After 100 years, Lake Placid still important to the Olympic movement

1980 Olympic Winter Games opening ceremony, Lake Placid (Photo — Lake Placid News archives)

As we reflect on a century of Olympic Winter Games, we remember that successful experiment in the winter of 1904-05 at the Lake Placid Club on the shores of Mirror Lake. That’s when the club opened its doors to winter visitors for the first time, and it’s where this village’s Olympic legacy began.

Certainly a highlight along Lake Placid’s Olympic timeline was Jan. 26, 1924, when our own Charles Jewtraw captured the first gold medal in the first Olympic Winter Games, held at Chamonix, France. In 44 seconds flat, he won the 500-meter speedskating race at the Stade Olympique de Chamonix. Just a month earlier, on Dec. 28, 1923, he participated in the final Olympic speedskating tryouts on Mirror Lake.

It was on a frozen Mill Pond, though, near the Lake Placid train station where Jewtraw grew as a young speedskater. A monument marks this footnote in history in a park named after the gold-medal winner.

Two of the most notable dates on Lake Placid’s Olympic timeline are 1932 — when we hosted the III Olympic Winter Games — and 1980 — when we hosted the XIII Olympic Winter Games.

It’s taken more than a century of dreaming, hard work, dedication, stubborn perseverance, blood, sweat and tears — and a whole lot of money — to get to where we are today. Thanks to a new round of state investment, our winter sports venues are world-class again, and Lake Placid continues to host international events and inspire, host and train the next generation of Olympians. This region has sent at least one athlete to every Winter Olympics since 1924. Not many places around the world can boast this kind of record.

Although we’ve been blessed with decades of support from state and federal legislators, governors and presidents, Lake Placid’s Olympic legacy actually began as a grassroots effort by the men and women of our community, everyday people, our neighbors and friends, civic leaders and volunteers. Maybe some did it for honor and glory, but most committed themselves to bringing the Olympic movement here — and keeping it here — for each other, for the community, to support the local economy and to provide jobs.

There are too many of these selfless people throughout the generations to list here, yet some of the earliest winter sports boosters were Henry Uihlein II and the Lake Placid Club’s Godfrey Dewey. Today, we are on the cusp of a new chapter in Lake Placid’s Olympic legacy. Seasoned civic boosters who have consistently represented Lake Placid at Olympic host city conferences in Europe — such as Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism CEO Jim McKenna and Lake Placid Mayor Art Devlin — will someday hand off the legacy reins to a newer generation, perhaps to people like state Olympic Regional Development Authority CEO Ashley Walden, a U.S. Olympic luge athlete, and ORDA Communications Director Darcy Norfolk, who wrote the bid for the 2023 FISU Winter World University Games.

Looking at a story from the Lake Placid News archives — on Oct. 3, 1963 — we see just how committed our civic leaders were to this village. Five teams of two were heading off to Europe to bid for the 1968 Olympic Winter Games.

The teams were North Elba Supervisor William J. Hurley and Chamber of Commerce President James C. Sheffield; organizing committee vice chairman Luke Patnode and his brother, Bart; J. Vernon Lamb Jr. and John M. Wilkins; North Elba Park District Manager Stanley Benham and Chamber of Commerce assistant Alan Eccleston; and Fred Fortune and Norman L. Hess. Each team was responsible for calling on delegates from several nations.

“Organizing committee chairman J. Bernard Fell hopes to be able to clear commitments so that he can serve as liaison man in the Brussels, Belgium, office of the State Commerce Department,” the News reported.

Without these dedicated community leaders, Lake Placid could have easily faded into the history books and become a struggling resort. Instead, we are a thriving tourist destination with a bright future and a firm foothold in the Olympic movement.

Lake Placid’s role in the Olympic movement is currently supported by a variety of people and organizations working together. We have ORDA’s venues with experienced organizers, managers and staff; athlete development programs such as the New York Ski Educational Foundation; investment from New York state; the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s Training Center on Old Military Road; Adirondack Sports Council; and U.S. Olympic teams who train here and call this village home, such as USA Luge, USA Bobsled/Skeleton, U.S. Biathlon and USA Nordic.

There’s no reason why this region can’t continue to send local athletes to all future Winter Olympics, like we did 100 years ago when Charles Jewtraw made us proud — proud to be Americans, New Yorkers, Adirondackers and surely proud to call Lake Placid home.

In January 1964, Lake Placid sent a new delegation make their final bid presentation for the 1968 Olympic Winter Games, at a meeting held in Innsbruck, Austria, host of the 1964 Winter Olympics. The team included Art Devlin (speaking on ski jumping), Stanley Benham (bobsledding), Ron MacKenzie (skiing), Mayor Robert Peacock (history of Lake Placid), Luke Patnode (figure skating), James Sheffield (speedskating) and J. Bernard Fell (master of ceremonies).

We all know that Lake Placid did not get the 1968 Olympic Winter Games. They went to Grenoble, France, where Lake Placid teenager and future North Elba Supervisor Jay Rand competed in Olympic ski jumping that year.

In the Jan. 30, 1964, issue of the Lake Placid News, an editorial explored Lake Placid’s Olympic bid process with the headline, “IT WAS WORTH IT.”

“What Lake Placid lost,” the editorial stated, “was the Winter Olympic Games for 1968; what Lake Placid gained was preparation and publicity which has reestablished the Olympic Village as the winter sports capital of this country. … The men and women who volunteered brains and time are to be thanked.”

And this week, as Italy’s organizing committee for the 2026 Olympic Winter Games decided it will rebuild its sliding center — instead of holding the bobsled, skeleton and luge events outside the country, as the International Olympic Committee wanted — we say the same thing about Lake Placid’s recent bid to host the 2026 Olympic sliding events. Yes, even though it was a long shot, it was definitely worth it.

This latest bid, prepared by the state and submitted to the IOC from the USOPC, lays the groundwork for New York possibly hosting the Olympic Winter Games in the future, after Salt Lake City. New York is now on the Olympic map again. The bid laid out a creative plan for Lake Placid to host the 2026 Olympic sliding events with New York City serving as a transportation hub and location for the medal ceremonies.

If the state does indeed land the Olympics in the future, Lake Placid can’t host it alone. It could provide venues for sliding, skiing and snowboarding, but New York City — or another city in the state — would have larger arenas for the opening and closing ceremonies, such as Yankee Stadium, and larger facilities for skating, curling and hockey. With the 2026 Olympic sliding bid, New York has begun its partnership preparations — between upstate and downstate officials — for a shared Winter Olympics across the state. And we think it could work. Those who drew up the bid and submitted it should be thanks for their brains and time — and their vision.

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