34 years of Olympic upkeep

LAKE PLACID – Now that the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, have come to an end, the city and the country have the new issue of maintaining what they’ve created. This has proven to be a not-so-easy task for many host cities around the world, some of which have left behind Olympic sites in disrepair and ruin.

In Lake Placid, that’s not the case. It’s been 34 years since the Winter Olympics, yet the facilities are still operational as world-class competition venues and tourist attractions for the area.

“It’s a success story here,” village Mayor Craig Randall said. “Lake Placid’s business is the Olympics. We are busy training athletes 12 months a year, and our venues are still relevant.”

Those still-relevant venues include the alpine ski center at Whiteface Mountain, the sliding track and cross-country ski center at Mount Van Hoevenberg, the ski jumps at the Olympic Jumping Complex and the Olympic Center’s ice rinks. The only 1980 Olympic venue that currently lies dormant is Mount Van Hoevenberg’s biathlon firing range. Also, the Olympic Oval is no longer used for major national or international-level speedskating competition since indoor venues have become the norm, but the Oval still gets heavy use by recreational skaters and speedskaters, and an outdoor hockey rink has been added alongside it.

Meanwhile, several venues have been enhanced since the 1980 games. Whiteface has many more trails and lifts, including the capacity to host World Cup snowboarding and moguls. A new bobsled-luge-skeleton track was built for the one and only Winter Goodwill Games in 2000. Freestyle aerials jumps and a biathlon practice range have been built in the shadows of the towering ski jumps. A national Olympic Training Center has made Lake Placid the Northeast’s hub for winter sports competitors, and some summer athletes as well.

The caretakers

The upkeep of the 1980 Winter Olympics facilities started right after the games ended. New York state created the Olympic Regional Development Authority shortly thereafter and tasked it with running and maintaining the venues.

Ted Blazer, president of ORDA, explained the founding of the organization.

“There was a (financial) deficit at the end of the games, and the state came in and said, ‘Listen, we’ll clean up the debt, but we we’re going to create an organization to manage all the facilities under one roof called ORDA.’ That’s when we were created.” Blazer said.

Then management agreements were drawn up between the state Department of Environmental Conservation for the state-owned lands and the town of North Elba for town-owned land, Blazer said.

The North Elba Parks District owns the Olympic Center, the bobsled and luge track, the ski jump and half of the oval; the oval’s other half is owned by Lake Placid Middle/High School. ORDA oversees the venues as well as two other state-owned ski centers: Gore in North Creek and Belleayre in the Catskills.

“New York state, the federal government and Lake Placid have had a long-standing partnership,” North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi said. “We always need to look for better ways to make facilities better. It’s our responsibility to make them better.”

Ongoing investment

The funding involved is no small feat. Although ORDA brings in tens of millions of dollars a year in revenue, that’s not enough to cover expenses. The state gives ORDA millions each year to cover shortfalls and make capital improvements, and the coming year is no exception. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed Executive Budget would give ORDA $9.4 million in the 2014-15 fiscal year.

The town of North Elba chips in, too; it paid $750,000 in 2013 for all the costs associated with ownership of the Olympic sites.

Blazer said the state’s investment for 2014-15 will go to a variety of projects, including the replacement of a 1984 detachable lift at Gore, retrofitting facilities for energy efficiency, general maintenance and programs designed to bring in more revenue. In the past, ORDA has sought to install ziplines which visitors could pay to use at one or more Olympic venues.

Blazer said of the three ski centers, ORDA’s biggest revenue generators, Whiteface pulling in the most.

Politi said ORDA is doing the best it can.

“It’s never easy to get money directed to an area on an annual basis,” Politi said.

Small town, big spirit

Recent Winter Olympics have been hosted in cities with populations reaching into the hundreds of thousands, but just because a city is bigger doesn’t mean its facilities will be kept up.

“Lake Placid was really the last small Winter Olympics,” Randall said. “The fact we have a small composite group of venues, it’s allowed us to keep the Olympic spirit here.”

Blazer also said Lake Placid is unique for an Olympic host city.

“In some respects we are a different beast,” Blazer said. “We have the U.S. Olympic Training Center. This is the Olympic place.”

Politi said the town’s Olympic facilities have held up better than those in other places.

“We’ve even had upgrades,” Politi said, citing the bobsled-luge-skeleton run.

Blazer said he didn’t want to talk bad about other host cities that haven’t done as well as Lake Placid.

“They do what they can do with what they’re given,” Blazer said.

Randall said other cities often try to host the Olympics to gain media attention and money to build infrastructure.

“If you look behind the curtain, they’re trying to address social issues,” Randall said.

He added that Vancouver, which hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, is a good example of a city wanting to build itself up.

“A large part of Vancouver’s focus was improving lives of citizens. A lot of their parks and city streets got upgrades and even bicycle lanes.” Randall said. “And Sochi, with these absolutely tremendous facilities they’ve got, they want to become a destination resort.”

Bringing home the medals

Americans medaled in 28 events at the Sochi Olympics. Of those, 10 were by teams or individuals that trained at Lake Placid’s Olympic Training Center: alpine skier Andrew Weibrecht, freestyle moguls skier Hannah Kearney, luger Erin Hamlin, skeleton racers Noelle Pikus-Pace and Matt Antoine, two women’s bobsled teams driven by Elana Myers and Jamie Greubel, two men’s bobsled teams driven by Steven Holcomb, and the women’s hockey team.

Jack Favro, the managing director of the Olympic Training Center, knows a thing or two about the equipment needed to train high-caliber Olympic athletes.

“The biggest changes are because of the technology in sports,” Favro said.

He said the improvements in technology for bobsleds from the 1932 Winter Olympics to 1980 went from being like driving a Volkswagen to driving a Ferrari.

“Last year we built a new push track for bobsled and skeleton training,” Favro said.

The Olympic Training Center puts together a training plan every four years to prepare for each sport in the upcoming Winter Olympics.

“We look at all the angles and sports and figure out what we need to do,” Favro said.

Aaron Kellet, the manager of Whiteface, said it’s great to have the Olympic heritage, but Lake Placid can’t live in the past.

“We need to move forward and evolve,” Kellet said.

To host top-tier races in the future, Kellet said some of Whiteface’s ski runs need to be made wider because of the improving speeds of athletes, and the ski center always has to keep up with new safety standards.

“My main point is we have to change as the Olympics change,” Kellet said.

Adding a new halfpipe might be a good place to start, he added.

Past Olympian Jay Rand, executive director of the New York Ski Educational Foundation and former manager of Whiteface, said that as the facilities get older, more work is needed.

“Profiles change on hills, training. It’s a big challenge to keep up with things moving that quickly around the world,” Rand said. “There’s been millions of dollars in improvements, but time keeps marching on and you’ve got to keep up with it.”

Carrying the torch

Lake Placid has sent at least one athlete to every Winter Olympics and is still one of the top hot spots in the world for producing homegrown Olympians.

“You got local kids able to be on these venues able to pursue their dreams and aspirations, and then you got kids regionally and nationally competing here with home-field advantage,” Blazer said. “Some go on to other things in life, but they’re better for it, stronger and more confident, and some go on to achieve great things like being an Olympian.”

Randall said it’s all made worth it when he sees young athletes develop into world-class Olympians.

“It’s a big commitment but having the resources here allows them to try,” Randall said. “It never surprises me when we have a large contingent in the Olympics. My question always is who will be the new faces we will see in four years?”

As Politi put it, “The Olympics – it’s our thing.”