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WORLD FOCUS: Breaking the ice

People-for-People Program eased Cold War tensions during 1980 Olympics

On the shores of the York River in Yorktown, a commemorative plaque marks the site from which the 1980 Winter Olympic torch, retracing the American Revolution Bicentennial Trail, began its journey across northeastern portions of the United States on Jan. 31, 1980.

The torch, carried by many runners, arrived at Lake Placid on Feb.8, 1980, to signal the opening of the 1980 Olympic Winter Games. Lake Placid has now celebrated the 40th anniversary of those games.

Although Olympics are always considered sporting events of great significance, the 1980 Winter Olympics was unique. It lifted the spirit of our whole nation. In the “Miracle on Ice” hockey game, the American team, consisting mostly of college students, defeated the seemingly unbeatable Soviet team of professional players and won the gold medal. It was a Cold War victory at a time when we were engaged in a struggle with the Soviet Union.

As a Lake Placid resident at the time, I happened to be the founder and organizer of the Olympic People-for-People Program, which arranged the hosting of hundreds of athletes from around the world in American homes.

Although I was issued a badge that permitted me free access to every sport event, I lacked time to view most of them, except the hockey game that resulted in the “Miracle on Ice.” There were other great moments where American athletes shined, but to me the reference point remained the interaction between Americans and foreign athletes during the Olympics.

While organizing the People-for-People Program, we realized that to be taken seriously by representatives from Communist countries, we needed an official seal of approval. We asked Lake Placid Mayor Robert Peacock to issue a proclamation making February “Olympic People-for-People Month,” and a copy of the proclamation was sent to the head of each Olympic delegation.

The most sought-after guests to be hosted in American homes were athletes from the People’s Republic of China and from the Soviet Union. The general secretary of the Chinese Olympic Committee, He Zhenliang, proclaimed: “Our main purpose in being here at the Winter Olympics is not to win medals, but that our athletes could gain experience and that we develop friendships and mutual understanding.”

Almost three decades later, He Zhenliang was instrumental in securing the much-coveted 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

The Chinese delegation was ready and even eager to accept an invitation to be guests of American families. The Soviet reaction to invitations was a different matter because of the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, over the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The Soviet sport officials were in quandary. They wanted their athletes to make a good impression but were fearful of close contact with Americans.

But the Chinese encounters with Americans were such a success and generated so much publicity that the Soviets relented.

The encounters between Chinese and Soviet athletes and American families received worldwide media coverage. The TV pictures beamed back to Beijing provided a rare, live image of an American home that included a canopied colonial bed, his and her bathrooms, and a kitchen full of the latest gadget.

Participation in the Winter Olympics, the first ever since the Revolution, provided the Chinese government with the opportunity to introduce the Chinese athletes to the world and to open the window and let in some illuminating information from the West.

Our early attempt to extend invitations to Soviet athletes were ignored. Then, a letter I wrote to Sergey Pavlov, chief of the Soviet Olympic delegation, broke the ice.

I wrote: “The Olympic People-for-People Program feels that at a time of heightened international tension it is more important than ever to keep channels of communication open, and the primary function of our Program is to strengthen friendship and goodwill between the visiting athletes and the American people.”

Two days later the phone rang, and Pavlov said, the Soviet athletes are open to invitation to American homes.

The history of the XIII Olympic Winter Games held in Lake Placid is remembered as the games where the People-for-People Program become the most successful non-sport event of the games. Manned by volunteers, its total cost was zero.

Williamsburg, the destination of so many foreign visitors, could learn from Lake Placid’s experience.

(Frank Shatz is currently a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” a compilation of his selected columns.)