OLYMPIC LEGACY: Olympic forefathers
1932 Olympic committee creates U.S. blueprint for hosting international games
(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 — In the summer of 1994, WNBZ 1240-AM in Saranac Lake and radio stations around the world played two hit songs from Swedish pop group Ace of Base: “The Sign” and “Don’t Turn Around.”
At the same time, almost 300 miles away — in Westborough, Massachusetts — 12-year-old Ashley Hayden Walden saw an advertisement for the U.S. Luge Association slider search coming to the Boston area. This was a “sign” that luge may be the sport for her, and after her first time on ice, she didn’t “turn around.”
“My family and I had always watched the Winter Olympics, and we particularly always liked watching luge,” she said March 14. “So when I saw the advertisement come out, I just thought it was the coolest thing, and I had to try it.”
Walden traveled to the slider search at Danvers, Massachusetts, just north of Boston, and laid back on a luge sled for the first time, a sled with wheels. She did well enough that the U.S. Luge Association invited her to a one-week winter camp in Lake Placid to try luge on the ice.
Walden’s first time on ice was a memorable one. It was the old luge track at Mount Van Hoevenberg, built for the XIII Olympic Winter Games in 1980. She was 13 at the time, during the winter of 1994-95.
“They give you a helmet and a sled and elbow pads,” she said. “They give you a brief instruction. They start you fairly low on the course, and so there’s not an actual start. You’re kind of in the middle of the course.”
Walden remembers a man, possibly a coach from the U.S. Luge Association, standing in the middle of the track, holding her sled steady with his foot while she waited.
“And he says, ‘Are you good?’ He walks you through a few things and he just says, ‘Here you go,'” she said. “He moves his foot, and I remember it being the most frightening thing because I have no brakes, I don’t know what to expect, I’m just hoping.”
After that, the memory of the run is a blur.
“But I do remember getting to the bottom and saying, ‘I gotta go again,'” she said.
Walden spent the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons competing on the USA Luge junior team. After the 1998 Olympic Winter Games at Nagano, Japan, she earned a spot on the senior team for the 1998-99 World Cup season. She’d already won four Junior World Cup races and an overall junior World Cup title. She turned 17 years old that November and graduated from Westborough High School the following year.
Walden’s senior team luge career spanned from 1998 to 2011. During that time, she competed in the 2002 Olympic Winter Games at Salt Lake City, coming in eighth, and she won the USA Luge start championships 10 years in a row. She also met the love of her life, Bengt Walden, a Swedish luger who competed at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
“A lot of nations partner up or adopt smaller nations, so the U.S. had started to help out the Swedish team,” Ashley said. “They had about three athletes at that time. So they spent time training here in Lake Placid and would train on ice during the year with our team as well.”
Ashley and Bengt married in 2006, allowing him to compete for the U.S. luge team during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games at Vancouver, Canada. They both retired from luge in 2011 and now live in Lake Placid with two small children. He’s an assistant coach for the USA Luge national team, and she worked for USA Bobsled and Skeleton for seven years before the Adirondack North Country Sports Council hired her as its executive director in 2019.
Lake Placid 2023
Walden, 40, earned a bachelor’s degree in sports management at Northeastern University and a master’s degree in project management at DeVry University. Today, she’s using both those degrees to help organize Lake Placid’s latest sports management project — the 2023 Winter World University Games.
The Adirondack North Country Sports Council is the organizing committee and works closely with the rights holder of the Games, the International University Sports Federation (FISU), based in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The 31st Winter World University Games will be held from Jan. 12 to 22, 2023. It will host 2,500 athletes between the ages of 17 and 25, from 600 universities and 50 nations. There will be 86 medal events in 12 sports: Alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, curling, figure skating, freestyle and freeski, ice hockey, Nordic combined, short-track speedskating, ski jumping, snowboard and speedskating.
It will be the biggest international sporting event in the Adirondack Park since the 1980 Winter Olympics. Venues will be spread across the region: Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Canton, Potsdam, North Creek and Wilmington.
As the leader of the organizing committee, Walden admits that she’s not the most “super-organized” person.
“So I have surrounded myself with people that help to complement my skills,” she said. “I see my strengths as being able to see a larger picture and helping to pull together the necessary pieces to bring that full picture to life. I constantly try to be as organized as possible, but I have a great team that helps make sure that we stay organized and on target.”
Lake Placid was awarded the Games in 2018, and Walden began working on the project in 2019. With an event of this magnitude, that wasn’t much time. The bid committee had worked with Alan Shaw’s company called epic, based in Atlanta, which works on strategic planning and project management for sports events around the world. So the Sports Council hired Shaw to put together an organizational “master plan” for Lake Placid 2023.
“He had the pattern,” Walden said. “He had done a lot of work with organizing committees and specifically with FISU. So rather than us going through and looking at all these (FISU) requirements, starting to pull the information together and really starting from the ground level, we started to work with Alan on building out this plan. And really, it’s a playbook for the Games.”
With Shaw on board, Walden said the Sports Council saved about a year’s worth of work.
“And probably a lot of pain and hurdles along the way,” she added.
The plan is a 350-page document and has 24 chapters.
“We took the Games, and we divided it up into different areas,” Walden said. “So we have 24 functional areas. That includes marketing, communications, broadcast, sport, finance and executive office.”
It also includes the master schedule — with 900 items or deliverables — that the staff reviews every couple of months.
“We said, from now until the end of the Games, these are all of the major milestones and tasks that each area needs to accomplish in order for us to be successful,” Walden said.
In order to pull off the Games, the Sports Council currently has about 45 part- and full-time people on staff and will have a workforce of about 100 by January.
Nobody expected the coronavirus pandemic and the challenges it would pose to the Lake Placid 2023 organizing committee for the past two years. But at least they’re going forward; the 2021 Winter World University Games at Lucerne, Switzerland, were postponed last winter due to COVID-19 and eventually canceled due to the spread of the omicron variant.
Normally organizing committees work closely with FISU, including a number of inspection visits. But that didn’t happen for two years because of COVID-19 travel restrictions and concerns. With restrictions easing, FISU has 25 different representatives planning to make inspection visits.
“We’re having to cram this into one visit, and normally it would have started two years ago,” Walden said.
Another challenge is the national staffing shortage; Lake Placid 2023 is behind on staffing right now. A number of jobs are currently posted on lakeplacid2023.com on the careers page.
The pandemic also disrupted supply chains around the globe, putting construction project behind schedule, including The Peaks development in Lake Placid that was supposed to house a number of university athletes in January 2023. That won’t happen now.
“There was quite a bit of shifting gears we needed to do there to make sure we had the accommodations in place,” Walden said.
Walden was never in the U.S. Marine Corps, and for this interview, she didn’t quote the Marine Corps motto “to improvise, adapt, and overcome all obstacles in all situations.” But she certainly has adopted this style of leadership when it comes to organizing the 2023 Winter World University Games.
“We’re thrown a curveball almost every week,” she said. “There’s something that comes up that, ‘Well that wasn’t our plan. Now we’re going to have to make changes here, here and here.’ And just being able to react and make those changes and continue to move forward has been our biggest key to success so far.”
Walden knows that she can have the best plan in the world, but Lake Placid 2023 won’t be successful without having the right team in place.
“Hiring the people that have the ability, not only to deliver the plan, but to be able to take a situation that changes, that isn’t a plan, and adjust and be flexible and somehow adapt to make it work,” she said.
Asked if she has one mentor when it comes to Lake Placid 2023, Walden said she no; she has a community full of mentors. After all, Lake Placid has been hosting international sporting events for generations.
“We’re so fortunate to have so much experience and knowledge of sports,” she said. “Sometimes just walking down the street, you’ll see somebody and start a conversation and you’ll learn something that they were involved in, either as a volunteer or a lead. It’s a bit of information that would have never crossed your path. So I think that’s what is the most unique about it is really just the extensive knowledge and experience on events that this community has.”
Walden loves living in Lake Placid, with its rich winter sports heritage, and she loves her job.
“I’ve loved the challenge and the ability to build a team from the ground up,” she said. “And I love the fact that it’s different every day. We have different tasks, different challenges. We really have to stay on our toes and be creative, and I love that part of it.”
As Lake Placid celebrates the 90th anniversary of the 1932 Winter Olympics — and all that came afterward, including the 1980 Winter Olympics, Walden is intertwined in the village’s Olympic legacy. Asked how her life would be different if this village didn’t host the Olympics, she said:
“That’s a great question. I’m guessing that if Lake Placid didn’t host the 1932 Games that USA Luge wouldn’t be headquartered here. That trajectory probably would have been completely different. I probably wouldn’t have competed in luge. I certainly wouldn’t be here right now. And that was obviously a major turning point in my life at an early age and one that I wouldn’t change for the world.”
Winter sports blueprint
In its foreword to the III Olympic Winter Games final report, the organizing committee ended by saying, “For much that the Organizing Committee did there was no pattern. If it can leave one for others it will be glad.”
The report was filled with more details about the Games than anyone probably expected. It included Lake Placid’s early days of winter sports development; a brief history of the Olympics; the 1932 Winter Olympic bid; the award of the Olympics; the committee’s organizational structure; finances; publicity; how the committee hosted the Games; the Olympic facilities; reports on all the competitions from Feb. 4 to 15, 1932; and plenty of photos.
This 291-page document was designed, in part, to give other U.S. communities a blueprint on how to successfully organize an international winter sports event. In fact, organizers saw themselves as leaders in this field. Indeed, they hosted North America’s first Winter Olympics; therefore, they were the forefathers of the Winter Olympics on this continent. It was the beginning of Lake Placid’s quest to become the “Winter Sports Capital of the World.” At the time, however, the winter sports capital of the world was in Europe — most likely St. Moritz, Switzerland, host of the II Olympic Winter Games.
In the conclusion of the 1932 Winter Olympic report, organizers saw themselves as passing the banner of winter sports.
“May it be held proudly aloft,” they wrote. “May other resorts rally around the standard which we have carried for three years to the best of our collective abilities. May Winter Sports come to stand primarily not for the enervating relaxations of warmer climes, but rather for those sports which winter alone makes possible, especially the sports on the Olympic program — ski running and jumping, speed and figure-skating, hockey, bobsledding, sled-dog racing and curling. May the development of these sports and the facilities necessary for their enjoyment continue in the years ahead to the advantage of those communities sponsoring them and to the better health of a great nation.”
Organizers hoped that by holding the 1932 Winter Olympics, the promotion of winter sports in America would be fast forwarded by at least a decade, “if not a generation. Our part has been done. May the example of the Games carry on where we leave off.”
Whenever the term “Olympic legacy” comes up in conversation, in the media or as a promotional tool for the state Olympic Regional Development Authority’s attractions, it’s used to talk about the things you can see — Lake Placid’s Olympic venues. Sometimes it refers to the people who built that Olympic legacy. But it rarely talks about the things you can’t see — the intangibles that made it all happen.
One of those intangibles is confidence — the kind you need to build a world-class winter sports brand and proclaim yourself as the “Winter Sports Capital of the World.”
Lake Placid did that — its full-time and seasonal residents, its boosters, its movers and shakers — most of them volunteers. For the most part, they were everyday men and women: small business owners, accountants, bankers, clergymen, postal workers, hotel operators, chamber of commerce directors, doctors, judges, newspaper and radio station employees, railroad workers, soldiers, builders and contractors, firefighters and town and village employees.
“I think that’s a key word, the confidence, because in my tenure working with the local elected officials, there was never any hesitation on doing new and different things,” said Jim McKenna, CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism and chairman of the Adirondack North Country Sports Council.
Before bidding on the 1932 Winter Olympics, Lake Placid Club Vice President Godfrey Dewey traveled to Europe for a multi-week, fact-finding mission in early 1928. His stops included many of the popular winter resorts, including St. Moritz, where he spent time during the Winter Olympics studying how they were organized and operated.
Dewey came back to America with the confidence that Lake Placid could successfully host the III Olympic Winter Games in 1932, and he quickly formed a committee to begin writing the bid. Lake Placid was awarded the Olympics in April 1929, giving locals less than three years to prepare for the Games. Dewey became the organizing committee’s president, leading the way from beginning to end. He’s the one who rallied the troops in 1928 and convinced locals that they had what it takes to play on the world stage of winter sports.
And, after successfully organizing and hosting the 1932 Winter Olympics, Lake Placid never lost that confidence.
It was seen in the tenacity of locals, who spent decades bidding on a second Winter Olympics, which was finally granted for 1980. That confidence was seen when Lake Placid hosted dozens of World Cup, World Championship and Olympic trial events since the 1930s. It was seen from 1969 to 1971 as host of the Kennedy International Memorial Winter Games; in 1972 as host of the FISU Winter World University Games; in 2000 as host of the Winter Goodwill Games; in 2019 as host of the International Children’s Winter Games; and right now as the region prepares for the FISU Winter World University Games in 2023.
McKenna has traveled to Europe as a local representative for the World Union of Olympic Cities; Lake Placid is on the executive committee. He gave a presentation on Lake Placid’s winter sports heritage during the Union’s 2014 Smart Cities & Sport Summit.
“We’re sitting there with as much influence as the biggest cities in the world,” McKenna said. “(North Country Chamber of Commerce CEO) Garry Douglas always says, ‘Punch above your weight.’ Well, we’re well above our weight in the international sports field based on per capita. That’s, to me, the number one result of 1932.”
Organizers of the 1932 Winter Olympics positioned Lake Placid as an international winter sports destination, not just for recreation but for competition. The Olympic venues — ski jump, arena and bobsled run — were used after the Games for local, state, national and international events. And it all began in 1920 when Lake Placid hosted its first internationally sanctioned event, the International Outdoor Speed Skating Championships on Mirror Lake in February 1920.
“One hundred years later, that is continuing,” McKenna said. “Not being afraid to get out there and looking at a world event and having the audacity to be out there among the big cities of the world bidding on these events. … That’s the legacy I see.”
After Lake Placid was awarded the 1932 Winter Olympics, an executive committee was formed from the community’s leading civic bodies: Lake Placid Club, Lake Placid Chamber of Commerce, town of North Elba, Lake Placid School Board of Education, village of Lake Placid, Lake Placid Kiwanis Club and Lake Placid Athletic Club. This group eventually became the board of directors and had 15 members in the end.
The III O.W.G. Committee set up standing committees to help organize and run the Games: Housing Committee, Transportation Committee, Health and Safety Committee, Finance Committee, Publicity Committee and Sports Committees (bobsleigh, curling, figure skating, hockey, skiing, sled-dog racing and speedskating). These committees were filled with local residents.
The III O.W.G. Committee’s active officers were: Godfrey Dewey, president; Willis Wells, vice president; Ernest Gamache, secretary; and William O’Hare, treasurer.
The III O.W.G. Committee hired staffers to run the office at the North Elba Town Hall and executive personnel for key operational positions. It also relied on help from the Essex County Park Commission, North Elba Town Board, North Elba Park Commission, Lake Placid Village Board, Lake Placid School Board of Education and New York State Olympic Winter Games Commission.
What these organizers — and many others from around the region — did in 1932 helped set Lake Placid up for its winter sports successes over the next 90 years.
“They were just local regular people that carried that legacy beyond 1932 and really until 1980,” McKenna said. “I think we’re getting back to that now.”