In November of last year, state officials announced that the agency will no longer holding the summer and winter games due to New York's ongoing budget crisis. Less than 24 hours after that decision went public, local officials from across the North Country joined forces to save the games.
Chris Morris has been chronicling the story since November. He reports that for a lot of people in the Adirondacks the decision to keep the games alive was deeply personal.
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I was thirteen years old when I attended my first opening ceremony for the Empire State Games. At the time, I competed and trained with the New York Ski Education Foundation’s Nordic ski team, and I remember the pride and excitement I felt marching into the 1980 Herb Brooks arena alongside teammates like Annelies Cook, Tim Burke, and Katy Demong.
The athletes and coaches were wearing flashy uniforms, grandiose music was blasting through the PA system, and, to top things off, someone lit an Olympic-style torch. It was pretty cool.
Flash forward to November 2011. I’ve turned in my racing gear for a recorder, a microphone, and a reporter’s notebook, while some of my former teammates are competing on the world stage in sports like biathlon and Nordic combined.
And although for me the competition fell by the wayside long ago, I still felt a certain nostalgia – sadness even – when an official with the parks office announced that the games were canceled.
Almost reflexively, I pulled up my contact info for Billy Demong, an Adirondack native and Olympic gold medalist who got his start competing in events like the Empire State Winter Games. I asked Billy what the games meant to him.
“I know that growing up as a kid it was a really neat event because it was designed to support everyone from local and regional athletes to elite-level athletes,” he said. “I remember winning the games on the 40-meter jump when I was 13 – that was sort of my penultimate achievement at that point. It definitely has a sort of mini-Olympics feel with the uniforming and the whole festival atmosphere.”
Others, like Olympic bronze medalist Andrew Weibrecht of Lake Placid, shared similar feelings about the games.
“To have an event on that scale where there’s a big opening ceremony and you see all the different sports, there’s just a lot of fanfare around it and for any younger athlete it’s really cool to see and fun to be a part of,” he said.
Kris Seymour lives in Saranac Lake and coached for NYSEF for many years.
“The Empire State Games, I feel – as both a coach and a participant – serve as a wonderful stepping stone,” he said. “It’s something for kids to aspire to and in turn, it inspires them to make even larger steps into national or international competition.”
Disappointment over the games’ cancellation was fleeting – in a matter of hours, they were back on.
Leaders from across the North Country cut deftly through the red tape and announced that a regional consortium was going to host the games, with or without New York state.
"Lake Placid is all about opportunities and so we decided that we’d pick the ball up and run with it,” said North Elba Town Supervisor Roby Politi.
“The state of New York has said it can’t do it, but Lake Placid is saying we can do it."
Towns and counties from across the region chipped in with monetary support and area businesses stepped up to sponsor events – Stewart’s Shops, for example, donated thousands of dollars and supplied resources for a torch run which preceded the opening ceremony.
The games’ organizing committee alone features elected leaders from nearly every community in the greater Tri-Lakes region, as well as tourism officials and representatives from the state Olympic Regional Development Authority.
Jim McKenna heads the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism and the Lake Placid Convention and Visitors Bureau. He says the effort to save the games is exactly the sort of example the rest of the state needs as it crawls back to fiscal solvency – especially as Gov. Andrew Cuomo calls for more public-private partnerships.
“I think that this organization that we’ve put together is a perfect example of what Cuomo has identified,” McKenna said.
“We have a consolidate effort involving a number of municipal and county governments working together – we’re working with the private sector to bring dollars to the table. Working together, as a unit, we’ve been able to accomplish this.”
Some of the folks involved in saving the games were around several decades ago when a similar effort took place.
“As I recall, it was a group sitting around a table like this that began the effort to bring the 1980 Olympics to Lake Placid,” said Harrietstown Councilman Ron Keough.
“All the support for the Olympics came from across the region, I think this is a good starting point to move in that same kind of direction.”
Saving these games wasn’t just about a love of sport and a desire to keep the Olympic spirit alive in the region – they have a real, tangible impact on the economy here as well.
“Well, when you have a thousand athletes and their families, it dose have a very positive economic impact – well over $1 million," McKenna said.
Over the course of just a few months, organizers have the event running in the black, pulling in upwards of $100,000 through donations and sponsorships.
Haley Johnson, an Olympic biathlete from Lake Placid, says these games mean more than in year’s past because of that pride and community spirit.
“It says a lot for our communities that they were able to, like an athlete, come together – pull together the strengths, fix the weaknesses, set the goals and make these races and events happen,” she said.
Of course, not everyone who competes this weekend will turn out to be an Olympic athlete. Some turn out to be reporters or carpenters or whatever. But this weekend they’ll get a chance to go head-to-head with some of the best athletes in New York.
“I really like bobsledding, so I was worried that we weren’t going to get to do it,” she said Zoey Tyler, a student at Saranac Lake High School. “But this is exciting that we are getting to do it and it’s exciting that everybody is getting together to support a good cause.”
And with the infrastructure in place around the Lake Placid area – and the widespread community support – athlete’s like Zoey won’t have to worry in the years to come.
Organizers say they think this new, more grassroots model for the Empire State Games will be sustainable into the future.