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Hey—What Do You Say We Have an Olympics?
Ezra Bowen
December 03, 1962
When Dr. Godfrey Dewey told the Lake Placid Kiwanis Club their town should hold the 1932 Games they were horrified. Then things got worse
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December 03, 1962

Hey—what Do You Say We Have An Olympics?

When Dr. Godfrey Dewey told the Lake Placid Kiwanis Club their town should hold the 1932 Games they were horrified. Then things got worse

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On January 16, 1932, three weeks before the Games were to open, the main ice arena was dedicated, and everything in Lake Placid was ready. Everything, that is, but the weather. It was hot that winter in Lake Placid. For the 146 years of the history of the New York weather bureau, the upper reaches of the Hudson River had frozen solid every winter. This was the 147th year and the Hudson did not freeze. Nothing much else froze, either. Mirror Lake, where some of the ice events were to be held, had a sc mi-solid surface the consistency of vanilla ice cream. Some snow had fallen in early November, but little afterward.

The contestants had already begun to arrive, some bringing along their own cuisine (in the case of the Swedes, the hand-imported cuisine was a ghastly assortment of brown beans, salt herring, oatmeal and knackebrod). Those with skates crowded into the ice arena to grab whatever free space they could find for practice. The skiers—all of them were either jumpers or cross-country runners since Alpine skiing had not yet been designated as an Olympic event—struggled along with whatever snow they could find. Some of the struggles were not very successful. One member of the Japanese team, whose general ineptness was one of the more spectacular features of the Games, fell down while skiing past the local schoolhouse. He was uninjured but, to the delight of the onlooking school kids, was unable to get up. As for the bobsledders, they could only look on morosely while the Mt. Van Hoevenberg run slowly melted and ran down Mt. Van Hoevenberg. Some of the teams attempted practice runs, among them the German team, which went over the lip at Shady Corner and hurtled down an 85-foot gully of mud.

The Games begin

Undismayed, Olympic officials decided to open the Games as scheduled, February 4. At 10 a.m. the Adams Empire State Band struck up The Star-Spangled Banner, and a parade of 364 athletes from 17 nations swung into the Olympic stadium. First came Austria, then Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Finland, France and Germany—one of whose leaders still had his arm in a sling from the bobsled debacle. Then came the seven from Great Britain, the girls laughing in their unmatching woolly greatcoats, the men shuffling slowly along in galoshes and marvelous tweed knickerbockers. Then came Hungary and Italy—giving a fascist salute—followed by Japan, Norway, Poland, Rumania, Sweden and Switzerland. Finally, the U.S. team of 107, largest of all, lined up in two platoons, smartly dressed in white peacoats and white peaked caps. As the American team marched out, New York's Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt (President Herbert Hoover had been invited for the launching but apparently figured that with the Depression he had enough troubles already) stood up and said, "I proclaim open the third Olympic Winter Games."

With that, 21-year-old Jack Shea, son of the Lake Placid butcher, showed what a local boy could do by whirling off with a gold medal in the 500-meter speed skating. A few hours later Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt showed what a game governor's wife could do by risking a ride down the rotting, slushy bob run. She made it and the 1932 Olympics were under way. Some of the results were prophetic, some pathetic and some downright exciting. A Swede, Sven Utterstrom, won the 18-km. cross-country and Finland's Veli Saarinen took the 50-km. A superb Norwegian, 19-year-old Birger Ruud, took the special jump and Johan Grottumsbraaten, another Norwegian, won the combined ski event (jumping and cross-country). Japan took nothing but casualties. Two of their stalwarts did impromptu somersaults off the jump, one of them—Yoichi Takata—landing with such a sickening crunch that he was sidelined for the rest of the Games. Jack Shea took another gold medal in the 1,500-meter, and Irving Jaffee, a handsome man with the aquiline nose and moist eyes of a silent film star, scored a double in the 5,000 and 10,000-meter races. Canada and the U.S. played a heart-stopping three-overtime-period tie in the hockey final—whereupon the McGill University team dropped in for an exhibition series and beat both countries. In another exhibition, a 25-mile sled dog race, some of the dogs had to be carted across the finish line on their own sleds.

If there was an element of farce at Lake Placid there was also a strong surge of national interest. During the 10 days of competition 80,000 people sloshed around in the mud to watch. Among them were Admiral Richard Byrd, who had come up to scout for hardy souls for his next polar expedition; 53 state troopers, who did a masterful job of keeping order; and a handful of prohibition-type revenue officers who did no job whatever of keeping the party dry. Meanwhile, Ted Husing of CBS and George Hicks of NBC, clutching the kind of old wagon-wheel microphones that Alice Faye used to sing into, broadcast the events to millions of listeners, making the entire country aware for the first time that there was something to do in winter besides wait for spring.

By far the most popular events were figure skating and four-man bobsledding. In skating the main attraction was a lovely, apple-cheeked Norwegian blonde named Sonja Henie. At 15 she already had won a gold medal four years before in St. Moritz. Now she was not only the best in the world, but the best the world had ever seen. Attendant upon her were the first of the famous skating parents, a breed that came to rank somewhere beyond even stage parents in personal charm. Mrs. Henie was everywhere, visible and audible, telling her flawless daughter where to skate, even what to wear. Meanwhile, Herr Wilhelm Henie, a gigantic, beet-faced man, sat silently in the grandstands, like an immense cherry bomb ready to blow if the judging went wrong. It didn't. Before 8.000 spectators, who had paid scalpers" prices of up to $60 a ticket, Sonja won in a graceful waltz, finishing 144 points and two positions ahead of the best American, Maribel Vinson.

In keeping with the spirit of Lake Placid the biggest crowd, 14,000, showed up the day after the Games ended. This was because the schedule-minded committee had listed the closing ceremony for February 13. And even "though the postponed four-man bobsled races had not yet been held, by golly, the committee was going to have the closing ceremony February 13 just like they said they would. So they did, and everyone officially agreed that this sure had been a swell Olympics. Then, as they were hauling down the Winter Games flag, which would not be raised again in the U.S. for 28 years, it finally began to snow. In fact, it blizzarded. The next day, with the Games over, the four-man bobsled was run off. The U.S. sled won, giving America six of the 14 gold medals (the U.S. had previously taken the two-man bob). The predominantly American press corps invented its own point system, showing the good old U.S.A. had won the whole Olympics.

Then everyone picked up his medals and went home. It would be nice to say that Dr. Dewey's vision came altogether true—that Lake Placid not only got the Olympics but a flying start toward becoming the really and truly winter sports capital of the modern U.S. Unfortunately, Lake Placid never caught on. The original North Elba Park District $200,000 bond was not finally paid off until last year. And on this winter day Dr. Dewey's dream resort is, comparatively speaking, only slightly less dreary and slightly more prosperous than it was in 1927.

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