The Pinnacle of Winter

Whiteface Mountain

The start of the Winter Olympics this weekend is a big event in the 20 Prospect household. Me and the Mrs. have always made a habit of watching the coverage of the winter games dating back to the 1994 games in Lillehammer. In fact, the very week that I met Mrs. 20 Prospect the 1992 games in Albertville were kicking off. I can still remember hurrying home from dinner each evening to my hotel room in the Holiday Inn in Eveleth, MN to watch the coverage. Perhaps it’s the fact that we are Northern people, but we both have always enjoyed the winter games more than the summer ones. Few memories of sporting events stand larger in my life than the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

for years afterward you could still find stuff with this logo in the trinket shops of Lake Placid NY

I was 11 years old at the time of those games, and the fact that they were being held just a few hours away in Lake Placid made them feel like “our” games. The winter of 1980 was not a very happy time in the United States, or in Western New York. It was the tail end of the 70’s afterall, and economic depression had taken quite a toll on WNY. Watching the evening news was an exercise in masochism. The Iranian hostage crisis, OPEC oil embargos, plant and factory closings, all seemed to dominate the national news. In Western New York the only story of national importance since the devastating blizzard of 77’ was the Love Canal. Yeah, it wasn’t a cheery place to live. So the fact that Upstate New York was going to take center stage in the international spotlight of the Winter Olympics was one of the few positive things that we had to hold onto.

In the life of 20 Prospect clan, we also had a personal connection to the games. My bratty-big sister was in her first year of college at Paul Smith’s college in Saranac Lake. Since Lake Placid sits in the middle of the wilderness of the Adirondack mountains, every town and school in a 60 mile radius had shut down for the duration of the games so their public facilities could be turned into housing, or media centers for the masses of people descending on Lake Placid. My bratty-big Sis had managed to find a job working as a hostess at the Olympic Village. This just seemed to bring the events even closer to home.

Maint Street Lake Placid N.Y.

The previous fall I had visited with my folks for parents weekend, and we had taken a side trip to check out the village of Lake Placid. What folks who aren’t from the area fail to realize, is that Lake Placid really is a village. It is a small little place on the shore of Mirror Lake, smack in the middle of the great Adirondack Park. How it ended up hosting the games is a mystery. Probably because it was the only place in North America at the time with the requisite bobsledding facilities, which had been built for the 1932 version of the games. Few places I have been are as beautiful as the high peaks region of the Adirondacks, and had I been able to find employment there after my graduation from Clarkson, I would have never left.

1930's WPA poster

At eleven years old my entire world revolved around sports. It was all we did on Prospect Avenue, and it was all we talked about at school and watched on TV. The Winter Games were a veritable feast for my voracious sporting appetite. Every day I would hurry home from School and flip on the TV to watch the coverage. Back then, ABC actually carried live coverage of the outdoor events during the daytime. For the first week of the games all of the focus was on this guy.

Eric Heiden

Eric Heiden’s performance in the speed skating events is something that I don’t think will ever be duplicated. He dominated everything from the short sprints, to the long endurance events. Man, that guy had thighs like two locomotives. I can remember watching the clock and holding my breath as he won each and every one of those gold medals. To think those speed skating events took place on a natural ice surface built on the front lawn of  Lake Placid High School is hard to fathom in this day of billion dollar games.

I sucked up every second of TV coverage on Bobsledding, Luge, Skiing and Ski Jumping. At age eleven I wanted nothing more than a chance to run the Zig-Zag at Mt. Van Hoevenberg in a bobsled. Actually, that one is still on my bucket list.

Of course, there was ice hockey too. And all of America remembers this event…

Yes, I do believe in miracles...

But what folks forget is that the hockey team wasn’t in the spotlight at the start of the games. In fact, few of their games were even televised, because no one expected them to do well. But as they started winning, and getting on a roll behind the out-of-his-mind performance of goalie Jim Craig, the media started to seize on them as a touchstone. They were everything that we loved in a story. A bunch of plucky over achievers that seemed to succeed against all odds. Fewer stories would fit so well into the American consciousness. And fewer stories are a bigger source of angst for Canadians. Honestly, don’t ever bring this up with a Canadian. They HATE the Miracle on Ice story. It’s part of that whole red-headed step child complex that Canadians have towards the US. Mom always did like us best.

I can remember really taking an interest in the U.S. Hockey team when they played Czechoslovakia and won 7-3. It was televised on ABC, and was such a wide open, hard hitting, barn burner of a game it got people believing in this team. Another little remembered aspect of the story is the fact that the night the U.S. played the Soviets, the game was not shown live on ABC. Because they had not been expected to do well the game was played starting in the late afternoon. It was a Friday night, and I was sleeping over at my friend Chris’ house on Manhattan Ave. While most of America had to wait to see the tape delayed broadcast on ABC, we had the good fortune of watching the game live on Canadian TV, albeit through a snowstorm of static. Nothing in the world gives me more goose bumps than the final 2 minutes of that game. Incredible. Absolutely incredible. As soon as the game was over, we switched to ABC and watched it again.

It’s been 30 years since then, and times have changed. The Olympics are a big money event now, and will never be hosted in such a Podunk town as good old Lake Placid again. The hockey tournament has become an NHL all star game. TV friendly “sports” like snowboarding, have pushed the sled and ski events even further into the shadows, and endless media spin has made Figure Skating damn near unbearable to watch. Still, for the next two weeks you know where I’ll be each evening. Sitting in front of the TV watching like an eleven year old kid, wishing for all the world that I would have had some sort of talent to get me into the winter games, but alas, moping and blogging are not yet Olympic events.

One thought on “The Pinnacle of Winter

  1. Pingback: Paul Smith’s Once! Paul Smith’s Twice! « 20 Prospect

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