo (Norway) and Beijing (China). Stockholm also was in the running, but the Swedish capital recently dropped out because it deemed the cost of hosting exorbitant. The winner will be announced in July 2015.
Although it hasn’t hosted in three and a half decades, Lake Placid remains an integral part of the Olympic movement. Since 1924, it has sent at least one competitor to each Olympics. This year, 10 Lake Placid residents are on the U.S. roster, including silver medal super-G skier Andrew Weibrecht. With scores of American and foreign athletes training there year-round, it’s likely the village will continue to be a Winter Games incubator.
The ignited cauldron is only one sign that Olympic fever is burning brightly in Lake Placid. A 9-by-12-foot LED screen on Main Street keeps passers-by up-to-date with 24/7 coverage from Sochi. Winter Games trivia contests and scavenger hunts have been staged by local businesses, and the Olympic museum, featuring artifacts and photographs from 1932 and 1980, has been more crowded than usual. Tourists have flocked to Lake Placid’s Winter Games venues to experience the thrill of victory for themselves.
One of the charms of this village is that you can skate on the same outdoor oval on which Heiden won his five gold medals. You can ski on the same slopes where Ingemar Stenmark was king of the hill in 1980. You can experience the sensation of traveling 50 mph down the chutes and banked turns of the Mount Van Hoevenberg bobsled run. Or you can take an elevator to the top of the 26-story-high ski jump tower and imagine what it feels like to speed down that steep incline and soar through the air.
Unlike many places that have hosted the games, Lake Placid has found a way to embrace its Olympic past and present. Tourists gather not only to relive miraculous moments and hear the echoes of “USA! USA!” but to experience, at least in a small way, the adrenaline rush a world-class athlete feels on skates, skis or sled. And athletes and coaches gravitate here in hopes of making some history of their own.
So even if Lake Placid never hosts another Olympics, its future looks bright. Its passion will continue to burn long after the cauldron is extinguished at the end of the month.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak has covered five Olympics, including the 1994 Winter Games in Norway.
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