On ice and snow, be it artificial or real, a new generation of athletes reminded the people of Lake Placid that anything is possible, even miracles and unimaginable victories.
In February 1980, Lake Placid played host to the Olympic Winter Games for a second time, almost 50 years after the first celebration. There had been many changes in the Olympic winter world over those years. In 1932, distance and the effects of the Great Depression prevented some athletes from travelling to Lake Placid. In 1980, however, they came from four of the five continents to take part – some roughly 800 more than in 1932 including the first time Winter Games appearance of athletes from Costa Rica, the People’s Republic of China and Cyprus.
It was also the first time that Lake Placid’s citizens were able to welcome the Olympic flame. In 1932 there had been no Flame, indeed no relay, not even a symbolic fire. In 1980, however, 52 people, both male and female, who best exemplified the ancient Greek ideal of the ‘whole man’ were selected from across the US to act as multiple-time torchbearers. They carried the Olympic flame on the 1,600km national leg of its journey.
Change was also evident in the sports programme. In 1932 there had been no luge, alpine skiing, ice dancing or women’s cross country skiing. In speed skating women had only participated in demonstration events. During the years between the two Lake Placid editions of the Winter Games though, those disciplines or events had gradually been added to the programme.
Despite the fact that Lake Placid had been left with a legacy of sporting facilities following the 1932 Winter Games the changes to the sports programme meant that updates to existing facilities or the building of new ones was required to host the 1980 events.
At the Mt. Van Hoevenberg site it was decided to retain the old bob run exclusively for the bobsleigh events. It received a chilly facelift with the addition of a refrigeration system that would ensure that in 1980 the competitions would be completed before the Closing ceremony. The installation of new snow making equipment at Whiteface Mountain proved to be fortuitous when there was only minimal snowfall in the lead-up to the Games. For the first time in Olympic history alpine athletes skied on runs covered in artificial rather than natural snow.
In the town of Lake Placid itself, the 1932 Arena received an upgrade and a new Olympic field house with two ice rinks was constructed next door. A new refrigerated oval was built on the site where the 1932 speed skating competitions had taken place.
It was at the oval that some of the most exciting moments of the 1980 competitions unfolded. In the men’s event’s, Eric Heiden became a legend and his sister Beth achieved her own level of success skating to a bronze in the women’s 3,000m event.
The Heidens were not the only familial duo to meet with success. In the Alpine skiing another brother and sister, Hanni and Andreas Wenzel both earned medals. Hanni entered all three women’s events and got stronger with each performance, earning a silver followed by two golds. Andreas added to the Wenzel family total by taking a silver in the men’s giant slalom.
In figure skating it was the Soviet husband and wife pairing of Irina Rodnina and Aleksandr Zaytsev who skated to gold in the pairs event, winning first place votes from all nine judges for their performance. For Rodnina it was a third straight Olympic title and her last appearance at the Winter Games.
Family ties or not, by the time the 1980 Olympic Winter Games drew to a close, another chapter of Olympic history had been filled with many remarkable performances. The one that most of the citizens of Lake Placid would talk about though would be the ‘miracle on ice’.