Dateline: Lake Placid

The town that’s giving ‘downhill’ new meaning

Rita Christopher February 11 1980
Dateline: Lake Placid

The town that’s giving ‘downhill’ new meaning

Rita Christopher February 11 1980

The town that’s giving ‘downhill’ new meaning

Dateline: Lake Placid

Rita Christopher

In ancient Greece athletes prayed to Zeus, king of the Gods, to protect the Olympic Games and all who participated in them. Last month at Lake Placid, New York, site of the 1980 Winter Olympics, the Reverend Bernard Fell offered up his prayers for divinely inspired snow to cover the barren mountains before the games begin Feb. 13— and, lo and behold, the place got a slight powdering. In Lake Placid, at least, Fell’s words pack more than the average punch. Not only is he executive director of the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee (LPOOC) but before his call to the cloth he was a local policeman. Despite his recent immersion in affairs of the spirit, Fell still knows a thing or two about worldly scams. After testifying at a congressional investigation looking into charges of nepotism on the local Olympic committee, Fell cited a heavenly hand in the group’s somewhat unusual financial arrangements. “We are proud of our nepotism up in the hill country,” he explained. “We need our relatives. The Lord knows there are a lot of them and we are proud of it.” There’s no need to tell John M. Wilkins, one of Lake Placid’s most prominent businessmen, about relatives. He awarded a lucrative insurance contract for the Games to two nephews without any competitive bidding. That ultimately cost Wilkins his membership on the organizing committee, but as one of the town’s leading landlords he still stands to make a bundle by renting

apartments to cash-happy speculators. Said Wilkins, “I could stay asleep or go to Australia and I couldn’t help but make money.” That’s what they call the Olympic spirit in Lake Placid, population 2,731, where dollars are changing hands at a speed that might amaze even the swiftest downhill ski racer. Seasonal unemployment rates run as high as 20 per cent, an unpleasant reminder of how the town has deteriorated since its glory days as the fashionable resort that hosted the 1932 Olympics.

So it comes as no surprise that in Lake Placid the Games are viewed less as athletic competition than economic salvation. “Everyone’s trying to get their share of the dollar,” complained one of Fell’s colleagues, clergyman William Hayes. Many local property owners already have their money safely in the bank. Lawyer Charlie Walsh sold a one-acre unimproved lot to the Austrian Trade Commission for $108,000. And home owners are receiving as much as $50,000 for renting their houses during the month of February. To be sure, the renters are a high-powered lot including the kings of Norway and Sweden and the city of Calgary, which will use its quarters as a base to woo members of the International Olympic Committee to the idea of granting a future winter spectacular to Western Canada.

But Lake Placid has its losers as well as its financial winners. Last winter Beverly Manning, a motel ehamber-

maid, and her five children found their heat and hot water had been turned off despite the sub-zero weather. Landlord Wilkins wanted local tenants out to make the ramshackle building available for free-spending Olympic visitors. Margaret Quigley, who lived above a pizza parlor on Main Street with her 83year-old father, was given two months to vacate the apartment she had occupied for 13 years. Her landlord wanted the space for an Olympic centre.

There’s living space for the athletes at the Olympic Village in Ray Brook, seven miles from Lake Placid. But despite such inducements as a discotheque with a light system designed by the Manhattan company that has worked on such famous pleasure spots as Studio 54, hit movies like Jaws with foreignlanguage subtitles, and an all-night restaurant, many of the competitors are far from thrilled with the village. Scheduled to become a federal mediumsecurity prison when the Games are over, it also features cell-like sleeping quarters squeezing two athletes into a 10-foot-by-10-foot cubicle, and particularly narrow windows bisected by long steel bars. To satisfy both the stringent Olympic security precautions and the obvious requirements of its next life, the village is surrounded by two chain link fences. “The village facilities are the worst I have ever seen,” reported a member of the Japanese Olympic Committee. And from the Swedish Olympic Committee came this verdict: “The facilities are rotten to say the least.” The Swedes, along with the Italians, the Austrians and the East and West Germans, have all rented outside accommodations for their athletes.

Nor is criticism of the village confined to the Olympic teams. Civil libertarians are far from happy with the $26-million facility designed for youthful offenders. They claim it violates the

government’s own guidelines for the location of prisons, which state that prisoners be held near the major population centres from which most of them come. To shut up teen-age hoodlums several hundred miles from the urban ghettos that spawned them offends the sensibilities of prison reformists. Other protesters are a group of Mohawk Indians, who claim the whole village sits illegally on their ancestral homeland. They suggest the premises be turned into an environmental centre at the close of the Games.

That’s a proposal that might also help to still the voices of environmentalists raised in horror at the rape of the landscape by the steel towers of the 70and 90-metre ski jumps. Perched atop a 200foot ridge, the twin turrets are the highest structures in New York state north of the capital, Albany, and they overshadow history as well as scenery. They hulk above the small farmhouse where the body of famed 19th-century abolitionist John Brown lies a-moulderin’ in the grave.

Most Placidians, however, think the

ski-jump towers look a great deal better than the modern art that now decorates the town. In compliance with the Olympic charter, which requires splashes of culture to dispel the unfavorable notion that athletes are simply muscle-bound hulks, $1.5 million has been spent commissioning a range of life’s noble works. This includes sculptor Phil Simkin’s Rosebud II, a collection of seven fishing shacks mounted on 150 Flexible Flyer sleds, all nestled on the ice at the edge of Mirror Lake. Townsfolk are not bashful about letting people know what they think about Rosebud II and such other outdoor marvels as High Peaks, a grouping of painted steel pillars in the village park. “They stink,” said 76-yearold Charles Blinn, who has lived in Lake Placid for 52 years.

As opening ceremonies approach, the logistics of moving some 51,000 people a day through a town with one traffic light are taking precedence over complaints about modern art. Cars, except for those of Olympic officials and residents, will be forbidden. Visitors will park some 10 miles away and shuttle into town and from event to event in a fleet of 450 buses. Organizers claim there are some 30,000 beds within a 25mile radius of Lake Placid but much of the space is taken up by Olympic panjandrums, journalists, team coaches and other semi-official functionaries. Most visitors will be staying at locations two to three hours away, from Albany to Montreal; not only will spectators have to be bused to Lake Placid daily, but so will massive quantities of food, drink and other necessities.

And there are some problems that not even the most determined optimist can overcome. Take the local porcupines, for instance. To the dismay of video technicians the Olympics have introduced the porcupines to a new taste treat—plastic television cable. They have already chewed through 47 miles of it and their appetites are growing by the day.