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40 Years Later, The Olympics Still Leave A Legacy On Lake Placid, N.Y.


It's been 40 years since Lake Placid, N.Y., hosted the Winter Olympics. Those games made history in both hockey and speed skating events, and they've been a big boost for the small town's economy. North Country Public Radio's Emily Russell reports.

EMILY RUSSELL, BYLINE: Lake Placid is a tiny town hours from any major city. It's tucked up in New York's Adirondack Mountains. The 1980 Olympics are still a huge deal here.

STEVEN VASSAR: I even grew my hair out for the '80s look (laughter). How'd I ever wear it like this when I was younger, I have no idea.

RUSSELL: Steven Vassar grew up here and was in his 20s when the Olympics came to his hometown. During the games, he got a job doing maintenance on the hockey rink. Vassar says he watched every hockey game the Americans played, including the now-famous matchup against the Soviets.

VASSAR: The noise started growing and growing. The rink holds 8,500; they estimated there was over 12,000 people stuffed in there just for that one game.

RUSSELL: A tape of that game plays on repeat Lake Placid Winter Olympic Museum.


KEN DRYDEN: Five seconds left and the game's over.

AL MICHAELS: Do you believe in miracles? Yes.


RUSSELL: ABC sports commentator Al Michaels marking what's now considered one of the greatest moments in American sports history. But Vassar, who has worked here at the museum for the last 20 years, he says that was not the only breakout moment of the 1980 Olympics.

VASSAR: The hockey was huge with what they did, but there was a bigger event here, and that was called Eric Heiden.

RUSSELL: The American speedskater took home five gold medals at Lake Placid. Heiden is still the most successful winter athlete at a single Olympics. Today, people come from all over the world to see these hallowed grounds.

OK, so when you walked in here, you said, this is sick. So...


RUSSELL: ...What's it like to be standing here?

RYAN QUINLIVAN: It's incredible.

RUSSELL: Ryan Quinlivan is visiting from New York City.

QUINLIVAN: Just, like, blown away by - it actually happened here.

RUSSELL: Quinlivan and his family are among the millions of tourists Lake Placid sees each year. People come here to downhill ski or hike the Adirondacks. Lake Placid also hosts all kinds of sporting events, from lacrosse in the summer to bobsled and luge in the winter. Butch Martin works for the town.

BUTCH MARTIN: It's pretty amazing that this small community has done that. Just upstairs right now we're hosting a short-track speedskating event.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Heat No. 2 of 3 - calling number...

RUSSELL: Skaters from around the U.S. and Canada are competing here. Martin says, sure, the town's Olympic legacy helps, but he says none of it would be possible without hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies from New York state.

MARTIN: There is no way we could ever have able to handle this. We probably would have been stuck with three ice arenas and maybe shut down two.

RUSSELL: New York just announced an additional $240 million to upgrade Lake Placid's Olympic venues. But this little mountain town pays a different kind of price for its success. There are so many tourists that popular hiking trails nearby are overrun. Small businesses are struggling to find workers. And all these visitors, they need places to stay.

Again, Butch Martin.

MARTIN: We are at a crossroads here right now.

RUSSELL: Locals have cashed in on short term rentals like Airbnbs. That's left others without housing and some feeling like the character of the town has been compromised. So with all these growing pains, will Lake Placid ever host another Winter Olympics? I put the question to Steven Vassar - remember, he's the guy at the museum who grew his hair out.

You're shaking your head.

VASSAR: No, no, no, never do it here again. That'd be like New York City coming up here to watch a hockey game (laughter).

RUSSELL: In other words, dream on, Olympic fans.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Russell in Lake Placid, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Russell