Philip Barker ©ITG

The flame is set to burn for the International University Sports Federation (FISU) Winter World University Games in Lake Placid next week, half a century after the Winter Olympics were first held there.

Lake Placid is set to be the first American community to host a FISU event more than once.

A welcome sign proclaims that Lake Placid has twice staged the Winter Olympics, a remarkable achievement for a village with a population of around 2,245.

The first Lake Placid Winter Olympics was 90 years ago.

Los Angeles had already been selected to host the 1932 Summer Olympics and normal practice at the time was to stage the Winter Games in the same country if possible.

The United States Olympic Committee officials had contacted Lake Placid to ask if they were willing to take on the Games.

"Local sports leaders naturally were pleased at the implied compliment to Lake Placid standing as a winter resort," a Lake Placid 1932 official report revealed.

Lake Placid is a tiny community but has twice hosted the Winter Olympics in 1932 and 1980 ©Getty Images
Lake Placid is a tiny community but has twice hosted the Winter Olympics in 1932 and 1980 ©Getty Images

Winter sports had flourished in the area since the foundation of the Lake Placid Club in 1895.

By the early 1920s, the sports on offer included ski jumping and cross country skiing, ice hockey and speed skating.

Doctor Godfrey Dewey, an "ardent and capable winter sportsman", with the Lake Placid Club headed moves to host the Olympics.

Dewey travelled to the 1928 Winter Olympics in St Moritz as leader of the United States ski team.

With only three competitors in his charge, he had plenty of time to make careful notes about how St Moritz set about organising the Games.

"Lake Placid's quarter century of successful experience in promoting winter sports is its greatest asset in bidding for the Games," Dewey said in a speech on his return.

He warned that the biggest obstacle was finding suitable accommodation in such a small community.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) decision was to be made in 1929, so a bidding committee was formed and the local chamber of commerce set about securing the $50,000 (£41,000/  46,000) needed to support it.

In the meantime, a message of intent was sent to Lausanne.

"Be it resolved, (if the Senate concur) that the Legislature of the State of New York approves the efforts of Lake Placid to secure the award of the Olympic Winter Games of 1932, and commends to the favourable consideration of the International Olympic Committee the invitation of Lake Placid to hold these Games and assures the cooperation of the State of New York to make the Olympic Winter Games of 1932 an inspiring success," the message said.

Bobsledder Billy Fiske held the American flag as teammate Jack Shea took the competitors' oath on behalf of 251 athletes from 17 nations at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics ©Reetsma Cigarettenfabriken
Bobsledder Billy Fiske held the American flag as teammate Jack Shea took the competitors' oath on behalf of 251 athletes from 17 nations at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics ©Reetsma Cigarettenfabriken

In those days, the IOC permitted more than one bid from the same country.

This meant that there were bids from Bear Mountain, another resort in New York State, Denver, Minneapolis and Duluth in Minnesota along with Lake Tahoe and Yosemite Valley in California.

Montreal and Oslo also hovered just in case the American candidates failed to meet the standard required by the IOC.

The Californian groups presented the biggest threat to Lake Placid for they were backed by William May Garland, one of America's IOC members.

There were presentations from all the bid groups before Lake Placid was then unanimously elected.

When the result was known, Los Angeles Organising Committee vice-president William Humphrey slammed it as "an outrage" that one of the Californian bids had not been selected but a threatened protest did not materialise.

Dewey was named supremo of the Lake Placid Games, but within a few months came the Wall Street Crash.

"Economic conditions are extraordinarily difficult in all countries and this may operate somewhat to reduce the entry list for the 32 Games," Dewey wrote to Garland later.

He was proved correct for only 200 overseas competitors eventually travelled to the Games.

Support from the State Government had been cut as a result and Lake Placid organisers set about raising funds with a national campaign.

The largest contribution came from John D Rockefeller, who gave a personal donation of $5000 (£4148/4687).

Organisers were nonetheless keen to start the building work needed, in particular a bob run.

During his European trip, Dewey had visited Berlin, where he recruited engineer Stansislaus Zentzytsky to design and build the course.

Despite disputes over money and further legal niceties in obtaining a suitable site, a run was eventually constructed at what became known as Mount Van Hoevenberg.

Work began on other Olympic installations in late 1929.

Excavations for the Olympic speed skating stadium and an Olympic stadium were completed and the following month, an experimental bobsled run was in use for the first time.

The permanent run was eventually installed the following year at a cost of $6,600 (£5475/6186)

In 1930, IOC President Henri Baillet-Latour visited Lake Placid and offered his own suggestions, which the Organising Committee diplomatically described  "much helpful advice".

Baillet-Latour had been in Canada to watch the inaugural British Empire Games (now Commonwealth Games) in Hamilton, Ontario, when he had seen the use of a podium at victory ceremonies.

He recommended a similar arrangement for Lake Placid.

"On a matter of real local interest, may I suggest that when the Games are over, something tangible and physical must remain as a sort of memorial to the Games," Baillet-Latour told his hosts.

He was all too aware how weather delays had forced curtailment of some events at previous Games.

"I venture to suggest it would be a great utility should an indoor rink be built," Baillet-Latour told his hosts.

Construction of the arena began.

It was inaugurated by an ice hockey match between Lake Placid Athletic Club and St Nicholas of New York, a few days before the Olympics began.

United States President Herbert Hoover did not attend the Olympics, but gave approval for one of the earliest visa waiver schemes for competitors.

"Properly accredited foreign contestants and officials should be granted all possible facilities and courtesies upon entering the United States, and to grant to such properly accredited and identified participants free entry of their personal baggage and equipment," Hoover wrote.

He recommended all Olympic personnel should be exempt from the visa tax of $8 (£6.70/€7.57).

With four days to go before the Games were due to begin, the hills surrounding the stadium were still bare but it did not go unnoticed that snow had fallen in Los Angeles.

IOC President Count Henri Baillet-Latour stands on top of a medal podium used at the Olympics for the first time in 1932 at Lake Placid ©Reetsma Cigarettenfabriken
IOC President Count Henri Baillet-Latour stands on top of a medal podium used at the Olympics for the first time in 1932 at Lake Placid ©Reetsma Cigarettenfabriken

Then at the beginning of February, temperatures began to plummet.

The Games were opened by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then State Governor.

Roosevelt reviewed a march past by 17 nations, which included figure skater Mollie Phillips, who carried the British flag and is believed to be the first woman flag bearer at any Olympics.

Her teammates included Cecilia Colledge, at 11 years and 74 days, the youngest-ever to take part in the Winter Olympics.

Figure skating was the only medal sport for women and Norwegian skating superstar Sonja Henie won her second-successive gold medal.

Women were also seen in speed skating but only in a demonstration event.

Meanwhile, 1920 light heavyweight boxing gold medallist Eddie Eagan, won gold in four-man bob, the first to win summer and winter gold in different sports.

"The Games themselves brought out the most spirited competition in all the events on the Olympic programme," Baillet-Latour wrote.

He praised Lake Placid Organisers for taking on "a greater burden in proportion to its size than any community ever assumed in staging Olympic contests".

Lake Placid offered to repeat the trick for the first three Winter Games after World War II, but on each occasion, others were chosen.

In 1963, they launched a bid for 1968, which cost $150,000 (£125,000/€141,000), but lost out in the first round of voting as Grenoble in France was selected instead.

In 1970, the United States Olympic Committee threw their weight behind Denver, which won the IOC vote to host the 1976 Games.

American speed skater Eric Heiden won five gold medals at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid ©Getty Images
American speed skater Eric Heiden won five gold medals at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid ©Getty Images

Meanwhile, in August 1969, FISU chose Lake Placid to stage the Winter World University Games in 1972.

"In their efforts to prove to the world that they were capable of anything, they had a bid of everything in sight," Lake Placid journalist Christian Ortloff wrote in Lake Placid, the Olympic Years, an expansive and authoritative history of sport in the region.

"They were the biggest spectacle since 1932." 

This time, snow fell in abundance as the 1972 University Games began.

United States President Richard Nixon sent a telegram of greeting, but the Opening Ceremony was almost unwittingly spectacular for the wrong reasons.

American collegiate skier James Miller entered with the flame, but it set his woollen sweater alight as he approached the cauldron.

He insisted on continuing to the cauldron despite protestations from concerned volunteers. 

"My sweater was engulfed in flames," Miller told Lake Placid News .

"I can’t let you put that out and have the flame go out! I’ll do it when I get back."

The Games were held only a few weeks after the Winter Olympics in Sapporo. 

Soviet cross-country skier Fydor Simashov had been in Japan, where he won Olympic silver in the individual 15 kilometres race. 

In Lake Placid, he took gold.

He had also been part of the 4x10km relay team which won Olympic gold and emulated that feat at the University Games.

Simashov also won over 30 km in Lake Placid to complete a successful competition.

Poland's double Olympian Alpine skier Andrzej Bachleda-Curuś had already won Winter University gold in 1966.

In 1972, a few days after top ten finishes in the slalom and giant slalom in Sapporo, Bachleda-Curuś came home to win the giant slalom in Lake Placid.

The Games were hailed for their friendly atmosphere.

Organisers set up a "People to People" group to make visitors feel more welcome. 

When they discovered Soviet figure skater Galina Karelina was set to marry on her return home, they arranged for her to be presented with a wedding dress.

Within a few months, there came another opportunity.

Denver had been selected to host the 1976 Winter Olympics, but a public vote rejected them for a combination of environmental and economic reasons.

Lake Placid organisers came forward to offer themselves as potential replacement host.

Their presentation was led by Reverend Bernard Fell.

"He was certainly the most persuasive speaker I have ever heard," IOC President Lord Killanin admitted later.

Although the IOC chose Innsbruck to host the 1976 Games, Lake Placid had made a "very plausible" bid.

"There is no doubt that the extremely impressive performances of its delegation at this meeting carried Lake Placid to be the favourite, and ultimately the victor, three years later," Killanin wrote in his memoirs.

At the IOC session in Vienna in 1974, the IOC chose Moscow to host the 1980 Summer Games and Lake Placid for the Winter Games.

The 1980 Winter Olympics opened against a backdrop of controversy after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ©Getty Images
The 1980 Winter Olympics opened against a backdrop of controversy after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ©Getty Images

There was some controversy when the legacy use of the Olympic Village was revealed.

Dormitories later became cell blocks in a new prison to be known as "Federal Correction Institute Ray Brook."

On learning about this, some teams decided to stay elsewhere.

A further cloud came in the early days of 1980, when shortly before the Games were to begin, Moscow ordered Soviet troops into Afghanistan.

United States President Jimmy Carter reacted immediately.

The Opening Ceremony in Lake Placid proved a flashpoint, after Carter sent Secretary of State Cyrus Vance as his representative with a very political message which angered many IOC members.

Vice-president Walter Mondale opened the Games, but although the US President stayed away, the White House did ask for accreditation for his daughter Amy, who attended the ice hockey match which became emblematic of the era. 

The United States team was drawn from players still at university or college, because those in the National Hockey League were then ineligible for the Olympics.

In a remarkable encounter, the US defeated the Soviet Union 4-3 in the match which became known as the "Miracle on Ice".

American ice hockey players celebrated the
American ice hockey players celebrated the "Miracle on Ice" victory over the Soviet Union but the 1980 Olympic gold was not clinched until they beat Finland in the next match ©Getty Images

It was not the match which decided the gold medal, that came later when the Americans defeated  Finland to clinch gold.

Yet, arguably the biggest star performer of the Lake Placid Games was speed skater Eric Heiden.

His feat of five gold medals at a single Olympics was an astonishing performance.

Just as Lake Placid 1932 had included a medal podium, Lake Placid 1980 had what later became known as the "medals plaza".

"It was a splendid opportunity for locals and others who might not have tickets for the venues to see Olympic champions close at hand," IOC President Killanin conceded.

The political undercurrent at the Games was ever present.

"If we can all come together it will be for a better world and we shall avoid the holocaust which may well be upon us if we are not careful," Killanin warned at the Closing Ceremony.

By a curious twist of fate, 24 competitors from the People’s Republic of China made their first Olympic appearance at Lake Placid in 1980.

Largely unheralded, they competed in Alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country figure skating and speed skating but did not win any medals.

More attention will be paid to Chinese athletes who arrive this week in Lake Placid for the World University Games, 

They will be subject to stringent COVID-19 measures, introduced this week in the United States as a response to rising cases in China.