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At the halfway point: Lake Placid taking focus

If ever an Olympics got off to a slow start, these XIII Winter Games did. Halfway through the 13 day competition, the Lake Placid Olympic organizing committee was still struggling to iron out the considerable transportation and ticket problems.

Lake Placid, many concluded had perhaps bitten off more than it could chew, a verdict taht Governor Carey's declaration of a limited state of emergency seemed to confirm.

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The opening ceremonies, orchestrated by a Disney employee, went well, yet some people never made it because of bus problems, and most who did walked several miles back to town rather than wait out a massive traffic jam.

The events themselves ran smoothly enough and in many instances just as anticipated. Eric Heiden, for example, began pocketing gold medals in speed skating as everyone expected he would. Soviet skaters -- both hockey and figure -- were just as impressive. Swiss and East German sleds tore down the Mt. Van Hoevenberg bobsled and luge runs ahead of most everybody else. The Soviets, East Germans, and Scandinavians took control of the rigorous cross country and biatholon events. And on the ski slopes and jumps, the traditional European powers reasserted their dominance.

There were some surprises, however, such as the downhill skiing victory of Austria's Leonhard Stock, a strong showing by the Soviets in the luge, the emergence of East Germany in speed skating, and the failure of Beth Heiden, Eric's younger sister to win even a bronze on the 400 meter racing oval.

Sadly, much of the exhileration experienced by the early winners was offset by one large disappointment -- the forced withdrawal of US figure skaters Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner from the pairs competition.

The Heart Break Kids of this emotional blockbuster were all set to meet the once untouchable Soviet husand and wife team of Aleksandr Zaitsev and Irina rodnina in the most heralded Olympic showdown of Lake Placid.

Unbeknownst to most people, Gardner was really in no condition to skate, having aggravated a leg injury a week or so earlier. Not wanting four years of training to go for nought, the reigning world champions took to the ice anyhow for Friday night's compulsory routines.

Right before their turn. Coach John Nicks instructed Randy to try one more jump. He fell for the fourth time in warmups. Nicks motioned the pair off the ice, US team manager Paul George made his way to the judges' table, and the stunning announcement soon followed: "Ladies and Gentlemen, the United States pair is unable to compete at this time because of an injury."

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The dream of a gold medal had ended and so too had hopes for breaking the Soviet monopoly in this crowd pleasing event. Rodnina and Zaitsev went on to defend their Olympic title Sunday night with a nearly flawless free-skating program, marking the fifth straight time a Russian couple has won the crown.

If Americans flocking to the games were distraught by Tai annd Randy's poor fortune, they were encouraged by Eric Heiden's gold rush under incredible pressure.

With the 1000, 1500, and 10,000 still to go, he had already out duelled world record holder Evgeni Kulikov of the Soviet Union in the opening 500 meter race, then come back two days later to take the 5000.

On the first full day of women's skating competition, Beth Heiden set a new Olympic record in the 1500 meter. The time didn't hold up, though, as stock Annie Borckink of the Netherlands sprang one of the games early surprises, edging teammate Ria Visser for the gold.

East Germany's Karin enke, a former figure skater who turned to speed skating after an injury, then won the 500, and Russian Natalia Petruseva, the 1000.

Veteran Leah Mueller emerged as Uncle Sam's female standard bearer. A silver medalist in Innsbruck, Leah had retired after the '76 games. Upon finding a job that gave her adequate time to train, however, she returned to the track. Now she returns home with silvers in the 500 and 1000 meters.

Austria's red clad delegation celebrated in style following a coveted "double" by its alpine skiers (a sweep of the men's women's downhill) and later rejoiced when Toni Innauer took the 70 meter jumping crown.

Cindy Nelson, the only US skier to win an alpine medal (bronze in '76), finished seventh this time, while up and coming Heidi Preuss was fourth.


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