Nov 30 A Fresh Look At The Lake Placid Model

By Alan Abrahamson | Nov. 30, 2012, 7:51 p.m. (ET)
Lake Placid Ski Jump 
Ski jumps in Lake Placid
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- The Olympic spirit is at once real and yet tremendously difficult to define or quantify.

If there is ever a place that has that spirit, however, it is here, in this little town of not even 3,000 people.

Here, the bronze medal that Andrew Weibrecht won in the super-G at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics hangs in a frame behind the check-in desk at the Mirror Lake Inn, run by his parents, Ed and Lisa. Just steps off Main Street -- literally, just a couple steps -- sits the oval where Eric Heiden won all five speedskating races in 1980; every winter that oval is frozen over and used by kids and, well, anyone with a pair of skates. 

A short drive away is the bobsled track. Even closer, standing sentinel over town, is the ski jump. It looks out, over among other things, Whiteface Mountain and the ski runs and of course, straight down below, the simple cauldron that was used at those 1980 Winter Games, a reminder of how no-frills the Olympics used to be. 

Thirty-two years after those Games, all these facilities are in working order. Everything is here, everything works and everything is a short drive -- or a walk -- from everything else. And, of course, everyone, it seems, wants to play hockey in the arena that Mike Eruzione and the U.S. team made famous.

But that's no miracle. That's testament to vision and public policy and the notion that the Olympic spirit matters -- indeed, that legacy matters.

The International Olympic Committee now stresses the notion of legacy -- that a Games shouldn't just come to a particular town and then leave so-called white elephants, a bunch of facilities and venues idling away, or worse, torn down after being built at a cost of millions. 

Lake Placid, host to the Winter Games in 1932 and 1980, was way ahead of its time.

Maybe it's time to take a fresh look at the Lake Placid model. 

The last editions of the Winter Olympics have gone to big cities -- Vancouver, Torino, Salt Lake, Nagano.

Before that came Lillehammer, and the small-town feel of Lillehammer is what the organizers of the Pyeongchang Games say they aim, in part, to deliver in 2018. Even so, those Korean Games will involve considerable infrastructure costs. 

The capital costs of the Sochi 2014 project absolutely will run to the billions. It's unclear if the true costs will ever be known, since accounting will be at the discretion of the Russian government.

The bobsled run used for the 2006 Torino Winter Games cost $100 million to build, $2 million to operate annually. It was announced last month that it is due to be dismantled.

 Aerial View Of Lake Placid Bobsled Track
Aerial view of the Lake Placid bobsled track

Contrast: the 20-curve, 4,773-foot bobsled track in Lake Placid, re-built for the February, 2000, Goodwill Games, is now a mainstay on the World Cup circuit, the tour making its usual stop here recently. 

The track cost about $30 million, according to Ted Blazer, the president and chief executive officer of the New York state Olympic Regional Development Authority.

ORDA's annual budget now runs to about $32 million. 

Each fiscal year since 1982-83, the state has kicked in millions of dollars to ORDA, recognizing the value in the Olympic brand in Lake Placid. 

Again, and for overseas critics of the American style of Olympic budgeting: every year for 30 years that has been a line item in the state budget, proposed by the governor, reviewed by the legislature; each year, it has been approved, and in some years with significant capital outlays or debt-service obligations.

Since the 1982-83 fiscal year, the state's contribution totals just under $228.3 million.

That is more than just legacy. That is building for the present, and the future.

That commitment has put Lake Placid in position to bid for, say, the 2020 or 2024 Winter Youth Olympic Games. There would be issues, perhaps significant -- where to house that many athletes, for instance, because any new development would have to contend with the fundamental issue that Lake Placid is surrounded by state parkland. Nonetheless, such a bid would seem to be on the radar.

"Having the athletes rub elbows with all the tourists in town, we're doing it in this beautiful pristine environment -- it's who we are," Blazer said. "When you think of Lake Placid -- it's the whole game, it's one neat package right here. It's not the big city where it gets lost. It gives us identity."

Added Jeff Potter, ORDA's director of corporate development, "We have hosted the two Olympic Games. It's just in our DNA to continue that legacy."

 View From Lake Placid Ski Jump
View from the top of the Lake Placid ski jump 
The U.S. Olympic Committee opened its current training facility in town in 1989. 

Steven Holcomb, the current world and Olympic four-man bobsled champion, said, "Lake Placid is such a small town -- so far out of the way -- but it's so Olympic and so big. They have done a great job. The 'Miracle on Ice' -- they took that and ran with it. They have the Olympic Training Center there and they work really, really hard to make sure they maximize what they have there."

The culture in Lake Placid -- families and volunteers committed to winter sports -- also stands as a key part of why this little town so far out of the way remains hugely relevant in Olympic circles.

Simply put, you grow up here with the Olympic Games in mind. Billy Demong, a gold and silver medalist at the Vancouver Games in the Nordic combined, made his first Olympic team at the Nagano 1998 Games, when he was just 17.

Lowell Bailey and Tim Burke have both been to the 2006 and 2010 Games in biathlon, and are aiming for Sochi in 2014; Bailey is from Lake Placid, Burke from Paul Smiths, a hamlet a few miles to the northwest.

"Growing up in Lake Placid," Bailey said, "you are surrounded by people at every step of the Olympic journey, the Olympic path. There are gold medalists who live in town. There are people who have gotten an Olympic medal and come back to town. You have the Olympics from the organizational standpoint. There is everything in between. There were athletes ahead of us. Billy Demong was the first of us … that was something we saw. You saw what was possible, and that made it so much more motivating."

Echoed Burke, "Growing up around Lake Placid, it seems so much more attainable. In other towns, it's something you might see on TV every four years. For us -- it's something we live every day."

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