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When it comes to Lake Placid’s Olympic legacy, history gets personal

March 21, 2009
By HEATHER?SACKETT, For the Enterprise

LAKE PLACID - At the Olympic Center, visitors and locals alike can learn all about Lake Placid's Olympic heritage, not from a book, museum or re-enactment, but from people who were intimately involved with bringing the 1980 Games to town.

James Rogers III is well known for many things: as a town of North Elba justice, and also as the former owner of local radio station WNBZ where his legacy still lives on in the K&J show, named for Rogers and his wife Keela. He is also the father of village mayor Jamie Rogers.

But another of Rogers' accomplishments for which he is well known was his position on the organizing committee for the 1980 Winter Olympic Games. Rogers draws on that experience to make the tour come to life with personal anecdotes and behind-the-scenes stories of events he witnessed first-hand.

Article Photos

When touring the Olympic Center in Lake Placid with James Rogers, pictured above, expect plenty of personal nuance in the telling of how Lake Placid has cultivated its Winter Olympic legacy through the 1932 and 1980 Games.
(Photo for the Enterprise — Heather Sackett)

He, along with fellow tour guide Howard Riley, who was a senior staff member on the organizing committee, bring their own unique experiences to bear on the events leading up to and during the 1980 Games.

Like Rogers, Riley has a trove of stories to regale tour-goers. From his work at the Enterprise, the Lake Placid Club and various elected positions throughout the Town of Harrietstown and the Village of Saranac Lake in addition to his work bringing the games to Lake Placid, Riley has plenty of experience on which to rely when leading visitors through the Olympic Center.

"I think we both bring very good interpretations of what happened,"?Riley said. "It's become quite a successful enterprise.

Fact Box

If you go ...

Tours start at 10 a.m.,

11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Monday through Saturday upstairs in the Olympic Center and cost $8.50.

And while this story focuses on Rogers' tour, both give the same number of tours each day, so, in many ways, it's just the luck of the draw in terms of whose version of history one is likely to get.

Rogers retells history in his signature deep and dramatic, resonant voice, cultivated by years on the air.

The tour starts upstairs in the Olympic Center down the hall from the 1980 Rink/Herb Brooks Arena. Rogers begins the tour with some background information on how the organizing committee brought the Games back to Lake Placid.

"It took us one year to get all our ducks in a row," he said. "We bid because we wanted to get back in the game."

Almost 50 years after the last Winter Olympic Games in the tiny Adirondack village, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1980 Games to Lake Placid.

The first stop on the tour is the Herb Brooks Arena, where on Feb. 22, 1980, the scrappy American ice hockey team, defeated the favored Soviet Union team 4 to 3 in one of the greatest upsets in sports history, a game that came to be known as the "Miracle on Ice." Unfortunately, Rogers arrived late to the rink that day. The 8,200-person-capacity arena was filled to bursting with 12,000 people and the security guards would not let anyone else inside. Since he was an official of the games, he could have pulled rank and finagled a way in, but decided instead to go home and watch the game on TV. But the 5 p.m. game wasn't being broadcast until 8 p.m., so Rogers heard about the outcome before he saw it for himself.

"If there were 12,000 people in there, there weren't 200 that believed the U.S. could do it," he said.

The U.S. victory and their subsequent victory over Finland for the Gold Medal came at an auspicious time for America. The 1970s were plagued with a gasoline shortage, sky-high interest rates on home loans, the Iran Hostage Crisis and the Cold War.

"We just didn't feel good about America," Rogers said. "Then we had a hockey game. Sampson had beaten Goliath."

Once inside the arena, where kids playing in Canadian Hockey Enterprise tournaments in early March were likely oblivious that they were skating on the same ice as that momentous occasion, the tour stops to watch a video of the final few minutes of the game. The words of announcer Al Michaels are completely drowned out by the cheers of the crowd in the last 30 seconds. The excitement is palpable as red-white-and-blue-clad players rush the ice in victory as the clock runs down to zero.

Years later, Rogers recounted an experience on one of his tours that he said still gives him goosebumps. A former Soviet dignitary told Rogers how after the Soviet hockey team was defeated by the U.S., it took the Soviet Union's state-run newspaper two days to report it, and even then, the paper alleged the Americans had somehow cheated their way to victory. That, the man said, was when many Soviets began questioning what that game meant for communism.

"This is not where communism fell," the man told Rogers, pointing to the ice rink, "but this is where the slide began."

But Lake Placid doesn't just hold an important spot in the history of hockey. Lake Placid's Olympic Center is the "national cathedral of figure skating," according to Rogers. Lake Placid had the first summer ice program in the world and all of the stars of the skating world, like Dick Button and Dorothy Hamill, came to train here with the legendary Gustave Lussi.

An interesting fact about the Lake Placid Winter Olympics is that, provided it's a clear day, every venue can be seen from every other venue. From the second floor of the Olympic Center, Whiteface Mountain, where alpine downhill events were held, dominates the skyline to the north. Directly below is the Olympic Speedskating Oval where Eric Heiden won six of the U.S.'s 12 medals of the 1980 Games. The ski jumps rise above the trees just east of the village, and the combined bobsled, luge and skeleton track at Mount Van Hoevenberg, which is also home to nordic skiing and biathlon, can be seen in the distance.

Rogers' favorite moment in the 1980 games had nothing to do with who won or lost, but with an exceptional show of sportsmanship. A plaque in the Olympic Center shows Thomas Wassberg, of Sweden, as the gold medal winner in the men's 15-kilometer nordic event. He beat Juha Mieto, of Finland, by a mere one-hundreth of a second. But Wassberg declared the race a tie and proposed that they each cut their medal in half and exchange halves to symbolize the tie.

"To me, that is the absolute epitome of sportsmanship," Rogers said.

Today, that race would have indeed ended in a tie, with two winners on the podium and two gold medals because in 1988, cross-country skiing races began being timed in tenths of a second.

Rogers, who volunteered at the 2002 Salt Lake City games, gets a bit nostalgic when talking about the '80 Games. Torino's and Salt Lake City's venues were spread out over hundreds of miles, with three separate athlete villages, while Lake Placid's games were contained within a 20-mile radius. He laments that money from sponsors, advertisers and TV networks now seem to have total control over the Games. In 1980, Rogers said, a TV network wanted the Lake Placid committee to change the schedule of competition to fit prime-time programming. But Rogers and the rest of the committee denied the request, saying it would adversely affect the athletes.

"It would have totally turned teams' eating, sleeping and practicing schedules upside down," he said. "Lake Placid was an Olympics for the athletes."



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