The tiny village of Lake Placid in upstate New York staged the Olympic Winter Games twice in the 20th century: first in 1932 and then in 1980. By the latter year, Lake Placid’s population—if one included that of the surrounding township of North Elba—was only 5,000, and the village was not particularly well known.
Perhaps its excellent location persuaded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to award Lake Placid the Winter Games more than once. Situated inside 2.4-million hectare Adirondack State Park, one of the great “Forever Wild” wilderness preserves of the United States yet within a day’s drive of some of North America’s major cities, Lake Placid had both its rugged Adirondack peaks and its two lakes, Mirror and Placid, to commend it. The fact that it still had many facilities intact from the 1932 Winter Games also weighed in its favour. Lake Placidians’ long history of enthusiasm for cold-weather recreation may have been a factor in the decision as well.
Still, the village’s first foray into the Olympic Winter Games had not resulted in its becoming a winter sports centre. Long after 1932, it continued to be regarded as a summer destination. The town began bidding for the Winter Games again in 1954, launching seven bids in 20 years before it was successful. Previous to its acceptance, the Lake Placid bid committee, like any other U.S. bid committee, was required to prove
that its citizens were willing to host the Olympic Games. A referendum was held in the Lake Placid/North Elba area to ascertain the level of support and 75 per cent of voters approved.
The Lake Placid Olympic Games took place from Feb. 13 to 24, 1980 and featured 1,067 athletes from 38 countries. About 625,000 spectators watched the events.
The XIII Olympic Winter Games took place during what the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee’s (LPOOC) Final Report described as "the worst snow drought to hit the eastern United States since 1887". Fortunately, a $5 million permanent snowmaking system had been put in place at Whiteface Mountain Ski Center. "This ‘artificial’snow cover, which had never been used before in Olympic Games competitions, proved to be an effective and fair surface for Alpine competition, allowing fairness to all competitors regardless of where they were seeded", the Final Report said (LPOOC 1980). It also allowed for a lengthened season for Whiteface and opportunities for future competitions no matter what the snowfall.
The 1980 Olympic Games incurred a deficit of about $6 million. The State of New York paid that debt and formed a group called the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) to maintain and operate the
By most estimates, though, the 1980 Olympic Winter Games were a success, wrote Bill Pennington in the New York Times 25 years later, on Feb. 3, 2005 "The Little Village That Could, and Did".
"It was controversial to a point", Ron Stafford, whose 37-year term as the region’s state senator ended in 2000, told Pennington. "Some people hated to give up the venues. But statewide, there was an understanding that we had [to] take care of these things or lose the great opportunity the Olympics had afforded New York".
One of ORDA’s responsibilities was to keep the facilities operating at international competition standards, an agreement that has stood the village in good stead. In 1982, Lake Placid’s status as a sports centre gained further credibility when the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) decided to establish an Olympic Training Center there (it currently has three in the country). The centre’s most recent incarnation features
gymnasiums, workout rooms, a wing for sports medicine and dormitories.
With state-of-the-art facilities and an official training centre, athletes were guaranteed to be attracted to the North Elba area. The State of New York’s strategy was working—its Olympic Games associations were turning Lake Placid from a resort that tourists patronized in the summer, but ignored in the winter, to a national, and even international, centre for winter sports.
In that endeavour, ORDA continues to succeed. According to Sandy Caligiore, director of communications for the organization, more than a million people visit Lake Placid every year. Many of them are drawn there by its associations with the Olympic WinterGames. They appreciate the recreational options afforded by its facilities and also the chance to see, or see again, the site of the "Miracle on Ice". Numerous young athletes,
too, get a special thrill from playing their own hockey games on the same battleground where the United States experienced one of its most compelling athletic triumphs.
James McKenna, president of the Lake Placid Visitors Bureau, thinks the village did what it set out to do. He said its original mandate in hosting the Olympic Winter Games was to build winter sports facilities for local youth and to increase tourism to the area. In the process, Lake Placid became a destination resort area for the world, with 2.3 million overnight visitor days every year. Of all the past North American Olympic Winter Games hosts, he said, "Placid offers the best example of utilizing the facilities for great economic advantage".
In Caligiore’s view, it is the repositioning of a small summer resort as a year-round tourist attraction that is the greatest legacy of the 1980 Olympic Games. The village of Lake Placid, the resident population of which still hovers around 2,700, exclusive of the surrounding area of North Elba, now bills itself as "the winter sports capital of the world". It is also, quite clearly, branded as a sport community in general. This is true to the extent that year-round, said Caligiore, there are signs by the roadways warning drivers to watch for training athletes.
January through December, wrote Pennington, athletes "come to train at the scene of a historic Olympic games, when one little village took in the world and put on all the events (...) Much has changed about the Olympics since—larger and longer, more costly and more controversial—but in the ensuing quarter-century, no place has embraced the legacy of its Olympic moment like Lake Placid".
"In 25 years, it may be the best example of an Olympics that worked, an Olympics that did what it was intended to do", Pennington continued. "The 1980 Olympics put Lake Placid on the map internationally as a destination resort, brought a boom to the local economy that has yet to ebb, left little debt, bestowed spiritual aid to a flagging Olympic movement and created such good will that Lake Placid is still considered a contender for a future Winter Olympics" (Feb. 3, 2005).