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TRIUMPH AND TRAVESTY
William Oscar Johnson
February 25, 1980
The Games were great, but the buses were a bust and the organizers ornery
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February 25, 1980

Triumph And Travesty

The Games were great, but the buses were a bust and the organizers ornery

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Perhaps the epitome of all that was to happen in the first week of Winter Olympiad XIII occurred an hour or so after the Games had officially begun. As the world had watched via TV, the torch-bearer had loped around Opening Ceremonies Stadium, holding high the sacred Olympic flame. Then in the long-anticipated climax of the ceremonies, he had dipped his torch, igniting the great bowl, and stood at attention as, all ablaze, it ascended, much like one of those outside elevators in a Hyatt Regency. The 23,000 spectators in the stadium had broken into a prolonged cheer, and the torchbearer, Charles Kerr, 45, a psychiatrist from Tucson, would recall that at this undeniably thrilling moment he had been "nervous, but it was a good nervousness, a definite high."

An hour later in the falling dusk, the world was no longer watching, and Kerr was no longer quite so high. Along with thousands of grim, chilled spectators, he trudged along the side of a traffic-choked road back to the village of Lake Placid, the extinguished torch still clutched in his hand. After a mile or so, a local policeman recognized the man slogging through the cold mud as the torchbearer who had brought the sacred fire on its last few feet from Olympia, Greece to upstate New York. The cop invited Kerr into his squad car. There they sat out the first of what were to be countless massive transportation snarls that would all but strangle human movement in and around Lake Placid—except for the deeds and derring-do of the Olympic athletes themselves.

Thus was established the early pattern for the first—and conceivably the last—Olympics of the '80s. As a rule, the actual sporting events went off with class and efficiency, while anything—anything—that fell outside the realm of athletic endeavor seemed to wind up as a nightmare, a tragedy or a sick joke.

To accentuate the positive: most athletes were nearly euphoric over the treatment they received in Lake Placid. In contrast to the plight of spectators, they were whisked from Olympic Village to venue and back again with speed and comfort. Even the incipient prison that is the Village drew rave reviews from most of its occupants. Despite last year's complaints by various national Olympic committees over the tiny cells and bleak institutional atmosphere of the lodgings, once the 1,400 athletes had actually moved in, everyone was happy. The hit of the Village was a psychedelic room full of blinking electronic game machines, which could make Lake Placid live in memory as the Pinball Olympics. And even the French and the Swiss said that the food was at least passing good.

Though the Adirondack peaks were only lightly dusted with snow when the Games began, the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee had produced tons upon tons of man-made snow that not only allowed every outdoor event to be held, but also actually produced a swift and solid surface that made the Alpine skiing all the better. Then more tons of God's own stuff fell almost daily, smothering the region in a blanket of white that produced picture-postcard beauty without causing any notable snow snafus on the roads. All this was to the good, and if the Games had been able to isolate themselves from everything except athletics and esthetics, they might have gained recognition as one of the purest Olympics of all—a glistening festival in which superb athletes performed their feats in superb surroundings.

Alas, this was not to be. As Ed Lewi, press chief of the Games and an Albany public-relations man in real life, said last Thursday to an infuriated band of journalists, "We never did say we were putting on the Olympic Games for spectators or for the press. We said the athletes would be No. 1 and everyone else would be No. 2." Never in the history of arithmetic was a No. 2 more widely separated from a No. 1. The horror stories of No. 2 multiplied through the week until at times it seemed as if there was nothing to talk about in this otherwordly hamlet except tales of heartbreak and huddled masses.

The breakdown in bus transportation produced innumerable scenes from a Siberian nightmare, with thousands of seething, shivering people stranded in wintry parking lots, miles from any habitation, help or hope. Occasionally, even No. 1 got sucked into this morass. After the opening ceremonies, the three most notable Americans at the Games—Eric Heiden and the ill-fated Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner—wound up together in a teeming parking lot. Because they couldn't locate the American team bus, the threesome began walking back to Lake Placid with the crowds; After a while Heiden waved down an official LPOOC van and asked the driver if he and his companions could have a ride. The driver took one look at this famous trio, all dressed in their U.S. team uniforms of cowboy hats and sheepskin jackets, and slammed the door, saying that no one but LPOOC officials were allowed to ride in his van.

By week's end, New York Governor Hugh Carey was forced to declare a limited state of emergency, because the bus system had broken down so badly that the lives of those waiting in line for rides were in danger.

Lord Killanin, the usually jovial and imperturbable president of the International Olympic Committee, reprimanded the LPOOC for the way it bungled the first medals-award ceremony on Thursday night. This modest affair was held on Mirror Lake in the middle of the village of Lake Placid. Several thousand spectators swarmed onto the lake, and the ice gave out a few ominous rifle-shot cracks, sending several hundred people scrambling back to shore. The ice held, but the LPOOC had forgotten to notify Soviet 30-kilometer cross-country skiing medalists Nikolai Zimyatov and Vasily Rochev and Bulgarian medalist Ivan Lebanov as to the location of the ceremony, and they did not appear. There were no flags because there were no flagpoles. Lord Killanin dropped a silver medal in the snow and had to fish around for several seconds to find it.

Tempers shortened as one such embarrassment piled upon another. During a typically tantrum-filled meeting over transporation foul-ups, the Rev. J. Bernard Fell, president of the LPOOC, shouted that maybe it was time to ban all spectators from the Olympics—a remark that was duly spread around the world.

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