WORLD FOCUS: Remembering the 1972 World University Games in Lake Placid

According to news reports, the Historic Triangle Recreational Facilities Authority has recently voted unanimously to negotiate an interim agreement with WEB General Contractors of Chesapeake, the company that built Virginia Beach’s new $68 million indoor sports complex that opened in October 2020.

Williamsburg area leaders were quoted saying, “The goal of the complex is to offer a facility for traveling sport teams to compete and bring in tourism revenues to the area.”

It is well known the city of Williamsburg has championed the idea of promoting itself as a destination for sport tourism since 2014.

In a 2021 column, I pointed out, that considering the changing nature of the tourist-based economy, many people in our community seem to believe that it doesn’t have to be Williamsburg destiny to be known only as a place for history tourism. Its world-wide recognized name can be utilized also as a destination for international sport events.

I suggested that one of those sports events should be the FISU World University Games.

FISU is a celebration of international university sports and culture, with thousands of student athletes competing during the biannual games, that last about two weeks.

I am familiar with the history and impact of the FISU Games because in 1972 I witnessed how it has helped put Lake Placid, New York, a small mountain village, on the path to become the site of the 1980 Olympic Winter Games.

The 1972 FISU Winter Games was awarded to Lake Placid because it had maintained the winter sports venues that had been built for the 1932 Winter Olympics. It was where Sonja Henie, of Norway, won a gold medal in figure skating, and subsequently became a movie star.

But following the 1932 Winter Olympics, many international sports competitions eluded Lake Placid. That is, until it was chosen as the site of the 1972 FISU World University Games.

The successful staging of the 1972 FISU Games, and the accompanying worldwide publicity, opened the path for Lake Placid to be chosen as the site of the 1980 Winter Olympics.

What helped make the 1972 FISU Games a worldwide news media story was the People-for-People Program.

My wife and I, because we were multi-lingual, had been recruited to be translators for the foreign athletes. We soon noticed there were no provisions made to provide the foreign athletes with transportation, except to the sports venues. Neither, given a chance, to meet local people or go shopping.

I asked the president of the organizing committee for permission to remedy this, and I was given the go-ahead. The response to a call to residents, to serve as hosts to foreign athletes, poured in. The athletes were taken sightseeing and shopping and were invited to the homes of residents for dinner.

But what made headlines, worldwide was the story about Galina Karelina, the Russian figure skater, who won the gold medal in pair skating. The FISU People-for-People Program learned that after her return to Moscow, Galina would marry one of the Soviet Union’s most famous hockey players.

The People-for-People Program decided to surprise her with a lacy, bridal gown, as a gift. She was ushered into Mr. Altman’s fashion shop in Saranac Lake, New York, and asked to try on some of the bridal gowns, just for fun. Then she was told, it is hers, to take it home.

Galina’s surprise and delight was recorded by an Associated Press photographer and reporter. The event took place at the height of the Cold War, and the story went viral. The photo was printed in most leading newspapers around the world.

During the decision-making process of where to hold the 2023 FISU Games that is expected to bring more than 2,500 college athletes to Lake Placid, from Jan. 12 to Jan. 22, former Lake Placid Mayor Craig Randall said, “The 1972 FISU Games was a game-changer that left a positive and lasting effect on the town to this day.”

While contemplating the future of the Williamsburg Regional Sports Complex, it is well to remember, hosting the FISU Summer or Winter Games, proved to have been a key to turning places into magnets for international sports events.

(Frank Shatz is a former resident of Lake Placid and a current resident of Williamsburg, Virginia. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” a compilation of his columns. This column is used with permission by the Virginia Gazette.)

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