It’s a big deal.
The World University Games, to be held next January, is the largest international event planned for Lake Placid since the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Can the village and local organizers handle it? Ten months ahead of the opening ceremonies, the signs suggest they can — and that is important. While it is unlikely that Lake Placid will host the Winter Olympics again, the World University Games is important as the village and the region look to maintain status as a world-class site for world-class events.
First, some background.
The original idea for international student games came out of the Universal Peace Conference held in Rome in 1891. They never happened. The founder of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, was among those who revived the idea and the first International Universities Championships were held in Paris in 1923. After several starts and stops, the modern-day games were revived in 1947 and came under the banner of the newly formed International University Sports Federation (FISU) two years later. The first Winter Games were held in 1960.
This will be the 31st version of the biennial World University Winter Games in the post World War II era. It will be only the second time the Winter Games have been held in the USA. The first was in 1972, also in Lake Placid. Most recently, the games were scheduled for Lucerne, Switzerland, but after being postponed once due to COVID issues, the games scheduled for last December were canceled.
The competition is reserved for athletes between ages 18 to 25. Each must be a national of the country they represent and must be enrolled in a university.
COMPETITION HAS GROWN
In 1972, there were 315 athletes from 22 countries in Lake Placid for 25 competitions in seven sports: Alpine and Nordic skiing, biathlon, ski jumping, figure skating, speed skating and hockey. The games were held in late February to early March, just two weeks after the close of the Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan.
This time, University Games organizers expect 1,600 athletes from 50 countries representing 600 universities. There will be 86 medal events — an equal number for men and women — in 12 sports. By comparison, in the 1980 Winter Olympics, there were 1,100 competitors from 37 countries entered in 12 sports
In 1980, there was no snowboarding, freestyle skiing or curling. In 2023, there will be no sliding events: bobsled, luge and skeleton.
While Lake Placid will be the host of the games, some of the early rounds of the hockey competition will be held in Canton and Potsdam, the curling in Saranac Lake, and the snowboard and freestyle skiing at Gore Mountain in North Creek.
LET THE GAMES BEGIN
At this time, the location of the opening ceremonies on Jan. 12 will be in Lake Placid, but the location is still being discussed. Wherever they take place, chances are the scene will be a lot more orderly than the first time around.
In 1972, it was a bitter cold evening and the parade from what was the Lake Placid Club to the opening ceremony at the skating oval in front of Lake Placid High School was late in getting underway. The crowd was chilled, restless — and a little rambunctious. The Italian team commandeered a horse-drawn carriage and circled the oval while singing bawdy songs. American skier James Miller was the torch bearer, but as he ascended the podium, he spilled oil from the torch and the sleeve of his sweater caught fire.
Fortunately, he was able to slap down the flame and light the cauldron.
The games themselves had their ups and downs. From a very cold start, temperatures went up, topping off at 58 degrees one day. Local realtor and former Lake Placid mayor and Town of North Elba supervisor Roby Politi was an All-American skier at St. Lawrence University then, and he came back from an untimely case of the flu to finish 20th in the giant slalom event held on a warm day. “What I remember is ruts a foot deep when I ran the course,” he said recently; the cross country ski competitors and distance speed skaters raced on slush.
The best U.S. ski finisher was Stanford University student Caryn West who won the overall Alpine gold medal. In subsequent years, West has become a familiar face on television and in the movies, and well known as a drama teacher. Canadian Lisa Richardson won the women’s downhill by 3/100 of a second. The United States won a total of seven medals in 1972, good for second place in the overall count, but far behind the 29 won by athletes from the Soviet Union.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
The competition this time is expected to come off smoothly. First, the likelihood of 58 degree temperatures in mid-January, while possible, is unlikely. Second, the facilities that will be used for the games are impressive, especially the cross country and biathlon venues at Mount Van Hoevenberg, and the refurbished speed skating oval and ice rinks in the village, which represent part of a recent $300 million investment by New York State to bring facilities up to international competition standards.
The third, and perhaps most important, reason for optimism is the organization of the games. The Adirondack Sports Council was the lead agency in successfully getting the games and it is led by Jim McKenna who has more than 30 years experience of organizing activities and events in Lake Placid. Among other successes, he was a key figure in resurrecting the Empire State Winter Games 20 years ago when they were dropped by New York State. The Olympic Regional Development Authority is a full partner, and ORDA — formed shortly after the 1980 Winter Olympics — now has more than 40 years experience managing international competitions.
On the front lines is 2002 Olympic luge competitor Ashley Walden who serves as head of the University Games organizing committee, backed up by Schenectady native and Bishop Gibbons graduate Chris Carroll who is in charge of marketing efforts that include sponsorships, and what so far is more than 150 hours of television and live streaming coverage of the games.
There are a couple of clouds in the picture, too.
Originally the plans called for athletes to be housed in Lake Placid in a new residential development scheduled for completion before the games got underway. It appears now that won’t happen, so many of the competitors and officials will stay at Paul Smith’s College, a spectacular site — but one that’s approximately 45 minutes away from the host village.
Athletes competing in Gore-based events will be housed at the Great Escape Hotel near Northway exit 19.
These are certainly acceptable accommodations, but much different from 1972 when most participants were housed together at the then-Lake Placid Club in the village.
Then, there are the two major unknowns: COVID and the situation in Ukraine.
According to officials, the COVID situation is being monitored closely and changes will be made if necessary. Regarding the Eastern European situation, as of now, Russia and Belarus have been suspended from all FISU events. That situation will be reviewed in June.
Holding a multiple-day, multiple-venue event like the University Games will require a large number of volunteers, too. Those with an interest should check the official website www.lakeplacid2023.com for details.
Plans for reopening the Olympic Museum in Lake Placid later this year appear to be on schedule. The ORDA-affiliated museum will remain in the same location in the Olympic Center, but with a refurbished layout and design created by Buffalo firm Hadley Exhibits. One highlight sure to be included is the broadcast replay of the “Miracle on Ice” hockey victory for the United States over the heavily favored Soviet Union team in 1980, an event that is still thrilling to watch even though it took place 42 years ago.
Prospects for the New York Ski Museum proposed by a local group in North Creek are less clear, as the project is still struggling to get off the ground. An option to include an early version as part of the new lodge to be built at the North Creek Ski Bowl has yet to gain any traction.
A second thaw in less than three weeks has hit local ski areas hard.
Without additional snowfall, cross country skiing in the area may be done for the season and downhill facilities may not make it to April. This is the call-before-you-go time of the year, when skiable terrain shrinks, even at the largest snowmaking areas.
CARING FOR YOUR GEAR
Ski gear is expensive, so taking care of what you have is important.
Alpin Haus, the Amsterdam and Clifton Park retailer, has put together some easy-to-follow tips on caring for equipment, which is available on their website at www.alpinhaus.com.
It is a good checklist as we look ahead to the end of the season.
Contact Phil Johnson at [email protected]