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Lake Placid Games bring back special memories 25 years later


THE MEMORIES, some of them at least, are as misty as the damp, cold afternoon of February 13, 1980, at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games in tiny Lake Placid.

Some 30,000 spectators huddled in temporary stands at the refurbished Lake Placid Horse Show grounds under cheerless Adirondack skies to see the 175-person United States Olympic team and delegation enter the stadium as the sun began to sink slowly behind the frosted hills ringing the stadium.

Just minutes before, the crowd had hushed as the massive Soviet delegation had entered the stadium, clad in its trademark sable coats and hats and marching in stony unison behind its red banner, along with the East Germans, the most powerful team in the world.

Figure skater Scott Hamilton, four years away from his gold medal, led the Stetson-wearing United States delegation into the stadium and into a special place in history among all American Olympic teams. These Games, even now, resonate 25 years later as perhaps the most memorable for millions.

It was against a backdrop as dark as those skies that February afternoon that the 1980 Games began. The specter of the Cold War, the hostage crisis in Iran, and a stumbling economy weighed heavily on the minds of Americans as ABC opened its broadcast. President Jimmy Carter was not on hand to open the Games, sending Vice President Walter Mondale instead.

Carter had chilled the United States Olympic Committee, American athletes and the International Olympic Committee on Jan. 20 by announcing that he would demand a boycott of the coming Moscow Games in the summer unless Soviet troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan by Feb. 20.

Speed skater Eric Heiden took the oath for the 1,072 athletes from 37 nations gathered in the stadium, and Dr. Charles Morgan Kerr of the United States lit the Olympic flame to send the crowd on its way home in a boisterous mood.

Over the next 11 days, America would be treated to riveting, spectacular performances and moments that became legend.

Heiden would stun the speed skating world with five golds in five races over the choppy oval at the Lake Placid High School football stadium, a feat that 25 years later, has never been repeated. The vision of Heiden, clad in his yellow skin suit, flashing around the oval, is still the subject of pictorial essays around the world.

But it would be left to the United States ice hockey team, an unlikely collection of collegiate players, minor league amateur journeymen and Coach Herb Brooks to provide the scintillating moments and memories of a century.

Its niche in sports history defined by Sports Illustrated as the "Sports Event of the Century," in beating the USSR in the semifinal game on Feb. 22, the American team has become the subject of household and sports bar conversations and debates for over two decades. Recent movies (Miracle) and a sensational book (The Boys of Winter) by sportswriter Wayne Coffey of the New York Daily News have only added to the lore and mystique created by this team. The death of Brooks in an auto accident in 2003 was a tragedy, and his funeral in St. Paul, Minn., was televised live, unlike the game against the Soviets.

The U.S. team came together to light the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony of the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. It was the first time that all 20 players had been together at the same time since they wore their gold medals on the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 24, at the Olympic Arena in Lake Placid.

After the Games, the entire Olympic team boarded three planes sent by President Carter at Plattsburgh Air Force Base and flew to Washington and the White House, where they were honored. They returned to their homes and lives, and with a few exceptions, faded into the tapestry of daily life and family.

But 25 years ago today, this collection of America's best and brightest came together on the sod of a horse show stadium as their nation watched, and they strode forth into the glow of Olympic competition and the emotions of triumph and defeat that left a TV audience gasping and delighted during a time when Americans badly needed this kind of lift.

Mike Moran is the former spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

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