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The Legacy of the Winter Games: These Olympic cities still carry a torch

Published: 02/04/2010
MSN, Crai S. Bower -- The world may arrive in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C. in February, but the legacy of Winter Olympic Games changes the spiritual and economic future of a host city forever. The 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics showcased North American Nordic environments, demonstrating that the Sierra Mountains more than held their own against Europe's eponymous Alpine slopes while launching America's first nationwide ski boom. Lake Placid's U.S. hockey "Miracle" 4-3 defeat of the Russians may have restored America's post-70's pride, but it also established the legitimacy of USA Hockey. Today, almost a quarter of NHL players are born in the United States, and just this month U.S. teams won both the Junior and Under-18 World Championships.

But the legacies of the Squaw Valley and Lake Placid don't hold a flame against the importance of the 1988 Calgary and 2002 Salt Lake City/Park City Games. These profitable Games established permanent training environments for future Olympians, with Olympic Parks converted to training facilities, museum and outreach programs. Today, national training centers provide the opportunity for 12-year-old ski jumpers and lugers to acquire an early taste for previously obscure sports, or house reigning world champions like Park City native and U.S. National Ski Team Member Ted Ligety. They also educate tens of thousands of annual visitors, many of whom dare to embark upon a run down the bobsled course or enroll in a ski jumping class.

Walking through the various Olympic museums, a sports enthusiast can't help but pause at every narrative, descriptions recounting the victory of Ross Powers, who won the snowboard half-pipe event despite a broken boot buckle, or the "made for TV" novel paths of English ski jumper Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards or the entire Jamaican Bobsleigh Team, who remain so popular they will host at the Jamaican Bobsleigh House in Whistler, even though they are unlikely to qualify under modern IOC rules for the competition.

The Winter Olympics provide the opportunity to follow the stories of superstar athletes whose names likely appear in the American sports fan's consciousness only once every four years. But these Games of sliding sleds and gun-toting cross-country skiers also invite us to celebrate unique facets of a specific North American city, environments that, like the Games themselves, are best experienced when explored live.

XIX Olympic Winter Games - Salt Lake City/Park City, Utah
Speak to the folks in Park City and they will readily tell you that, with events held within this mountain village, the Salt Lake City Olympics should really be called the Park City Olympics. Considered the X-Treme Games, Salt Lake City established snowboarding, moguls and other X-Generation snow sports as some of the most popular Olympic events. These Games will also always be remembered because their very existence was once uncertain, scheduled just five months after the 9/11 attacks.

Today, Salt Lake City serves as the home for the U.S Speed Skating Federation and Park City, similar to Calgary, maintains an indelible link to 2002 with the Utah Olympic Park, home to training and development in all sliding sports (luge, bobsled, skeleton), aerial and traditional ski jumping, including America's preeminent aerial splash pool used by athletes from around the globe. The U.S. Alpine Ski Team also trains here. Deer Valley hosts an annual Freestyle World Cup competition.

Though most of us associate Park City with the Sundance Film Festival, one trip down the bobsled course at 90 miles per hour or faint of heart stroll through the 2002 Winter Olympics and Ski Museum reveals just when and why the Nordic world came to play in Utah's Wasatch Mountains.

III & XIII Olympic Winter Games - Lake Placid, N.Y.
About 126 kilometers (78 miles) separate Whistler Village from the Speed Skating Oval in Richmond, B.C., but on a clear day in Lake Placid you can see every single event venue within a 20-mile radius. Like Squaw Valley, Lake Placid conjured up a world-class event in a town of less than 2,500 people and with little initial infrastructure. The 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Committee was also the last pioneer to stand up to the television studios and not build the Games schedule around primetime demands.

Today's Adirondack village owes much of its annual tourism to its Olympic legacy, as perpetual hotel and restaurant upgrades host curious, amateur Olympic historians and outdoor enthusiasts who come to try out cross country skiing, a bobsled run or to ski Whiteface Mountain, home of Olympic alpine events. The Olympic Oval, where Eric Heiden won five individual gold medals to become the most decorated male winter U.S. Olympian in history, is also open daily for public skating under the North Country air.

While consensus cites the "Miracle On Ice" as the greatest legacy of the 1980 Lake Placid Games, if not in American sports history, Heiden's five "rings" and the story of the Shea family deserve mention in the same, crisp air. Local Jack Shea won two speed skating Golds in 1932; seven decades later in Park City, his grandson Jimmy took the podium's pinnacle in the skeleton.

VIII Winter Olympic Games - Squaw Valley - Lake Tahoe, Calif.
There's a good chance the next Winter Games will be televised in 3-D, but the first televised Games took place 50 years ago in Squaw Valley, which recently celebrated its Golden Olympic Year Anniversary with a weeklong celebration that included opening and closing ceremonies. True to California's tech-pioneer spirit, these were also the first Olympics to employ computers to calculate times and scores. The U.S. Hockey Team also skated away with the gold medal here.

Today, looking out over Lake Tahoe, home to North America's largest concentration of ski resorts, it's impossible to imagine how this lone, five-year-old, upstart ski resort consisting of two chairlifts and a rope tow cajoled the International Olympic Committee into awarding the Games to "sunny" California. The Squaw Valley Ski Museum Foundation was established in 2008 in hopes of finally creating a permanent VIII Olympic Winter Games Museum.

Though most of Squaw Valley's Olympic moments remain exclusively in the memories of participants and that first television audience, who witnessed instant replay for the first time, the legacy of Tahoe as fertile ground for future champions is as the gold from nearby Sutter's Mill with Olympians like Jonny Moseley, who spent youthful weekends in the Sierras, to reigning giant slalom Gold Medalist Julia Mancuso, who grew up in nearby Truckee.

XV Olympic Winter Games - Calgary, Alberta
The world's best still come to Alberta every winter, whether to skate on the Olympic Speed Skating Oval, the planet's fastest sheet of ice, or to ski in the Lake Louise World Cup Downhill and Super G races, which launch the Circuit's season each year. But in 1988, the host citizens watched in disappointment as their national team failed to land a single top spot on the podium, overwhelmed by the teams from the soon-to-be-extinct Soviet Union and East Germany.

The rich legacy of the profitable '88 Games is evidenced throughout the city, however, from tours in the landmark Calgary Tower to the National Sport School, a high school established after the Games for Olympic caliber athletes, the first of its kind in Canada. Over 20 athletes from the school participated in the 2006 Turin Games. Additionally, the Nakiska Ski Resort, Olympic Saddledome, Olympic Oval, Canada Olympic Park and Canmore Nordic Centre were all built specifically for the Games and remain popular recreation and world-renowned training facilities. Home to Canada's Olympic development program, the Canada Olympic Park has recently added the 500,000 Athletic and Ice Complex as an enhanced winter training facility. It's no secret that Calgary, which established its international credentials as more than a one "Stampede" town, longs to host another Winter Olympics.