I have a confession to make: I am an Olympics junkie. Despite the fact that I never owned a television in my adult life, every four (and later, two) years found me scrounging up a borrowed set to watch all my favorite sports.
My favorites are the ones that defy gravity, like gymnastics, diving, ice skating, and ski jumping. When I was little, I cared little for baseball, basketball, or football. My heroes were Dorothy Hamill, Mark Spitz, Nadia Commaneci, Greg Louganis. When Finland declared a national holiday because their ski jumper won the gold medal, I cheered — and wished fervently I was Finnish.
I love the pageantry of the Olympics, the way the whole world comes together for a short time and declares the “Olympic truce.” I love the fact that there are people devoting their entire lives to little-known sports, like curling or pentathlon, which most of us know nothing about. Can you even list the events that make up the pentathlon? I remember the Olympics before rhythm gymnastics, moguls, and skeleton, and I love the fact that there are new sports to discover.
So it’s probably no surprise to hear that while the XXVIII Olympics were getting under way in Athens, Barry and I were at Lake Placid, New York, home of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics.
I’ve seen Olympic venues before — Montreal, Atlanta. Those were just facilities, where the tour guide’s narration echoed across an empty gym or swimming pool. Lake Placid is a live training venue, full of athletes, where even at the height of the summer, there is plenty to see. We sat in the ice rink until our lips turned blue from cold, watching tiny girls in short velvet dresses practicing their double axels. One fellow was doing triples, nearly spraying us with ice as he landed on the other side of the boards.
From there, we passed the rink where the USA upset the Soviet Union in hockey in 1980. Hockey fans stood in the doorway, gazing at the ice in wonder, as if they thought that one spectacular game won the Cold War for the USA and caused the fall of the USSR.
We took a drive to Whiteface Mountain, where a quiet gondola took us to the top. Only a handful of tourists wandered about, snapping pictures, a far cry from the armies of support people, camera crews, and athletes who were there for the 1980 Olympics.
The 1932 Olympics were on another mountain, and the spectacular Whiteface Mountain venue was developed just for the ’80 games. Seeing these places in the summer, with their naked infrastructure uncovered by snow, brings home the realization of just how much is built for the Olympics. In ’80, the Federal Government chipped in to build the Olympic Village that housed all the athletes, on the condition that it would be turned over to them afterwards for a minimum security prison. I’m not sure where they would house the athletes if they hosted another Olympics — perhaps move the prisoners elsewhere?
The combined track for bobsled, luge, and skeleton was on another mountain. We didn’t opt for the 60 mph wheeled bobsled ride down the old track, but took a bus tour to the top of the mountain. Without its snowy winter blanket, the track is ugly, miles of refrigeration pipes covered in orange insulation. In keeping with the desire for more challenges, the new run is an eighth of a mile longer than the old and has four more curves, one of them 23 feet high. It has a section known as “The Devil’s Highway,” where athletes get up to four G’s of centrifugal force, and the poor skeleton fellows can’t even pick up their heads from the ice.
But for me, lover of things that defy gravity, the best part of Lake Placid was the ski jumping complex. There, on the 90-meter tower, skiiers slide down high-tech tracks and launch themselves effortlessly into the air, landing 100 meters down the hill on Astro-turf. They held a competition the Saturday we were there. I can still hear it in my head: Skis whooshing down the hill, cheering crowds, and that distinctive clatter of cowbells. I’ve only heard that particular combination of sounds on TV — during the Winter Olympics.
After watching Jonathan Kling match the summer record for the 90-meter hill (104 meters), we spent a few hours sitting at poolside. Wearing skis, boots, helmets, swimsuits, and PFDs, the aerial skiiers slide down a hill, are launched into the sky, and perform amazing feats before landing in a deep aerated swimming pool. We first saw small children who were there for a four-day camp. After only a couple of days, they could all march up the hill, ski down, and do flips and helis and split jumps into the pool.
But my eyes were drawn to the steps beside the taller hills, where tiny figures marched up carrying their skis over their shoulders. Finally, someone took off down the big hill. Down, down, down, then up the ramp at the end. He flew over 50 feet into the air, performing a triple somersault with so many twists I couldn’t count them. The spectators roared in delight, and I was left breathless.
This was the gravity defiance I had watched on TV for years, right in front of (above, actually!) me. And the next time I have a chance to watch the Olympics on TV, I probably will. But I’ll get just as much pleasure out of watching my own little videos. Because I was there, and I saw it, and heard it — in person, at Lake Placid.