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Lake Placid Olympics really were a miracle ...

When you watch the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics Friday night, try to picture what it must have been like 30 years ago when the tiny Village of Lake Placid, N.Y., hosted the 1980 version of the games.

Vancouver has a population of about 600,000 or so; Lake Placid’s population in 1980 was about 3,000 or so permanent residents, and that figure has actually declined a bit in the ensuing 30 years despite the expansion of the U.S. Olympic facilities since those 1980 Games.

Obviously, the profile of the Winter Olympics has expanded enormously in those three decades, so it’s hard to imagine that the Games could return there now, but I’ll bet the local folks are still trying. The real miracle of 1980 – no letters from hockey fans, please – may well have been that a community that size was able to host an international event of that scale.

I was a reporter in nearby Saranac Lake back then, and took part in a couple of year’s worth of meetings about Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee plans, endless confabs that tried the patience at the time but ultimately are hard to criticize, since they pulled it off.

One of the linchpins of the whole proposal was the Olympic housing for the athletes, which ended up being undertaken by the Bureau of Prisons, with a federal minimum-security facility built just outside the village corporation limits. It worked handsomely for the Winter Olympic athletes in 1980, then was promptly turned over to the feds and became part of an imposing array of New York State or federal correctional facilities that dot the upper quadrant of the Adirondack Park.

That took care of a major hurdle, but there was also the dilemma of how a couple of two-lane state highways in and out of the tiny village could handle the thousands of fans attending the events. That was addressed by severely limiting automobile access into the designated Olympic area, and two enormous staging (meaning parking) areas were set up on opposite ends of the village – and several miles outside of it – to accommodate fans. They were then bused into the village for the events. The draconian parking restrictions were absolutely unavoidable, and so far-reaching that even duly accredited journalists like myself couldn’t drive into town.

To this day I still can’t understand how they pulled it off, even though I sat through so many of those LPOOC meetings. To make matters worse, a brutal cold snap hit in the weeks leading up to the Games and right into the beginning, raising one of the major concerns that Games planners had fretted about all along.

With a vast armada of reporters covering the actual events themselves, I was left with the odd feature or color piece here and there. Thus, I ended up riding behind a dog sled team on Mirror Lake in the Olympic Village, or reporting on the then-startling phenomenon of people collecting zillions of Olympic pins. There was also a good deal of reportage on the guys in front of the Lake Placid firehouse setting up judging panels outside and kind of raucously rating the various attributes of female touristas, employing the figure-skating 1-10 scale.

I’ll have a couple of closing recollections in tomorrow’s blog.