In 1980, All Of The Athletes At The Winter Olympics Were Sent To Prison

The legacy of the 1980 Winter Olympics is a medium-security prison.

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Most people remember the 1980 Winter Olympics for the “Miracle on Ice,” the victory of the underdog U.S. men’s hockey team over the heavily favored Soviets. But on this, the 40th anniversary of those Games, I’d rather talk about something that happened in Lake Placid that wasn’t quite as inspiring.

In 1980, all of the athletes at the Winter Olympics were sent to prison. They hadn’t committed any crimes or otherwise done anything wrong. They were there because at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, the Athletes' Village was built to be converted into a prison after the conclusion of the Games.

I had actually wanted to visit the Ray Brook Federal Correctional Institution in Essex County, New York near Lake Placid, and write a story about it for the 40th anniversary, but no publication wanted to send me upstate to freeze my ass off and look at the exterior of a building that had, at one point, housed the best athletes in the world (winter sports category).  

I only learned about the Olympic prison a few years ago while on an internet date with a guy who was studying the prison system in New York for his Ph.D. When I told him I write about Olympic sports, he asked me if I knew the story of the Olympic prison. I told him I didn’t. He then proceeded to tell me about the time that all of the Olympic athletes were sent to prison for 16 days. (Well, most of them as you’ll see below.)

When the date was over, I pulled my phone out and googled. Right away, I found several articles about the prison, some from the time but many more written years later, usually around the time of another Olympics.

We never went out a second time and I don’t even remember this guy’s name but this still ranks as one of my better internet dates of the last five years. This should tell you something about the state of my social life.

Before we get to the Olympic prison, we first have to address all of the things that led to it. 

During the 70s, the Olympics were in crisis. The 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, which were notable (especially for the readers of this newsletter) for Nadia Comaneci’s Perfect 10s, were also known for going wildly over budget—13 times higher than the original cost projections. It would take Montreal until 2006, 30 years after the closing ceremonies, to pay off the debt it incurred while hosting a 16-day party for the global elite. And in 1972, the people of Colorado voted to withhold public money from supporting the the 1976 Winter Games, which had been awarded to Denver in 1970. This effectively kicked the Olympics out of Denver since taxpayer money is pretty crucial to hosting the Games. The IOC sent the Games back to Innsbruck, which had hosted them in 1964.  

What happened in Montreal—the out of control budget, the corruption—was not a secret. Future host cities definitely took note and perhaps even decided to stay away. For the 1984 Summer Games, there were only two cities bidding—Los Angeles and Tehran. I probably don’t have to tell you what happened to Tehran’s bid in the late 70s. 

Since Lake Placid had previously hosted the Olympics, and because the town had long been a hub of winter sport training, there wasn’t a need for major construction projects. This was obviously a huge plus, especially in the aftermath of Montreal. But they still would have to build an Olympic Village to house all of the athletes that would descend on a very small town with very limited hotel capacity. 

Though the federal government was willing to chip in $22 million for the construction of the village, the money came with strings: In order to get it, the organizers would have to find a “secondary use” for the building. 

The idea they came up with was turning the village into a prison after the Games were over.  

From a 1977 Sports Illustrated story:

Since the Olympic Village will later be used as a minimum-security prison, the entire $22 million project, including transformation costs, will be paid by the U.S. Department of Justice. Lake Placid also has received a $49 million federal grant for other building costs.

The Olympic prison was built at a time when the Bureau of Prison was building a lot of new prisons. In the late 70s, the crime rate was increasing and with it, the “need” for more prisons. (There was probably another way of addressing the problems that lead to a spike in arrests and convictions but when you have a hammer, etc.) 

From Atlas Obscura’s in depth 2016 story about the Olympic jail:

Three years after the 1976 agreement, Lake Placid had a nearly-complete Olympic Village, boasting 937 ‘sleeping rooms,’ or as they’d later be known, ‘cells.’ Each room was about 8-by-13 feet with cinderblock walls. The cells had bunk beds to accommodate two to four athletes, along with a wardrobe, equipment lockers, and a writing table and chair for each occupant. The majority of the rooms featured a single, narrow window with a steel rod running down the middle of the glass to discourage escape--or, in the case of potential Olympic terrorists, entry. Some of the rooms had no windows at all. Athletes entered through doors constructed of heavy steel with small peep-windows that guards would later use to check on inmates. Two 11-foot electrified fences encircled the campus.

Sounds homey, right?

As you can imagine, this plan didn’t sit well with everyone, especially with activists. STOP (Stop The Olympic Prison) activists opposed the prison on human rights grounds, saying that “Prisons exploit and isolate the poor. They symbolize grief, suffering and destruction.” This was hardly in keeping with the (supposed) spirit of the Olympics.

The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) sent a cease and desist letter to the National Moratorium on Prison Construction (NMPC) for a poster that made use of the Olympic rings in its anti-Olympic prison messaging because there is nothing more important to the USOC and IOC than protecting its brand. The NMPC sued the USOC on First Amendment grounds and ultimately prevailed. 

Here’s an excerpt from an ACLU story about the decision:

If the use of words or simulation of words in the Amateur Sports Act is purely non-commercial, the use may not infringe on IOC’s trademark...In STOP, the organization made a poster stating “STOP the Olympic Prison” and used the five rings symbol superimposed on bars to represent a prison. The court held that Congress’ intent was to prevent confusion or deception in order to prevent false impressions of sponsorship. It was not to create a blanket prohibition of all uses, both commercial and non-commercial.

And the international community didn’t like the idea of sending their best athletes to prison, even one with a disco. No matter how nicely decorated, it still looked and felt very institutional.

“In fact, a growing number of teams refuse to be incarcerated there,” according to a 1979 Sports Illustrated story about the controversy. The story includes a lot of colorful quotes from athletes and delegation heads grousing about the accommodations in the Village. 

Some teams went in search of other accommodations nearby. Johan Schonheyder of the Norwegian Olympic Committee called the rooms “shocking” and said they had instead rented two villas for their athletes. The Swedes, Italians, and Germans (both East and West) followed suit. The Austrians bought a block of houses with the intent to sell them after the Olympics, mixing sports with house flipping.

Given the size and population of Lake Placid—just a few thousand people lived there year-round—that didn’t leave a lot of options. People were worried that landlords, anticipating windfall rents from visiting delegations, would evict tenants in order to make a quick buck. A group of lower income people working in the service industry formed an organization called “Renters Association of Concerned Citizens on Ousting Our Needed Services” or RACCOONS, which was quite fitting, as the mascot of the Games in 1980 was a cartoon raccoon. 

Of course, the dispersal of the athletes would create massive challenges when it came to security, which was a significant concern less than 10 years after the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. It would be harder to ensure the security of the athletes if they weren’t all staying in one place.

Usually countries have to pay to house their athletes at the Village for the duration of the Games, but the prison accommodations were so bad and the resistance to it was so strong that the IOC waived the fee.

It’s important to remember that this was all happening in the midst of the Cold War. The Olympics were a proxy battleground in that war. Each side—the U.S. and the Soviets—was trying to demonstrate the superiority of its character and systems via sports. Just a few weeks before the Winter Games, President Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. would boycott the upcoming Summer Games in Moscow if the Soviets didn’t withdraw forces from Afghanistan. This was allegedly meant to demonstrate our moral character, our concern for the people of Afghanistan. (As Tracee Talavera, a 1980 and 1984 Olympian, wryly pointed out in our Q&A in December, guess where the U.S. is 40 years later?) And then we brought the Soviets to the U.S. and rubbed their noses in our great inhumanity—mass incarceration, the “New Jim Crow” as Michelle Alexander would later (correctly) dub it.

The Soviets seized the opportunity created by the controversy and announced that the Village that they were building for the upcoming 1980 Summer Olympics would be converted to public housing after the Games were over. So, on the one hand, you have the U.S. turning its Olympic facility into a prison where a disproportionate number of people of color would be incarcerated; and on the other, the USSR, was planning to use theirs for housing for the needy. Propaganda contest, US: 0, USSR: 1.

In Wayne Coffey’s The Boys of Winter, a book about “Miracle on Ice” that included the Soviet perspective in addition to the oft told American side, the Soviets talked about staying in the prison. The walls were so thin that “‘when Vladimir Petrov sneezed in the next room,” [Vladislav] Tretiak recalled, ‘my roommate, Vladimir Krutov, would reply, ‘Bless you,’ without raising his voice,” the legendary goalie told Coffey. 

The American hockey players enjoyed better accommodations than their Soviet counterparts. They were put up in trailers that were bigger and warmer than the rooms at the prison, er, Village. 

But their loss to the Americans probably can’t be attributed to the accommodations; it probably had more to do with an unusually motivated American squad and some panicked coaching decisions made by the Soviet head coach. 

As they were the best hockey team in the world, even taking into account the best NHL players, anything less than gold was simply unacceptable. Some players didn’t even bother taking their medals home with them. Forward Sergei Makarov said, “I don’t have mine...I think it is in garbage in Lake Placid jail.” 

Host countries are supposed to the use platform the Games affords them to show the world what they’re about. On the cusp of a major boom in incarceration, the U.S. housed the visiting Olympic athletes in a prison.

We sure showed the world what we’re about. Boy did we ever.

Image credit: Designed by Andy Hall and Michael Kroll. Photo by Lincoln Cushing