How the Olympics came to a sleepy Adirondack village
His father Melvil Dewey was the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, still used to systematize library books. He also invented a system of simplified spelling. and the Lake Placid Club—in that order. Melvil established club in 1895 as a locale of genteel hiking, tennis, swimming and golf, set some three hundred miles north of New York City and half that far from the Canadian border. In 1905, in a daring move for the time, Melvil kept the club open all winter, laying in a supply of toboggans, sleds, snowshoes, and skis. He broke even during his first snow season and thus the Lake Placid Club became the first continuously operating winter resort in the U.S., a title it still holds.
By the time Godfrey took over management of the club in the 1920s, it was recognized as the leading ski center of the East. This was due in part to the constant round of New York celebrities who had skied there: bandleader Rudy Vallee, singer Kate Smith, Broadway dancer Marilyn Miller, among others But it was no Chamonix, no St. Moritz. It had no big hotels, no casinos, no nightlife, only a large rambling club building in faux frontier style known as “adirondack,” which featured posts and beams more or less as cut from the stump, peeled, and roughly trimmed. In addition to rooms in the club, there was a group of large cottages built in the same mode.
The idea of putting an Olympics on at a rustic famiy cottage colony in the Adirondack wilds was staggering in its pretensions. The Club had catered to a restricted list of guests who had sufficient money to spend on expensive family vacations, and who also did not mind strict rules. There was no smoking, no ostentatious dress and no “rekles skiing,” as spelled out in Dewey’s simplified manner. (The onsite ski club founded by Melvil was officially the “Lake Placid Sno Birds.”) Definitely a family resort, Lake Placid also hosted—for the entertainment of its guests—a series of college ski circuit events from the 1920s onward. The club had good college ski jump at Intervale. For guests, it had some cross country trails and a decent outdoor skating rink. There were also political connections to the ski establishment, particularly with Fred Harris who had founded the collegiate circuit (after having founded the Dartmouth Outing Club). And with Harry Wade Hicks, the secretary of the Lake Placid Club who was also secretary of the college circuit and president of the U.S. Eastern Ski Association. That and a million dollars, Godfrey figured, would give him an Olympics.
Looking ahead, Godfrey managed in 1928 to insert his right-hand man, Harry Wade Hicks. into the job of manager of the 1928 U.S. team at St. Moritz. Godfrey and Harry had gone around the events at the Second Winter Games events lobbying the members of the four-year-old FIS and the 32-year-old International Olympic Committee. In an IOC executive session, Swedish delegate Col. Holmquist declared that in his opinion, although there were ski organizations in the United States and Canada, neither “had the necessary competence to organize ski events.” But for some reason, the IOC as a whole seemed to welcome the idea of an American venue. Perhaps delegates sensed that the alternative was tan endless round of hotel-centered resorts within the 400-mile radius of the Continent’s high Alps, an outcome that would not match the intended international character of the Olympic organization as a whole. The IOC decision was due in 1929 at Lausanne, its headquarters.
“Godfrey Deway,” wrote U.S Academic ski historian John Allen, in his 1994 Olympic Perspectives (from which much of the background material for this section of the article was taken),” was in most ways unsuited for the job of managing a world event but he had an outstanding characteristic which often times played against him but which in the final analysis was responsible for the 1932 Winter Games being Godfrey Dewey’s Olympics: a meddling stubbornness to see things through his own way. He changed the artist’s designs on the medals, he dealt with the minutiae of bureaucracy… he chose Bjorn Billion already under his thumb as Club instructor to make the rounds of Europe. These were matters he dealt with just as if he were at the Lake Placid Club.” One of his more egregious mistakes was to have Lake Placid Club secretary Harry Wade Hicks lay out the Olympic cross country courses, whose design and execution would be widely criticized.
Godfrey’s stubbornness had some formidable initial barriers to assail. One of them was persuading then-New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt to fund the quarter-million dollar construction of the bobsled run. Then there was convincing the International Olympic Committee that Lake Placid would build a Cresta sled run Godfrey had no intention of funding at all. Then there was the matter of winning over the ski nations in the FIS, the group responsible for sanctioning the ski events, who mostly thought of American skiing as being a backwoods kind of thing, (which it was). Oh, and one other thing. First of all, Godfrey had to block the competing Olympic bid from Yosemite, California.
That bid was headed by William May Garland, president of the California X Olympiad Association. Trying to head him off at the pass, Godfrey wrote Garland a long letter in which he pointed out that the Yosemite winter sport development had a much shorter pedigree than Lake Placid’s, that Yosemite had never held a National Ski Association or USEASA-sanctioned tournament. Godfrey was reluctant, he wrote Garland, “to be placed in the position of urging our superior facilities and long experience in winter sports against the express desire of California.” (which of course was exactly what Godfrey had been doing all along). Godfrey suggested Garland simply withdraw Yosemite’s bid, but Garland replied grimly, “Let the best man win.”
In April 1929 at Lausanne, Godfrey insisted that Yosemite show the IOC a film making much of Yosemite's natural beauties. He thereby proved that 1) by comparison, Lake Placid was a sophisticated winter sports center, and 2) Yosemite was not much more than a heavily forested, high mountain valley. The IOC delegates opted for Lake Placid.
To put it kindly, Lake Placid did not have nearly the facilities that had already been in place for holding the Chamonix and St. Moritz Games. Lake Placid was the first case of an Olympic infrastructure built expressly to harbor an oncoming Games. It was the first trial of the idea that “if they come, we will build it.” (This is the exact reverse of course of the famed Field of Dreams mantra, “If we build it, they will come.”)
Therefore the cost of the III Winter Olympics reached an astonishing $1 million ($9 million today). It was astonishing not only relative to the much smaller costs of hosting the two previous Olympics but in particular because the Great Wall Street Crash of 1929 had newly precipitated what was going to become the Great Depression. But it can be assumed that most of the club’s conservative middle class members had kept their exposure to Wall Street moderate because the club was able to start things off by raising $200,000 in bonds issued by the adjacent town of North Elba. They were sold to well-to-do members and Lake Placid citizens whose pride or businesses would be sent sky high by a Lake Placid Olympics. When American Olympic Association member Carl Messelt pointed out that the bonds would be irredeemable after the Games were over, since the town treasury would be exhausted, he was ignored. North Elba raised another $150,000 with a second bond issue.
As one initiative, Godfrey sent Fred Harris to the 1930 FIS Congress in Oslo, representing the National Ski Association and USEASA. The FIS was in charge of ski events, so Harris circulated the profiles of the Intervale jumping hill and two course plans for the 50 km cross country among the delegates, who seemed content with that. But they objected to the proposed $10 ($90 today) entrance fee on the grounds that Lake Placid, being so near New York, would be in line to make a killing. That was not the Olympic idea. Still, though the FIS could still pull the rug out from under, Harris left the meeting with the feeling that come decision-time, the Europeans would support Lake Placid.
On the home front, Godfrey was battling the American Olympic Association whose newly-established president, Avery Brundage, was for the first time fitting on his fright mask as the once and future scourge of the Winter Games. Brundage weighed in during January 1931 with the pronouncement that the Lake Placid efforts were “doomed to failure” and made it plain that Godfrey Dewey could expect no help from him. Brundage published an AOA fund-raising brochure under the signature of U.S. President Herbert Hoover in which the Lake Placid Winter Olympics went unmentioned. Godfrey countered with his own fund raising brochure with letter signed by President Hoover in July 1931. Brundage was furious not only because his own fund-raising was being spiked but because Godfrey defrayed the cost of the brochure by carrying advertising. So un-Olympic.
In the meantime, Governor Roosevelt did appropriate $125,000 in New York State funds for the construction of the bobsled run. Next Godfrey lobbied for $400,00 to construct an indoor rink for the skating and hockey events. But Governor Roosevelt was dubious about the benefit to the general public of a building that would only be in official use for one week before reverting to Lake Placid. It took two more years to convince Roosevelt. On February 9th, 1933, with the Games exactly a year off, the governor signed an appropriation for $375,000. One factor in Roosevelt’s thinking was obviously that in his intended run against Hoover in the 1932 elections for the U. S. presidency, an Olympics would provide a guaranteed platform before a fine array of U.S. press and news film people. (News reels provided the equivalent of TV with news shorts that played before the main movie at all theaters throughout the United States).
Thus the skating events were secure, the bobsled events were all set and the nordic ski events had been provided for. The alpine events were ignored. Although downhill and slalom had been accepted as legitimate by the FIS, which had run its first alpine championships in 1931 at Mürren, Switzerland, Godfrey was anything but anxious to spend scarce resources on building downhill courses—which he hadn't promised anyway.
Seventeen nations, including the U.S., sent a total of 447 skiers, sledders and skaters to the third Winter Olympics. Approximately a fifth of these were U.S. competitors. The rest came overland and by boat.
Naturally, it was a horrible snow year.
The weather was the warmest on record. The upper reaches of the nearby Hudson River, which had reliably frozen solid every year during the 146 years for which weather records had been kept, did not freeze during the 147th year in the winter of 1932. A major thaw hit two weeks before the Games, with temperatures rising from below zero to 50 degrees in 24 hours, ruining the bobsled and cross country courses, the jumps, and the ice, and the training schedules of skiers, sledders and skaters alike.
The weather moderated; tons of snow were dug out of the woods and put onto the courses. Miraculous feats of organization and endurance testified to Godfrey's ability to get things done. George Carroll quoted Godfrey (in the February 1960 Ski) as saying, “ It was a case of never-say-die. We simply refused to admit defeat. Everyone, our own Olympic staff, the International Committee, village, town and state officials labored day and night.”
The bob run was repaired (the bobsled event was actually allowed to run a week after the Olympics to reach a conclusion). Resurfaced skating ovals grew solid. On February 4, 1932 Governor Roosevelt declared the Third Winter Games open and called for world peace. (The Japanese had already opened the preliminaries of World War II by invading Chinese Manchuria.) U.S. skater Jack Shea took the Olympic pledge on behalf of all the competitors.
Two non-skiing events were of interest to the future of skiing. Billy Fiske, the 1928 gold bobsled medalist, won again at the Lake Placid bobsled run and became a national hero. Having learned about skiing at two Olympics, he became a skier himself. In 1936, he was one of three men to finance the first high alpine ski accommodations in the U.S., the Highland Bavarian Lodge outside Aspen. Every name skier from Dartmouth’s ski god Otto Schniebs on down came to stay long weeks at Highland Bavarian and publish thereafter illustrated accounts. Fiske’s effort had a wondrous effect in advertising the mountain beauty of the setting of what would become U.S. skiing’s first mega-resort.
In skating, Norway's Sonja Henie came in head and shoulders over the competition, scoring her second Olympic gold (her first was at St. Moritz). She would win again at the Fourth Olympics. Launched from her Olympic platform, she would go on to movie career during which she would star in the most famous ski film of all time, Sun Valley Serenade. Even though her skiing in the film was done by doubles, and though she never actually went to Sun Valley (her parts were shot on the studio stage), Henna’s glamour added up to an enormous boost, almost as much as the 1932 Olympics themselves, to recreational skiing in the U.S.
In the 18-kilometer, Norway's Johan Grottumsbraaten, double gold medallist in the 1928 Games, was beaten by two Swedes, Sven Utterstrom and Axel Vikstrom, who had a secret weapon: a diet of brown beans, oatmeal, salt herring and Knackebrod, especially prepared by the Swedish team's traveling cook. Ollie Zetterstram, the first American finisher in the 15km, placed 23rd. The next day, in the combined jump event, Grottumsbraaten scored high enough to win the Nordic Combined gold.
The 50-km event proved to be one of the most contentious. The snow finally came with a vengeance: the season's first blizzard broke upon Lake Placid on the day of the race. The course had been laid out to double back on itself, a design that so angered some of the coaches that three hours were spent in arguing the point back and forth while the blizzard got worse. When the race finally came off, the high-seeded starters had to break track through the soft, new-fallen snow, were all soundly beaten by relative unknowns who started late and had the advantage of a more solidly packed track. The winner was Vaino Likkanen of Finland, who started in 23rd place.
Next to photogenic Sonja Henie in the figure-skating event, the press paid most attention to the exotic entry: Japan. The Japanese were not only copying the military ways of the West with a vengeance but entering the world athletic contests, unfortunately sometimes two faces of a single nationalist coin. Time, in reporting on the Games in its usual lack of comprehension of winter sports at the time, printed Norwegian jumper Birger Ruud's name as “Birger Rudd,” and superskater Sonja Henie's as “Sonja Henje.”
Even more benightedly, Time stated that one of the features of the Games was "the amazing incompetence of the Japanese…The Japanese fancy skaters, who had studied this sport in books, found it hard to keep their footing…two Japanese skiers were injured by turning somersaults off the ski jump, and another who fell down in front of the schoolhouse, amused Lake Placid children by his inability to get up."
The Japanese, contrary to Time's version, were neither wholly incompetent or lacking innovation or courage. During the 50-km, a Japanese assistant coach set up a portable wind-up record player at the most difficult part of the course, a steep ravine. Every time a Japanese skier came by, the coach wound up his machine and blasted out the Japanese national anthem, which so galvanized each Japanese competitor that he scaled the ravine's uphill side at a roaring clip.
The top Japanese jumper, Gaio Adachi, spun into the grandstand in a training jump on the Intervale hill, was injured and had to be hospitalized. Nevertheless, Adachi got up from his hospital bed to post jumps of 196 and 215 feet and placed eighth, foreshadowing the mistake of underestimating the Japanese, which cost us dearly a dozen years later in World War II. More benignly, the Japanese will to win also foreshadowed the Sapporo Olympics of 1972 in which Japanese jumpers swept all three special jump medals.
The amazing heroics of the Japanese aside, Norway dominated the jumping by sweeping the special jump with Birger Ruud getting a silver, the first of a clutch of Olympic medals. The USA’s Casper Oimen came in fifth, the highest score in an Olympic event for the U.S. to date. And then Norway got third in the 50-km as well to make it seven medals in three of the four nordic events.
Norwegians were so fanatic about maintaining the Games a shrine to pure amateurism wouldn't even let the Lake Placid ski pro, Erling Strom, tend the jump hill during the Games. They felt equally strongly that the sanctity of the original aim of the Games, competition of individual against individual, was violated by the country-vs-country slant of U.S. news reportage. The Norwegians' anger was not even the least bit mollified when New York Sun columnist Edwin B. Dooley reminded readers that approximately 90 American entries in all events, including skating, figure skating, and bobsled, had "a combined point total only a few [points] more than…a handful of Norwegians."
Over 80,000 tickets were sold for the third Winter Games. Among the attendees were the requisite celebrities including the world’s most famous radio newscaster, Lowell Thomas, reporting from location, and Admiral Richard Byrd, scouting among the cross-country competitors for rugged specimens who might be persuaded to come on Byrd's next polar expedition. Press coverage was much better and more widespread than had been anticipated. Some of it was a bit hyperbolic because the main hangout of the good old boys among reporters was in the basement bar of a local inn where newsmen took and held nearly all the seats. Columnist Westbrook Pegler called it “the Cellar Athletic Club.” Wrote George Carroll, “Some of the most dramatic stories of the week were filed by reporters who got no closer to the bobrun or the ski jump.”
The Olympics recruited one of the sports’ staunchest and most effective advocates. “It was the Olympics at Lake Placid that really sold me on skiing.” Writing under his own byline in the February 1960 Ski Life, Lowell admitted that he had gotten hooked after Erling Strom had given him his first ski lesson during the 1932 Olympics. Lowell’s subsequent radio broadcasts from ski resorts like Mt. Tremblant and Aspen, where he had gone to ski, were the kind of exposure publicity agents dream about. Lowell’s nightly audiences registered in the tens of millions and he was usually at a resort for a week or more.
Lake Placid’s post-Olympic notices were mixed. The one from the Technical Committee of the FIS was less than laudatory, commenting somewhat acidly on Godfrey’s tendency to maintain tight control by using only trusted aides. “Too big a burden was undoubtedly placed on two few men’s shoulders and those did not manager to perform all that was up to them. They also lacked skilled helpers possessing knowledge and initiative. The arrangements for the skiing contests must be termed unsatisfactory due to the fact that management was not entrusted to experts.”
But IOC president Count de Ballait-Latour in his official report congratulated Godfrey, saying he was “more than pleased at the plans made for staging the Games in Lake Placid, facilities for the conduct of sports and other arrangements. ” He noted “the exceptional manner in which this obligation was discharged, a great task masterfully handled.”
The closing ceremonies were presided over by New York City Major Jimmy Walker, who could never pass up a party anywhere, even in the snow. The crowds cheered Walker as they had cheered Roosevelt, and cheered winners and losers the whole ten days. The general public tone, in spite of the wet weather, was one of excitement and general self-congratulation that a small American mountain town in splendid natural surroundings had been readied successfully for such a gigantic international event. The 1932 event was unique. For the first time it was apparent that what big St. Moritz could, little Lake Placid could also do: the proof was there. And the world paid attention.