LAKE PLACID - The 33rd Empire State Winter Games begin Thursday in Lake Placid, and growth in the number of competitors has the event drawing closer to a record level of participation.
As of Tuesday, organizers of the games said 1,102 athletes were registered with the possibility of more being added by the time competitions start. This marks the third year local entities have banded together to run the Empire State Winter Games after New York dropped funding for the event from the state budget.
Organizers hosted a conference call for the media Tuesday in a lead-up to the games, and Jim McKenna of the Lake Placid Convention and Visitors Bureau said it's the second straight year that entries have risen.
"We had 980 last year, and we're pretty excited that we've continued to grow it," said McKenna, the Lake Placid CVB's CEO. "We're gearing ourselves for a good event again. This year, we're growing by 100 again. That's about 75 to 80 less than the largest year when the state was running them."
With the exception of sports like bobsled and luge, athletes come from across New York state. They will vie for medals in 19 sports, including four adaptive events, which are expected to feature about 50 competitors. In the past, participants at the Empire State Winter Games have ranged in age from 6- and 7-year-old figure skaters to snowshoers in their 60s.
In addition to seeing a growth in participation, the games have also been extended from a three- to a four-day event, with ski jumping and nordic combined contests kicking off the action Thursday at the Olympic Ski Jumping Complex.
The Empire State Winter Games were established as an Olympic-style competition with multiple sports, and they've been a stepping stone in that direction for many of New York's winter athletes.
"We give it a little bit of the multi-sport Olympic feel," McKenna said. "For most of our young athletes, it's the highlight of their winter sports, and their careers maybe. The amount of athletes that have gone to the ESG Winter Games to the Olympic Games is staggering. It's more than 200."
As has been the case since the inception of the games, most of the competitions will take place at venues run by the Olympic Regional Development Authority at the same sites where the 1980 Olympic Winter Games were held. With the cold weather and a host of competitions having already been held here this season, ORDA CEO Ted Blazer said the venues are ready to go.
"We're right in event mode right now," Blazer said. "It's been a great winter, we've got good snow, we've had two World Cup events already. The venues are in great shape. We're positioned perfectly."
When asked how organizers would deal with a possible heavy dumping of snow during the games, McKenna answered, "We start dancing in the street."
Blazer added that ORDA's crews are always prepared for that scenario, saying "We'd push it down, pack it down, move it out of the way."
When New York stopped funding the Empire State Games, the winter version of the competition turned into a more regional effort. This year, they are organized through a partnership that included the Lake Placid CVB, the Town of North Elba, the Village of Lake Placid, ORDA, the Village of Saranac Lake, the towns of Wilmington and Harrietstown, Essex County and state Sen. Betty Little.
McKenna said more sponsors have also stepped forward, and with entry fees adding money toward hosting the event, it should be another successful year for the games.
"This is the third year we've done this as a cooperative effort, and it's coming together a little bit better," McKenna said. "We should end up breaking even for the third year in a row it looks like."
This year, the ESG Winter Games are being held at the same time Lake Placid is hosting World Cup luge racing at Mount Van Hoevenberg and Saranac Lake is holding its annual Winter Carnival.