When Bedlam Reigned in Lake Placid

When Bedlam Reigned in Lake Placid
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One cannot help being awed by the glitz and glamor of the 2018 Winter Olympics now running full tilt in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Watching the spectacle unfold on television, I am reminded of the less-glitzy-and-glamorous Olympic competitions staged on snow and ice 38 years ago in Lake Placid, N.Y.  

I was there for the full two weeks, covering the news, not sports, for Gannett News Service when I worked out its state capital bureau in Albany. Yes, I was at the memorable “Miracle on Ice” hockey game where the underdog United States team beat the mighty Soviet Red Army team at a time when the Cold War was still going strong. More about that later.

What was the “news” out of Lake Placid prior to the big hockey game? First, it was about the breakdown of the bus system designed to shuttle Olympic officials, workers, reporters and spectators from hotels and parking lots to the various sports venues sprinkled around a 15-mile radius from the center of town. There weren’t enough buses to handle the crowds.

The shortage turned many of us into hitchhikers. The motel where I and dozens of other reporters were housed was 16 miles from the press center. Cars without special permits were banned from the roads. I can still feel the wind chill of one bitter-cold morning when a scrum of scribes, myself included, frantically scrambled onto the back of a pickup truck filled with milk cans and bounced our way into town.

Naturally, with reporters forced to suffer the same indignities as the spectators, the bus snafu became a big news story for the first few days of the games. It turned out that a union dispute played a big part in the bus shortage, which took several days to resolve.

The opening ceremonies where athletes representing the various nations march into the arena behind their country’s flag was held on an open field lined with bleachers. There was no fancy strobe-lit stadium as in Pyeongchang. But there was a political news angle. Host-country President Jimmy Carter declined to attend, explaining that he was too busy dealing with the then-three-month-old crisis of more than 50 Americans held hostage in Iran. Vice President Walter Mondale attended in his place.

Another political controversy focused on the host governor, New York’s Hugh Carey. He too refused to attend the opening ceremonies because he was miffed at media speculation that he intended to squander taxpayer money on lavish parties at the games. He sent Lt. Gov. Mario Cuomo instead.

On top of it, only three weeks earlier, Carter had called for boycott of 1980 Summer Olympics planned for Moscow. He did it to protest the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Four days before the Winter Games opened, Carter dispatched Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to Lake Placid to urge the International Olympic Committee to reconsider allowing the Soviets to host the upcoming summer games.

“The question we now confront,” Vance told the IOC, “is whether the games should be held in a country which is itself committing a serious breach of international peace. It is our conviction that to do so would be wholly inconsistent with the meaning of the Olympics.”

The plea fell flat. The Moscow games went on although the U.S. and many of its Western allies skipped them. But U.S.-Soviet tensions hung a Cold War cloud over Lake Placid throughout the competition. Our news stories reflected it.

Thus, the stage was lit for the dramatic showdown hockey game between Team USA, a ragtag bunch of college and amateur players thrown together for the Olympics, and the formidable Red Army team of highly skilled, disciplined professionals who lived together in barracks and practiced 11 months a year. Although a team of U.S. amateurs had stunned the hockey world in by defeating the Soviets and Canadians — the two pre-Olympic favorites — in Squaw Valley, Calif., 20 years earlier, a U.S. victory at Lake Placid was considered a pipe dream.

Not being a sports reporter, I planned to watch the game on TV in the press room. But on that day of “miracles,” Mike Szostak, a sports reporter for The Providence Journal, found a ticket on the floor of a bus and offered it to me. He had a seat in the press box and didn’t need it. I suggested he go out and scalp it. The much-coveted tickets were fetching upwards of $250, a lot of money in 1980. But honest Mike said no.

So I went to the game and took Mike’s seat among some burly Russian guys in big coats and fur hats who squinted at me suspiciously. When the tension-filled match reached the third period, and it appeared the Red Army team could lose, those suspicious looks turned to menacing glares. Wisely, I got up and watched the Americans complete their 4-3 miracle from the back of the arena.

The Russian team, unbeaten in Olympic play for 12 years, stood stunned at center ice as pandemonium broke out around them. Realizing that Gannett newspapers might need a news story in addition to a game story, I called my editor in Washington. He shouted, “Go out into the streets and report the scene and get back to me in 15 minutes.” It was Friday night and we were on deadline. No Internet or Twitter then, let alone laptops and smartphones. Armed only with a notebook, I ran outside. This is part of what I reported:

“LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- It was New Year’s Eve in Times Square, the end of World War II and the New York Mets winning the ’69 pennant all rolled into one huge roar as the United States Cinderella Olympic hockey team beat the mighty Russians here last night, 4-3.

“Fans stormed out of the arena and into the village streets, clogging the passages and preventing the much-embattled buses from plying their appointed rounds.

“American flags waved, couples hugged and kissed and the 8,500 partisans who jammed the Olympic Ice Arena sent thundering cheers echoing off the majestic Adirondack Mountains.

“Horns honked, and police whistles blew as if in salute to the victory. Fireworks from the medal-awarding ceremonies just concluding lit up the Adirondack sky with the golds, reds and greens that matched the many colors worn by the crowd … which chanted, ‘USA! USA! USA!’

 “And as if on cue from Hollywood, light snowflakes began to fall, looking like confetti dancing in the air as searchlights from ABC-TV trucks beamed skyward, gave them a glitter that twinkled like stars.”

It seems like yesterday.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He teaches politics and journalism at American University and in The Fund for American Studies program at George Mason University. His Twitter handle is @benedettopress.



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