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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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During the planning and building for the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, the Olympic task force displayed awesome quantities of creative vigor. Where nothing had existed before, they created a winter-sports plant of unprecedented quality and value. But, in so doing, they also managed to create formidable amounts of confusion, litigation and despair. In this respect, they had a well-established precedent: the Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y. in 1932.

This was, in world history, the III Olympic Winter Games. But in U.S. history it was not only the first Winter Olympics but also the first big-league winter-sports event of any kind. Hence no one in Lake Placid had the vaguest idea what an Olympics was, or what it might mean for the town. No one, that is, but Dr. Godfrey Dewey, a gentle, bespectacled soul who was a power in the outdoorsy Lake Placid Club—and otherwise a Doctor of Education and rabid supporter of the simplified spelling school, whose influence still lives in the Official Report of the Games in such words as "finanst," as in to have paid for.

Like everyone else in Lake Placid, Dr. Dewey was aware that his home town, while charming, was—from an economic standpoint—strictly Dullsville. Especially in winter. Any tourist who appeared in this bleak corner of upper New York state was lost. Part of the tourist-repelling bleakness of Lake Placid was the snow and ice that appeared every winter. The natives had long since learned how to live with—and even enjoy—these conditions. As far back as 1905, the Lake Placid Club decided to keep one of its clubhouses open all winter for the vigorous types in town whose idea of relaxation was to galumph around the wooded trails on snowshoes. There was also a lively skating contingent that shoveled the snow off Mirror Lake to clear the surface for hockey or impromptu races. In 1918 the Lake Placid Skating Association held the eastern speedskating championships. Three years later the town put up a 35-meter ski jump costing $1,700 and held a meet. And in 1927 the Lake Placid AC started a series of hockey matches with the best amateur teams in the U.S. and Canada.

It was all very robust, but hardly anybody came to watch, or to spend money in the village. It was with complete astonishment, therefore, that the town received, in 1927, a feeler from the U.S. Olympic Committee. Would Lake Placid consider bidding for the 1932 Winter Games? No, said the city fathers, who for generations had been content to let slow enough alone. Why not? said Dr. Dewey, who was convinced that Lake Placid was already the winter sports capital of the U.S. (He was right. In those days any place that put on one or more ice-and-snow events was automatically the winter-sports capital of the U.S.) Like Alec Cushing of Squaw Valley 30 years later, Dr. Dewey could see the snow packed down by thousands of visitors who would leave many more thousands of dollars in town, not only during the Games but for years after as they came to use the Olympic facilities.

On his own, Dr. Dewey headed off on a tour of European ski resorts—Chamonix, where the first Winter Games had been held in 1924, Gstaad, M�rren and finally St. Moritz for a live viewing of the 1928 Winter Olympics. Back home, on March 21,1928 he rose before a combined meeting of the Lake Placid Kiwanis, the Chamber of Commerce and the Village Board to make his big Olympic pitch. At first, most of the representatives of the town's 4,000 souls were horrified, but Dr. Dewey gave it the old "anything St. Moritz can do we can do better."

"Housing is our biggest problem," admitted Dr. Dewey. But, he added, "the matter of sports facilities is practically satisfactory now." This was a bit of a stretch, but it carried the day. Lake Placid decided to go for the Games. Dr. Dewey got back on the boat a year later, headed this time for Lausanne, where the International Olympic Committee would decide who would get the prize.

These were still the gay, informal days of the Great Olympic Resort Lottery. The U.S. committee had not bothered to designate its own official choice. Therefore, besides foreign competition from Montreal and Oslo, Placid also had to outhustle Yosemite and Lake Tahoe (no resorts), Duluth and Minneapolis (no mountains) and Denver and Bear Mountain (no nothing). Mostly, however, Placid had to outhustle the California legislature, which had pledged up to $3 million worth of help to whichever of the state's candidates got the Games. Using essentially the same modest, sportsy approach dishing was to employ in Paris in 1955—beautiful climate, beautiful terrain, Olympic ideal, guarantee to provide all facilities—Dr. Dewey again carried the day and came home a hero.

Practically nothing

But only briefly a hero. In the bleak light of May, the "practically satisfactory" sports facilities turned out to be practically nothing. The budget was, likewise, practically nothing. True, the New York legislature had talked earnestly about giving $75,000 to build a bob run, but the state bought trouble instead. The proposed bob run turned out to be on state property, a situation which the New York Supreme Court promptly ruled unconstitutional. At this point the town of Plattsburg, for some unknown reason, stepped forward with a donation of $500—not quite enough to build a garage for the bobsleds. Then things began to pick up. The North Elba Park District voted a $200,000 bond issue, to which another $150,000 was subsequently added. A new ski jump was built, and an alternate, nonlitigious bob run was staked out.

By the winter of 1930-31, one year before the opening, preparations were moving along in grand style. The new bob run on Mt. Van Hoevenberg was finished. New York State, despite a condition of general poverty following the market crash, had come up with a total of $500,000. A Norwegian visitor to Placid named Bjorn Blix had been launched on a six-month boondoggle through Europe to make sure everyone knew how great Lake Placid would be. And finally the town, carried away by it all, invited 65 countries to come to the Games, including Egypt, Malta and Haiti, where few flakes of recorded snow had ever fallen.

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