Time flies. Memories linger.
It was 40 years ago that I headed to Lake Placid to spend two weeks as press chief for the bobsled events at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
It was an exciting time that went way over the top on the second Friday of the Games when I saw the U.S. hockey team “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviets, now considered by many the greatest sports event of all time. How I got there is as vivid a memory as the game itself 40 years later.
It all began early the first week. The sliding sports led off the games with luge racing on Wednesday evening at the same time the Opening Ceremonies were being held at the nearby Horse Show Grounds. The local transportation system had collapsed that day and, along with spectators, luge press chief Paul Robbins and I were trapped for a time at the Mt. VanHoevenberg track, seven miles from where we were housed in a temporary mobile home village outside town next to the then-Grand Union supermarket on Saranac Avenue.
From the start, Robbins and I had a deal. I would assist him with the luge events, which came first, then he would help me with the bobsled events, which went right through to the final morning of the Games. It was a smart move for both of us and the beginning of a decades-long friendship with the man who would become internationally known for his encyclopedic knowledge of all things skiing and his Olympic cross country television commentary.
For luge, Robbins managed the press center, an inflatable, temporary building set up a quarter mile from the track. I covered the finish line. On the second day of training, John Omicinski, a former newspaper colleague who was covering the Games for the Gannett papers, took me aside to ask what was going on with new bobsled trials taking place long after the teams had been announced. It was certainly unusual to be considering a lineup shift so close to the competition.
Bobsled, one of the original winter Olympic sports, in recent years had been dominated by Europeans, especially East Germans who had won gold in both the two-man and four-man (there was no women’s competition then) events four years earlier. Americans had not won an Olympic medal in the sport since 1956, a sore point in the Lake Placid area where most of the regular competitors in the sport lived.
To help increase the athleticism of the team in 1980, several competitors from other sports and from outside the area had been brought in for the team tryouts. Two of those chosen were black athletes — Olympic gold medalist hurdler Willie Davenport and SUNY Plattsburgh track athlete Jeff Gadley. Both had been selected to be part of the push team on the U.S. sled driven by Bob Hickey from nearby Keene. The rumor circulating around the press center was that Davenport and Gadley were in danger of being replaced at the last minute by athletes from the local area.
Tipped about that by Omicinski, I went to the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Mike Moran with the recommendation that the team get out ahead of the story by having a bobsled coach address the matter before it became a controversy. Moran agreed and arranged for team coach Gary Sheffield to be interviewed by ABC’s Jim Lampley. It worked. The issue was dismissed before it could become a distraction. Davenport and Gadley competed as expected in the four-man event, although Hickey’s team finished a disappointing 12th.
Moran was pleased that a matter that easily could have become a controversy was avoided. He was grateful. He asked if there was anything he could do to show thanks.
Since the sliding sports were scheduled daily right up through the final morning of the Games, those working at Mt. VanHoevenberg had little chance to see events at other venues. I told Moran that it would be great if I could get tickets for a hockey game, and the schedule indicated that the late afternoon game on the final Friday of the Olympics would be the easiest to attend.
At that time, the U.S. had just eked out a last-minute tie with Sweden in its opening game, and there was no indication the Americans would be around for the competition semifinals the next week.
Moran said yes to four tickets to that game. “See me next Wednesday at the main Press Center in town and I’ll set you up,” he said.
Fast forward. The luge events were done, the U.S. had finished a competitive fifth and sixth in the two-man bobsled competition, and training for the four man event to be held the final Saturday and Sunday was going smoothly.
So was the American march through the hockey competition. When it came time to meet up that Wednesday afternoon, Moran was a busy man. “See me in the press center at 3 p.m. Friday afternoon and I’ll have your tickets,” he said.
By this time, it was clear that the 5 p.m. game would be the U.S. versus Russia. It was a hot ticket.
After bobsled training ended midday Friday, Robbins and I and two others went into Lake Placid village to meet Moran. The press center was upstairs in the high school and there we waited. The time to meet came and went. He didn’t show up.
Talk about disappointing. We were in a building right next to the Ice Arena where the game would take place. But an hour before the game, there was no Moran and no tickets.
Then came the first miracle of the day.
Paul Robbins’ roommate in the mobile home village during the games was the press chief for hockey. He was there in the press center preparing statistics from the early game that afternoon. After a quick discussion about our plight, he had a solution — each of us would take a handful of reports from the game just ended and follow him back into the arena. We were all dressed in our blue with gold trim Olympic outfits so, looking purposeful, we lined up and marched right behind him into the rink, each one of us loaded up with about 25 sheets of paper. We were in.
You can guess the rest. We park ourselves on the first level landing behind the Soviet goal. There were no seats there, but the line of vision was perfect. Besides, as the game went on, no one was sitting down anyway.
The U.S. won 4-3. The celebration in the rink was spontaneous and energized. We left the arena convinced we had seen a great contest, nothing more than that. The crowd outside turned out to be just as loud and animated. While the ABC television coverage in the U.S. was delayed to start at 7 p.m., the game had been broadcast live on Canadian TV, which was seen locally. There was also Walter Cronkite’s infamous announcement of the final score of the game just before the sign off of his 6:30 “CBS Evening News.”
The celebration continued throughout the country. But the U.S. still had to win Sunday for a gold medal. That morning began with the East Germans winning the gold medal in four-man bobsledding. In the press center at Mt. VanHoevenberg, no one was paying attention. Everyone was huddled around the TV monitors watching the USA-Finland hockey game. If Finland won, the Russians would get the gold medal. Suddenly at my side was Bernhard Germeshausen, the silver medalist in the two-man bob who had just won gold as a member of the East German four man team.
For two weeks, it had been a struggle to deal with the East German sliders. What little they said was always through a team-provided translator. I turned to Germeshausen and gestured that he must be cheering for the Finns so Russia can win the gold. Then, to my shock, he replied in perfect English. “No. We East Germans hate the Russians. We are rooting for the Americans .”
The U.S. won. There was a raucous gold medal ceremony in the Ice Arena that afternoon, followed a couple of hours later by Closing Ceremonies, which were more a party than a solemn celebration.
The next morning, I retrieved my car which had been sitting in a friend’s front yard for the length of the Games. The shuttle buses were gone, and the roads were again open. It was Monday. The Games were over. There was no traffic. Only memories.
40TH ANNIVERSARY EVENTS
The celebration of the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Games will begin in Lake Placid Thursday, Feb. 13 and continue through Sunday, Feb. 23. A full calendar of events is available at lakeplacid40.com.
Items from the 1980 Winter Olympics will be included in an auction Saturday, Feb. 22 at the Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid. There is a $25 admission charge to the event which, along with the proceeds from the auction, will go to support the Lake Placid Olympic Museum.
EMPIRE STATE GAMES THIS WEEKEND
This is also the 40th edition of the Empire State Winter Games, which take place this weekend in Lake Placid and surrounding communities. More than 2,000 athletes are expected to compete in 30 events being held Friday through Sunday. For a full schedule of events, check empirestatewintergames.com.
Reach Phil Johnson at [email protected].