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How a Little Town Hosted the First US Winter Olympics

Located in upstate New York with a population of less than 4,000, Lake Placid was not an obvious choice for the 1932 Winter Olympics. But one man used his political savvy – with a little help from a future president – to turn the town into a two-time Olympic host.

Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1932, site of America's first Winter Olympics. (International Olympic Committee)
The upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing is expected to have seven sports, over 100 events and nearly 90 participating nations. It’s a far cry from the third Winter Olympics, held in 1932, that helped to put the United States on the map as a winter sport nation whose athletes could compete with the best around the globe.

In the early 20th century, the village of Lake Placid, N.Y., was not an obvious choice for an international sporting event. Located nearly 300 miles north of New York, it was difficult to get to and was primarily known as a summer resort town. It had become popular as a getaway for the wealthy after the establishment of the Lake Placid Club, a social and recreational organization founded in 1895 by Melvil Dewey (librarian and inventor of the Dewey Decimal System).

The club steadily grew its reputation as a place for winter recreation, due in large part to Dewey and his son, Godfrey. The Deweys built a winter clubhouse and expanded the acreage of the club to allow for activities like cross-country skiing and ice skating. The club’s success encouraged the town to also develop its winter recreation. Locals created a ski association and built both a ski jump and a speed skating venue in town.

Godfrey Dewey adamantly believed the town could be a viable host of the Winter Olympics. He attended the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in part to speak with members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and convince them of the potential of Lake Placid as a host. He also traveled to various European resorts, scrutinizing their facilities and learning what his town would need to do to be a successful candidate for an Olympic bid.
A publicity poster from the Winter Olympics. This poster and others were used abroad to promote the event and help nations’ teams raise funds to travel to the Games. The Lake Placid Olympics attracted 252 athletes from 17 countries who participated in 14 events. (International Olympic Committee)
To make an official bid for the 1932 Winter Olympics, Dewey needed the support of local government organizations. He collaborated with the Lake Placid Chamber of Commerce to get their endorsement. He then worked with civic and business leaders, including then-Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt, to receive support for the bid from the New York state Legislature. In large part because of the support of both state and local leaders, Lake Placid was unanimously voted by the IOC to host the 1932 Olympics, beating out other bids from U.S. cities including Denver and Yosemite Valley.

Political Connections Align for Lake Placid

After the good news, the town’s challenges only grew more complex. To meet the needs of the different winter sports events, Lake Placid needed to construct a number of winter sports complexes. However, the state and nation were still reeling from the stock market crash of 1929. Amid the Great Depression, the small town had to somehow find hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding.

Once again, Godfrey Dewey, now president of the Olympic Winter Games Committee, used his political savvy to preserve his dream of an upstate New York Olympics. Dewey convinced both state and local government leaders of the importance of raising funds, even in the most stringent of economies. The people of Lake Placid agreed to a town tax to pay for a portion of the event, and the town of North Elba (of which Lake Placid village is part) raised $200,000 in bonds. Dewey also donated family land to construct a bobsled track.

In one of Godfrey’s greatest coups, he convinced Gov. Roosevelt to fund a quarter-million dollar bobsled run, as well as an indoor skating and hockey rink. For Roosevelt, the decision to provide Olympic funding was strategic: He thought the positive press would boost his presidential campaign, which he was running that same year.
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Franklin D. Roosevelt, then governor of New York, played a critical role in providing political and financial support for the Olympics in Lake Placid. He attended the Olympics, and formally opened the games. (Courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum)
Ultimately, the 1932 Winter Olympics showed the world that the United States was a force to be reckoned with in winter sports: two Americans, Jack Shea and Irving Jaffee, swept the speed skating events, and Americans won both the two-person and four-person bobsled competitions.
The event was not a complete success, however. The distance of Lake Placid and the financial difficulties of the period kept the event small. Because the Olympics earned little revenue, the city and state suffered financial losses after the event.

In spite of these disappointments, the 1932 Games reveal how one local figure brought together state and local government, private business, and local citizens to rally around a cause and achieve a goal even in the darkest of times. Because of Godfrey Dewey’s shrewd advocacy and negotiation among civic and business leaders, Lake Placid became a two-time Olympic host and is now virtually synonymous with winter sports.
The Lake Placid Winter Olympics included a number of firsts. For instance, this was the first Games to include women’s speed skating, although it was considered only a “demonstration sport.” (International Olympic Committee)
Emma Newcombe has a Ph.D. in American and New England Studies from Boston University.
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