OLYMPIC LEGACY: A time of many firsts
Lake Placid’s 1932 Winter Olympics made history in several areas
(Editor’s note: This story is part of an “Olympic Legacy” series to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the III Olympic Winter Games at Lake Placid in 1932. What happened that year led to this village hosting the XIII Olympic Winter Games in 1980 and the continuing legacy of training Olympic athletes, inspiring future Olympians and hosting international winter sports events.)
LAKE PLACID — It was Sunday, Feb. 24, 1980. Vice President Walter Mondale sat next to Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee President J. Bernard Fell in the new Fieldhouse to watch the U.S. hockey team beat Finland 4-2 to win a gold medal during the XIII Olympic Winter Games.
In the same arena that night, the crowd cheered jazz legend Chuck Mangione and his band as they played “Feels So Good” during the closing ceremony while 1976 U.S. Olympic figure skating champion Dorothy Hamill skated around the rink. The Rochester, New York, native also played the 1980 Games’ theme song, “Give it All You Got” on his flugelhorn.
In its report on the ceremony, the Lake Placid News said Mangione “bounced nonstop like a yellow-and-purple pogo stick while he blew his trumpet.”
The night before, Olympic Center Director of Operations Butch Martin and his crew were cleaning up after a hockey game and working with Mangione’s band to set up for a rehearsal.
“It got to be late,” Martin said Tuesday, March 8. “So I said, ‘OK, guys, I’ll see you in the morning. Get it done. We’ll get going early. Be ready for this.'”
The next morning, Martin was helping the Secret Service sweep the arena before Mondale’s arrival at the gold-medal game.
“And I remember going in what we called the production room, and all the guys from the night before were in there sleeping,” Martin said. “And here’s the dogs and the Secret Service kind of walking around them.”
During the Games, the crew seemed to be in a constant transition while preparing the arena for events.
“We always had to turn the rink over from hockey to figure skating or vice versa, from figure skating back to hockey,” Martin said. “And that last day I believe we had a figure skating exhibition and then we had to turn it into the closing ceremonies the end of that day.”
Martin has a lot of memories of the 1980 Winter Olympics. He watched the arena competitions from a unique perspective, as the guy in charging of setting up for and cleaning up from the many events in the 1932 and 1980 rinks.
“Of course, the thrill of the (“Miracle on Ice“) hockey game,” he said. “Whenever I walk in that building I still get a couple chills here and there just remembering that whole experience. But just the hard work and almost 24 hours a day working that kind of set the course for everybody. We just knew what we could do as local guys and got it done.”
North Elba Park District
Today, Martin is the manager of the North Elba Park District, which operates several venues around town: the municipal beach and toboggan chute at Mirror Lake, Craig Wood Golf Course and the North Elba Show Grounds, home of the Lake Placid Horse Shows.
“And we assist a lot of events that come through,” he said.
The park district also managed the 1932 Olympic Arena and 1980 Fieldhouse before the state Olympic Regional Development Authority took over the Olympic Center in 1982.
The park district is 94 years old. It was established in the spring of 1928 specifically to help fund venue construction for a potential Winter Olympics in 1932. Bid organizers for the III Olympic Winter Games convinced the North Elba town board to create the special taxing district. A year later, after Lake Placid was awarded the Games, park district voters approved a $200,000 bond issue to help finance venue construction. In July 1931, voters approved a $150,000 bond issue to help build the arena. But the district also had an impact on the 1980 Olympics.
How important is the North Elba Park District to Lake Placid’s Olympic legacy?
“I think it’s the key to the whole legacy,” Martin said. “The park district was the funnel for the organizing committee, once they were started, the 1980 organizing committee and the bid committees. The Lake Placid Sports Council was part of the North Elba Park District, and that’s where the organizing committee got their roots. … But it was all funded through the town of North Elba, their travel abroad and bids and little stuff we did prior to the Games.”
Through the years, it was the park district that operated the 1932 Olympic Arena, and that’s where Martin got his start in the park and recreation business. He’s been the park district manager for the past 40 years.
Eugene Martin Sr. and his wife Gloria moved their family from Rockland County, New York, to Lake Placid in 1956. He was a contractor and cabinet maker and later worked as the food service manager at the St. Francis Boys Home (Camelot). One of his sons, Eugene Martin Jr., would later make a name for himself in the Olympic village. They called him Butch from an early age.
Now 70 years old, Butch Martin began playing hockey in the Lake Placid Pee Wee Association’s program at the age of 6. A four-sport athlete in high school — including football, baseball and track — he was a defenseman for the Blue Bombers hockey team and was named team captain during his senior year. During that time in the mid-1960s, he got a job as a rink attendant at the Olympic Arena, working for North Elba Park District Manager Bob Allen.
“I would go in on the weekends and clean up after the weekend stuff,” Martin said. “Summers were big then. We would have 500 figure skaters here. We would have a summer skating camp that went from 8 a.m. until midnight in the 1932 rink and the Lussi rink.”
After graduating from Lake Placid High School in 1970, he played hockey at the University of New Hampshire, graduating in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in park and recreation management.
“I hung around there for a year and came back to Lake Placid in 1975,” he said, “and picked up where I left off. Bob Allen asked me to come back, so I came back and started working in the Olympic Arena.”
Martin was named LPHS varsity hockey coach in 1976, taking over from his old coach, Ray Pratt, and leading the team to a victory in the first-ever state high school hockey championships in March 1980. His players used the same dressing room as the U.S. Olympic hockey team, and their 4-1 win over Ithaca was in the same rink as the “Miracle on Ice.”
Martin continued working at the park district after the Olympics and began his duties as manager on July 1, 1982 (July 8, 1982, Lake Placid News). His former boss, Bob Allen, had a profound impact on his career.
“The one thing I learned from Bob Allen is that we take care of everybody,” Martin said. “No matter what event we hosted … we host them and welcome those guests here because what we’re doing is filling hotel rooms and keeping the Main Street businesses active. … We made sure their experience here was a positive one.”
Martin also learned how to get things done, sometimes with second-hand equipment.
“When we’d get a new truck, it would be a truck that somebody else didn’t want anymore,” Martin said. “There was a plumbing company in town. I can remember we bought their truck, and we loved it because it was the best truck we got going. And we got Air Force reject trucks. We never really had a whole lot of new stuff, but we were able to get through with what we had.”
Martin was inducted into the Lake Placid Hall of Fame in 2014. He was also inducted into the New York State High School Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame as a coach and a referee, as was his 1979-1980 Blue Bombers hockey team.
Asked what his life would be like if Lake Placid had not hosted the 1932 or 1980 Winter Olympics, Martin said, “I would probably not be here. … I would be probably in a warmer climate, maybe Florida.”
Growing up with the 1932 Olympic venues and seeing new venues developed for the 1980 Games, Martin has seen Lake Placid literally build its Olympic legacy. And it continues with the latest multi-million-dollar investment at the Olympic Center, Olympic Speedskating Oval, Olympic Jumping Complex, Whiteface Mountain and Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg.
“But, of course, I think probably the biggest was if we didn’t get the upgrades for 1980, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” he said. “That started it all. Again, it was done by a bunch of local men and women … that just pushed and pushed and pushed, that got the funding and we got the thing done.”
Martin sees the latest venue upgrades as continuing that Olympic legacy for future generations.
“(We have to) be very careful how we go forward,” he said, “and sometimes not bite off more than we can chew and just keep continuing doing what we do and do it well.”
It was Thursday, Feb. 4, 1932. The air was brisk, and the sun was bright in the cloudless sky for the opening ceremony of the III Olympic Winter Games at Lake Placid.
In the Olympic stadium on Main Street, athletes from 17 nations paraded past the reviewing stand on the fresh, flawless ice of the 400-meter speedskating oval. As they passed the grandstand on their right in front of the high school, they saluted the dignitaries. On their left, in front of the hockey box, was a homely looking stand with three platforms of different heights. There was no covering, and the wooden skeleton showed its construction. Stairs in the back allowed athletes to climb onto their respective platforms after winning gold, silver or bronze medals.
This was the first victory podium ever used at an Olympic Games, winter or summer.
On May 9, 1931, International Olympic Committee President Count Henri Baillet-Latour wrote letters to the organizing committees for the Lake Placid Winter Games and the Los Angeles Summer Games, according to Robert K. Barney, who wrote an essay about the origins of the Olympic victory podium in 2006 for the International Centre for Olympic Studies. Addressed to the organizing committee secretaries, several organizational matters were addressed. One pertained to the “Presentation of Medals and Victory Flag Ceremonies,” in which it said the three winners of each event will be given prizes while on pedestals, similar to the pedestal used for the athlete who takes the oath on opening day. Furthermore, the ceremony should be in front of the presidential box.
In a sub-directive of a section titled “Presentation of Medals, Victory Flag Ceremonies, Loud Speaker Announcements,” the IOC was more precise: “Medals will be awarded by the president, Count de Baillet-Latour, or his appointee, from three pedestals, the center one higher than the other two, the first place winner standing on the center pedestal, the second on his right, the third on his left.”
Once the teams were lined up inside the nearest hockey box, facing the grandstand, the podium was moved to the center of the ice. Flagbearers lined up behind it. And III Olympic Winter Games President Godfrey Dewey climbed onto the podium’s left platform to introduce Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt. A microphone extended from the ice to the height of his shoulders as he held a piece of paper and read the introduction.
The governor then recited a brief speech from the reviewing stand, welcoming America’s “sister nations” as guests of the United States and New York state.
“I proclaim open the III Olympic Winter Games, celebrating the Xth Olympiad of the modern era,” he said.
After the shooting of a cannon and the raising of the Olympic flag, Lake Placid speedskater Jack Shea climbed onto the podium’s right platform and recited the Olympic oath of amateurism.
Later that morning, Shea won the fourth and final heat of the 500-meter speedskating race. He was the first to win a gold medal at the 1932 Winter Olympics.
“He was the first athlete in Olympic history to receive a gold medal on top of that victory podium,” Lake Placid Olympic Museum Director Alison Haas added.
But it wasn’t that “rickety-looking structure” that Dewey stood on to introduce the governor.
“Later organizers realized they needed to make it a little bit more special,” Haas said.
Between the time Shea took the Olympic oath and the time he received his gold medal on the highest pedestal, someone had decorated the victory platform with stars and stripes bunting.
The III Olympic Winter Games saw other firsts. Two-man bobsled and women’s speedskating events were introduced.
“I find it fascinating just because Lake Placid, when they held their first sanctioned international (speedskating) event in 1920, women were included,” Haas said. “And then organizers for the 1932 games also were able to put women’s speedskating on the program as a demonstration sport. But it wasn’t until 1960 that women’s speedskating became an official event on the Olympic program.”
The women competed in 500-, 1,000- and 1,500-meter speedskating events. Canada and the U.S. each had five athletes on their teams. In the 500-meter race on Feb. 8, Jean Wilson (Canada) was first; Elizabeth Dubois (USA) was second; and Kit Klein (USA) was third. In the 1,000-meter race on Feb. 9, Elizabeth Dubois (USA) was first; Hattie Donaldson (Canada) was second; and Dorothy Franey (USA) was third. In the 1,500-meter race on Feb. 10, Kit Klein (USA) was first; Jean Wilson (Canada) was second; and Helen Bina (USA) was third.
Sled-dog racing was introduced as a demonstration sport in 1932, with the 12 teams that competed on Feb. 6 and 7 either coming from the U.S. or Canada. Emile St. Goddard, of Manitoba, came in first; Leonard Seppala, of Quebec, driving for the U.S., was second; and Shorty Russick, of Manitoba, was third.
Curling was on the program for the first Winter Olympics at Chamonix, France, in 1924. It was demonstration sport in 1928 at St. Moritz, Switzerland, and again in 1932 at Lake Placid. There were four teams each from Canada and the U.S., playing on Feb. 4 and 5. Manitoba came in first; Ontario and Quebec tied for second; and Connecticut and Northern Ontario tied for third.
The curling matches were all held in the arena, which was another first in 1932. It was the first time any part of a Winter Olympic program was held under a roof. The curling, figure skating and hockey games in 1924 and 1928 were all outside. However, making dependable ice for those events was a challenge; it all hinged on the weather.
The arena proved its worth in 1932, as four of the hockey games were moved inside from the stadium hockey box due to weather problems. In all, six of the 12 games were played in the arena.
It’s important to note that an indoor rink was used during the 1908 Olympic Games in London, England, hosting the figure skating competition, and during the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium, hosting the figure skating and ice hockey competitions indoors. But Lake Placid made history in 1932 as the first indoor rink for the Winter Olympics.
The arena also hosted the figure skating events in 1932.
“There was someone named Sonja Henie. I don’t know if that rings a bell,” Haas said sarcastically. “Everyone wanted to watch Sonja Henie.”
Henie, of Norway, competed in the 1924 Winter Olympics when she was 11 years old and finished in last place.
“But that last-place finish really, I think, probably inspired her to go on to win gold medals at 1928 and then 1932 in Lake Placid and then once again in 1936,” Haas said. “She was known as the Norwegian sweetheart and then went on to have a very lucrative business career in the figure skating world. I think just her being here in 1932 really garnered a lot of attention for the United States and certainly Lake Placid.”
Olympic figure skaters came from 13 countries in 1932: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Japan, Norway, Sweden and the U.S. There were 12 contestants in the men’s event, 15 contestants in the women’s event and seven teams competing in the pairs event.
The men skated their school figures on Feb. 8 and free figures on Feb. 9. After judging for both, the top three were Karl Schafer (Austria), gold; Gillis Grafstrom (Sweden), silver; and Montgomery Wilson (Canada), bronze.
“Karl Schafer was very elegant and had a lot of quick dance steps,” Haas said.
The women skated their school figures on Feb. 9 and free figures on Feb. 10. The top three were Sonja Henie (Norway), gold; Fritzi Burger (Austria), silver; and Maribel Vinson (U.S.), bronze.
The pairs skated on Feb. 12, and the top three were Andree and Pierre Brunet (France), gold; Beatrix Loughran and Sherwin Badger (U.S.), silver; and Emilia Rotter and Laszlo Szollas (Hungary), bronze.
In bobsled, the U.S. swept the gold medals in the two- and four-man events, and in speedskating, the U.S. swept the gold in all four events.
Was it the first time Olympic speedskating competitions were held in front of a high school? Could be. It happened again in 1980.
In the 500-meter race on Feb. 4, the top three were John “Jack” Shea (U.S.), gold; Bernt Evensen (Norway), silver; and Alexander Hurd (Canada), bronze.
In the 1,500-meter race on Feb. 5, the top three were John “Jack” Shea (U.S.), gold; Alexander Hurd (Canada), silver; and William Logan (Canada), bronze.
In the 5,000-meter race on Feb. 4, the top three were Irving Jaffee (U.S.), gold; Edward Murphy (U.S.), silver; and William Logan (Canada), bronze.
In the 10,000-meter race on Feb. 6, the top three were Irving Jaffee (U.S.), gold; Ivar Ballangrud (Norway), silver; and Frank Stack (Canada), bronze.
Haas said the 1932 Winter Olympics would be remembered locally for its hometown heroes of Jack Shea, winning gold in speedskating, and the Stevens brothers — J. Hubert and Curtis — winning gold in the two-man bobsled race. Another brother, F. Paul Stevens, won a silver medal as part of the USA 2 four-man sled piloted by Henry Homburger, of Saranac Lake.
Yet one of the main takeaways in 1932 was the need to weather-proof the Games in the future. Some of the events — such as skiing, bobsledding and hockey — were delayed, postponed or moved to the arena due to blizzards and thaws.
Olympic weather challenges were addressed again in Lake Placid, in 1980, when artificial snow was manufactured for the first time at an Olympic Winter Games.