The real story of the 1980 Olympics

2005-01-30T00:00:00Z The real story of the 1980 OlympicsBRETT ORZECHOWSKI
Glens Falls Post-Star
January 30, 2005 12:00 am  •


The conversation lasted for more than an hour and the one thing Ed Stransenback kept reverting to was the one thing that almost devastated the 1980 Winter Olympics Games.


Never mind the 50,000 people ascending upon Lake Placid, the smallest municipality ever to host the Olympics. Its population was almost 3,000. Never mind Eric Heiden's five gold medals. Never mind the Miracle on Ice. His biggest memory of the 13th Olympiad was a bus fiasco.

Even after 25 years, these stories could only come out of a village the size of Lake Placid. As the village prepares for the Games' silver anniversary, the tales grow larger and will be rehashed throughout February. They will begin in Albany and end at the horseshow grounds where the opening ceremonies took place.

Undoubtedly, you will hear about Herb Brooks and Jim Craig and Mike Eruzione. Then you'll hear about what could have been if Tai Bablionia and Randy Gardner actually had a chance to skate. Or how the Soviets and East Germans continued to dominate Olympic competition, only to watch their performances steadily decline in future Games.

But what about Luke Patnode? Or Vern Lamb? Or Lord Killanin, who had the final say in whether or not the 1980 Games would happen?

"There were so many characters, so many stories," said Stransenback, who was the press service director for the Games along with director Ed Lewi. "Everybody's is different. It was as if sometimes the events themselves were secondary to how the Games got here."

It starts with Denver.

The International Olympic Committee originally awarded Denver the 1976 Winter Games, but after a public uproar over funding and environmental concerns, Denver had to give up the Games. Lake Placid stepped in and offered to host the competition. Innsbrook, Austria got the Games instead.

But four years later, it was Lake Placid's turn. Lord Killanin, a former journalist who became the IOC's president, intervened. He wanted to keep the Games in small towns and after four futile efforts by Lake Placid to secure another Olympiad after 1932, Lord Killanin granted the village its wish in 1974.

These Games would be the first and last for many things, besides the last Olympics Lake Placid will ever hold on its own.

The first method of expediting information through computers took place in Lake Placid at the high school. Al Gore wasn't a student there. The school doubled as the press center. The foreign press had difficulty in understanding how it worked. But it did.

It was the first Games for computerized scoring and the last one with bamboo poles for the downhill skiing events.

It was the last with lax security, even though the Cold War was in full swing. Some medal ceremonies were at the edge of Mirror Lake. Walk down Main Street, make a left toward the lake and watch Ingemar Stenmark receive his gold medal.

It was the first for man-made snow and it was probably the last time there was a true small-town Olympics.

"Nothing, nothing, nothing, will ever happen again like that," said Don Jones, a local store owner who worked as a volunteer, much like the village's other 3,000 residents. "But you know what? It was the last big party without any rules."

Jones was at the end of a generation that constantly pushed for the Games in Lake Placid.

There are two photos that encapsulate the experience. One of the Lake Placid Sports Council, grinning in the autumn of 1974 after the IOC awarded the village the Games.

The other is hanging in the lobby of Whiteface Mountain's executive offices on the third floor. It's a black and white of a group of Whiteface volunteers. It was the last day. They all had beers in their hands.

Jones said everyone feels like he does; so much enthusiasm, then so much relief.

But there were people behind this event. There was Jack Shea, Bunnie Sheffield, Art Devlin and Rev. J. Bernard Fell.

Some are now snowbirds, like Serge Lussi, who owns the Holiday Inn in the village. His father was the world-renowned skating coach, Gustave Lussi, whose name appears above the 1932 arena. There's also former Alpine skier Vern Lamb, whose sons were athletes and now own one of the lumber yards in Lake Placid.

Others have passed on, like Luke Patnode.

There are few photos of Patnode hanging up. It is probably because he was always on the go.

There is political clout and business clout. Patnode was the local clout, walking up and down Main Street, telling people they must help bring back the Games. He was a preacher, but not in the Biblical sense, even though he told Sports Illustrated that "God meant the Olympic Games for Lake Placid, and God meant Lake Placid for the Olympic Games."

Someone answered.

There were problems. The facilities needed an upgrade. They received a $51 million makeover. There was an accommodation issue. The Olympic Village was built eight miles out of town in Ray Brook. It was funded by the federal government, which said the facility would be turned into a prison after the Games.

No problem. Soviet hockey players later said the thin walls and little heat made the facilities feel like a prison before it become one.

Still, there were a few other problems. Drive Route 73 north into the village, in the mid-1970s it was mostly a beat-up two-lane road. So Vern Lamb found a bus, took a federal committee that was gauging costs, and drove them southbound down the main thoroughfare from the south. He then drove them back up. Lamb was clever. He found a bus without shocks.

A third lane would be added and the road would also receive a new look.

Now, as you drive up Route 73, there is the first reminder that an Olympiad took place in an Adirondack village between Albany and Montreal. They rise well over the pine trees and stand motionless. They are the two modern ski jump towers, built for the 1980 Games.

At first, there was the contention that the ski jump venue would disrupt the natural landscape of the region. It was Denver all over again. There was an agreement, a small monetary exchange, and the building commenced.

"I guess some people didn't like the idea of having skyscrapers in Lake Placid, " Jay Rand said. "But they're here to stay."

Rand is now the general manager of Whiteface Mountain but was once a three-time Master jumper leading up to the 1980 Games. He recalled the days when the towers were under construction and loved every second of it. Rand was a world class skier but at the end of his career by the time the Games arrived.

He would have liked to have competed in Lake Placid. Instead, he oversaw operations from the top of the jumps.

But first, he had to do one thing.

Rand strapped on his skis, looked across the Adirondack Mountains and saw Lake Placid in the distance. He knew everything was right. Rand then christened what is now the 120-meter jump.

There was endless work. Two weeks passed. But the Games started off slow because of one thing.


Susan Lavin worked at the top of Mount Van Hoevenberg when she called down to Ed Stransenback. A bobsled event was ending in about a half an hour and Lavin estimated about 10,000 fans.

"I think we need a few more buses here," Lavin said.

"How many do you have now?" Stransenback asked.

"One," Lavin answered.

Stransenback sent over every bus he had. It went on for four days until the bus problem was resolved. And now, with basic communication, Stransenback and Lavin are married.

Stransenback said he first realized this was going to be a problem when he received another call from another venue. The foreign press was waiting for a bus, shivering in the February chill of the Adirondacks, smoking cigarettes to pass the time.

The volunteer said one of the journalists had a knife. He threatened the volunteer unless a bus was supplied soon.

But he wasn't going to hurt the volunteer, Stransenback explained. The venue was an air bubble. The journalist was going to puncture a hole in the roof so it would deflate.

A bus was soon supplied.

So on Feb. 24, 1980, when the last of the faces left Main Street when the Grand Union was empty after housing media trailers for two weeks, after the last anthem was heard, Lake Placid returned to being an Adirondack village.

All the volunteers returned to normal life and passed out with a fulfilling hangover. When they awoke, they heard of miracles and Heiden and Stenmark.

The only thing Lake Placid was left to deal with was an $8 million debt, two skyscrapers and a prison.

They also prepared to mail a note to Denver, thanking them for helping Lake Placid throw the biggest party the Adirondacks will ever host.

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