Years ago, about this time of the summer, I’d be getting ready to cover the Empire State Games.
This was an assignment of mixed blessings. As it was for the other sportswriters in attendance, it meant a five-day stretch of 15-hour days, rushing from one venue to the next, over to the media center, out to another venue, back to the media center, and ... has anybody seen the swimming results?
We constantly griped about the workload, the editors back in the office, the weather, the missing results and just about everything else. But we loved every minute of it.
How could you not love a weekend of full of sports, run like the state’s own Olympics?
The writers weren’t the only ones who loved the Empire State Games. There was a small administrative staff from the state that hardly slept all week, trying to stay ahead of the challenges that come from an event with more than 6,000 athletes and two dozen sports.
There were hundreds of volunteers — medical trainers, coaches, scoreboard operators, local organizers, ham radio operators, regional directors — who provided the elbow grease to make the gears turn. Some of them, like the people who put the results into the computers, spent the weekend cooped up inside small rooms, rarely seeing the light of day.
And the athletes, of course. What a great experience for them to come together in one location and be a part of an Olympic atmosphere. There wasn’t the pressure that sometimes comes with chasing a title during the high school and college seasons. You march in the opening ceremony, meet some friends, play your sport and perhaps be seen by a college scout.
New York was a pioneer of the state games concept, an idea that was copied by many other states. Those five days in the middle of the summer pretty much produced nothing but good news for the athletes and the state.
I will pause here, because by now, a question may have occurred to the reader: Why is this being written in the past tense?
The short answer is that the summer edition of the Empire State Games was killed several years ago, the victim of a budget crisis and short-sighted thinking at the state level. Exactly why that happened is harder to understand.
The summer Games were cancelled in 2009 due to budget cutbacks. They made a comeback in 2010 in Buffalo, but they were dropped from the following year’s budget and went away forever.
Fred Smith, the longtime director of the Games, retired after the 2010 competition but still wanted to stay involved. He recalls getting a call at home sometime after the Buffalo event and hearing “we’re not in the budget.”
“It was a complete shock,” Smith said in a phone interview this past weekend.
Smith said he was hoping at the time that there’d be a chance to save the Games, perhaps through greater private funding or player participation fees. But he said the Empire State Games staff was either laid off or reassigned to other duties. There was nobody left to run the event.
“We were never given an opportunity to make it work,” Smith said. “I told anybody and everybody who would listen, I would work with the agency to make sure the Games came out right. To go from a program that had one of its more successful years to totally being eliminated from the budget was a blow to everybody.”
It was as if somebody wanted to stomp the Games into the ground so they could never return. And that’s exactly what happened.
Yes, it cost money. The state laid out something in the neighborhood of a million and a half dollars every year to run the Empire State Games program. It was a relative drop in the bucket (this year’s state budget is $168.3 billion) and here’s the thing: One way or another, that money mostly came back to the state.
If your daughter was on the Adirondack scholastic basketball team, you drove to Buffalo to watch her play, right? You stayed in a hotel, ate at the restaurant, paid tolls, pumped gas and bought tickets. Hundreds of other families did the same thing. Grab a calculator and figure out how much sales tax revenue that generated. Or how many of the state’s businesses benefited from each summer’s event.
There was a private-sector attempt the restore the summer games, but it failed. I don’t think you can do it without a permanent staff at the state level, to shepherd the program along, build on the history and coordinate with the hundreds of other people involved.
I’m also afraid that if a private group tried this, you’d end up with one of those age-division competitions with lots of medals and trophies. The Empire State Games were the real deal. Just scholastic, open and masters divisions. Winning meant something.
My summers are a lot easier without the Empire State Games. I get a full night of sleep on whatever weekend they would have been running. But sometimes, in a free moment, I’ll think back to the great times of that weekend — the way everybody came together to make it run, the great experience that athletes had, the wonderful diversity of sports offered — and I’ll remember what I’m missing out on.
The sad thing is, the younger athletes of today will never know what they’re missing out on.