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The ‘weatherproof’ Winter Olympics

National Weather Service team supported 1980 Olympic Winter Games organizers amid snow drought

November 22, 2019
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor (aflynn@lakeplacidnews.com) , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - Winter weather can be unpredictable in the Adirondacks. Such was the case in late 1979 and early 1980, just before the world's top athletes descended upon this community for the XIII Olympic Winter Games. There was one major problem. No snow.

Without snow, skiers couldn't ski. Without cold, there could be no ice for speedskating, bobsledding or luge. Winter would have to come to Lake Placid one way or another, and there was only one way to work around a finicky Mother Nature. Lake Placid would have to create its own winter for the 1980 Olympics.

"They already knew they needed to weatherproof the games," said Lake Placid Olympic Museum Director Alison Haas, who is working on a new exhibit titled "Foretelling the Future: The National Weather Service at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games."

Article Photos

Many of the fields and golf courses around Lake Placid were bare leading up to the XIII Olympic Winter Games in 1980. Organizers relied heavily on snowmaking technology and refrigerated ice tracks to make these the “weatherproof” games. It was the first Winter Olympics to use artificial snow, which was made at various venues and trucked around to ski venues where it was most needed.
(Photo provided)

As a snow drought continued to grip the eastern United States in January 1980, a team of four meteorologists from the National Weather Service traveled to Lake Placid. The Olympics needed boots on the ground to provide a variety of weather forecasts for visitors, athletes, coaches and venue managers for the games, which officially began Feb. 13 and ended Feb. 24.

"They were coming here to collect data to see what the wind patterns were, what temperature patterns were," Haas said. "They were collecting all of their data and observations so they could make predictions for what the weather could possibly be like in 1980. ... They weren't prepared to have a snow drought leading up to the games."

This was before the internet, before the Weather Channel. Data would have to be gathered the old-fashioned way - by observation and instrumentation - in order to predict the weather.

Yet the four men of the National Weather Service's Olympic Support Unit - plus one eager college intern - had their own set of problems when they arrived for what became a 38-day assignment, from Jan. 20 to Feb. 26, 1980.

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The team

Gordon Tait - on loan from the NWS Office in Philadelphia - supervised the Olympic Support Unit. He was joined by Steve Harned, a meteorologist at the NWS Office in Raleigh, North Carolina; Jack May, a meteorologist at the NWS Office in Cleveland; Richard "Doc" Taylor, a meteorologist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation; and intern John Kelley, a junior at the University of Rhode Island studying meteorology.

"Our forecasting effort was requested by the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee," Taylor told the Falmouth Enterprise before the Olympics. "We were selected in part because we are active in winter sports. All of us are skiers."

The team began preparing for the Olympics during the winter of 1979. The meteorologists were in Lake Placid from Feb. 1 to March 5 learning about the winter sports they would be predicting weather for, Taylor told the Falmouth Enterprise.

In his final report, Tait described each member of his team.

- Harned was an "efficient worker. Highly productive. Good motion economy. Was unofficial OSU Thinker. When careful thought was required, Steve would shine."

- May was "precocious. Witty. Very quick to grasp ideas and put them to use. Industrious. Hard worker."

- Taylor was "energetic. Hard driving. Hard worker. Vibrant. Aggressive. Highly productive. Many diversified talents. Fast worker."

- Kelley - the roving OSU observer - was "quiet spoken. Conservative New Englander. Serious about meteorology. Level headed. Listens well. Not afraid to ask questions until he understands what he must do. Follows instructions well."

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Housing

Members of the Olympic Support Unit were set to stay at Bob Hudak's four-bedroom house next to the Lake Placid Elementary School on Old Military Road, but when they arrived on Jan. 20, only part of the house was available. The entire house would not be vacated by the Hudak family until Jan. 26.

"Fortunately, OSU was able to arrange for inexpensive rental of trailer belonging to Earl Murphy (Weather Coordinator for the Ski Jump and good friend from last year)," Tait wrote in the final report.

May and Harned stayed in the trailer for a week while Tait and Taylor shared a room in the Hudak house. The Hudaks invited the entire weather team over for dinner the night before they left for a vacation, which included a week skiing in Alta, Utah.

"We rented the whole house out for a month," Hudak said by phone in October. He currently lives in Saranac Lake.

The rental helped the Hudaks pay for the vacation, plus some much-needed household improvements. Hudak was the athletic director for North Country Community College at the time.

"Being a singly employed faculty member - my wife wasn't working at the time - and having a couple of kids and needing a garage, it became very attractive to get $8,000 for a month for renting your house out," Hudak said.

The Hudaks returned to the Adirondacks in time to see some of the Olympic events, but they stayed at friends' homes in Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.

Over the 38 days, the meteorologists' wives took turns taking care of the house and preparing meals.

"Much credit goes to the four wives," Tait wrote in his report. "Each wife contributed substantially in her own special way. OSU is deeply indebted to all of them, and could not have done as well without any one of them."

Housing, which was feared to be the worst problem for the team, ended up being a bright spot.

"The house kept spirits up during bad moments," Tait wrote. "Brought OSU together for meeting, making plans, and encouragement.

"Team members and families got along surprisingly well. Engendered good team spirit."

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Office

That team spirit was needed in order to get their office in shape. Tait described the office as "230 square feet of debris-strewn space in bare basement of the old Olympic Arena. No windows. No phones. No furniture. No electricity. No heat. All the comforts of home."

Team members brought these concerns to Phil Wolff, the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee's liaison with the OSU.

"He introduced us to Gilbane Construction people and 20 minutes later workmen swarmed over room removing debris; installing electricity; painting walls," Tait wrote. "Seems Phil had magic wand which we would be asking him to wave many more times before our stay ended."

Getting their communications equipment installed was another hurdle, especially during the first week.

"Complete confusion concerning all lines," Tait wrote. "What circuits and circuit numbers. A jumble. Temporary office set up in pay phone booth of restaurant across the street from arena. Good coffee and heat, but hard on dimes.

"Four lines and two phones installed Friday, January 25th - six days after OSU arrival. Moved office from phone booth back across the street to Arena. Still no heat."

By Jan. 31 - 13 days before the Olympics - the NWS portion of communications was 95% complete. The equipment included a teleprinter, telecopier and a Texas Instruments system, which did not work as planned.

"Early failure of the TI System turned out to be a blessing in disguise!" Tait wrote. "Had TI worked well, our OSU weathermen would have relied upon it as a sole means of local weather dissemination."

Telecopiers - which reached more officials who did not have easy access to the TI System - were used as an alternate means of disseminating the weather forecasts.

The OSU office opened for business on Jan. 28 and issued its first forecasts: Lake Placid and vicinity, Olympic Weather discussion, and Snowmaking Forecast for Whiteface.

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The goals

With instruments positioned at all Olympic venues - relying on staff and volunteer observers - the OSU's primary goal was to "provide winter watch and warning service as needed along with general weather information regularly to the 30,000 to 50,000 people daily attending, supporting, or participating in the 1980 Winter Olympics."

Additional goals included:

- providing weather support to athletes' practices and events through their coaches, chiefs of competition and venue managers;

- providing weather information to permanent and transitory residents in the Olympic region;

- providing Olympic related weather information to those interested across the nation, Canada and abroad in following the Olympics through wire services, media, radio, press and TV;

- engendering good public relations through the media, radio, press and TV, as well as direct contact. "Good healthy public relations is part of the job."

The team was responsible for issuing the following forecasts: Lake Placid and vicinity forecast three times daily, Olympic Weather Discussion three times daily, Olympic Travelers Advisory twice daily, Olympic Spectators Advisory twice daily, Olympic Climatological data twice daily, and special Olympic weather statements as needed. There were 10 venue forecasts twice daily, plus Whiteface snowmaking forecasts, telephone briefings, formal briefings, official observations for each event, and arena observation.

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The weather

The most significant story for the OSU team was lack of snow and mild temperatures leading up to the games, according to Tait's report. An observer in Ray Brook recorded 22 inches of snow by the end of January, when the average snowfall by that time was 65 inches.

"Actual weather during the Olympics might be noted most for its uneventfulness," Tait wrote. "There were no real dramatic weather changes. All action seemed to be elsewhere - across the nation's southland and in the southeast. A few scares, however."

The weather from Jan. 28 to Feb. 11 was dry and below freezing, which was ideal for snowmaking. Temperatures ranged from 15 degrees below to 32 degrees above zero F. Even without the snow, these weather conditions helped venue managers continue their "unrivaled snow-making operation" and keep the refrigerated ice intact.

"All that was needed to really guarantee enough snow for final touches was a prolonged cold spell. The cold spell came just in time," Tait wrote. "(It was) a great encouragement for the success of the Winter Olympics."

Light snow fell the first few days of the games, like frosting on the cake, according to Tait, who described it as "spectator snow," giving the village a wintry appearance.

The NWS team saw measurable snow on 12 of the 27 days the OSU was in operation (Jan. 28 to Feb. 24). The greatest single snowfall happened on Feb. 15 and 16 when 3 inches fell. Over the course of their time in operation, the team measured between 2 and 9 inches of snow on the ground.

There was one scare - the warm spell - on Ash Wednesday.

"The temperature soared to 50F under sunny skies the afternoon of February 20th, an hour or so after Beth Heiden won her Silver Medal in the women's 3000M event," Tait wrote.

After a couple of days, cold Canadian air moved into the region.

"It was good that OSU forecasters used restraint, or many people may have been scared away," Tait wrote. "As it was, OSU had to reassure officials that Mirror Lake was not going to thaw - a scare started by some other agency and channelled through the NYS Governor Carey's office."

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The exhibit

John Kelley - that eager college intern from 1980 - is the principal educator for the Lake Placid Olympic Museum's exhibit on the OSU team, which was funded by the NOAA Heritage-Legacy Fund. He worked on it with Haas and Paul Sisson, acting meteorologist-in-charge of the NWS Weather Forecast Office in Burlington, Vermont.

Today, Kelley is a meteorologist and coastal modeler with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration /National Ocean Service's Coastal Marine Modeling Branch within the Coast Survey Development Lab in Durham, New Hampshire.

"We conducted oral histories of the meteorologists, so we're trying to preserve their history and these behind-the-scenes stories that few people would think about," Haas said. "In looking over their artifacts and archival materials, we have started to put together a nice story for an exhibit."

The exhibit is expected to open in mid-December.

 
 
 

 

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