Saturday, 02 March 2024

Olympic Symbolism and Herb Brooks

Like a time capsule, nothing creates a link with the past more effectively than the Modern Olympic Movement. This movement was founded by French educator Baron Pierre de Coubertin whose dream of world unity was realized in 1896 when the first Olympic Games were held in Athens. His vision and determination created a movement that has, like no other, united athletes and nations all over the world in peaceful celebration and competition. The meaning and values of the Olympics are universally conveyed by symbols; among these are the rings, the motto, and the flame, each one transmitting a simple and direct message recognized worldwide.

I chose to learn more about the Olympic movement and the symbols that represent it because I believe in the importance of values and the messages they transmit, having a unique identity that sets them apart. I believe values are what make a person who they are, and what makes other people want to be like them. Without understanding the meaning behind the symbols you see in this small New York village, you can’t fully understand what an impact the “Miracle at Lake Placid” was.

During the course of my research, I began to see a connection between the values of the Olympic Movement and the values of Herb Brooks and the 1980 Olympic Hockey Team. I came to the conclusion that both are very similar.

“Citius, Altius, Fortius” means Faster-Higher-Stronger. This is the Olympic motto and is the philosophy of the Olympic Movement. These three words are meant to encourage athletes to give their best during competition and to view this effort as a victory in itself. Translated it means that being first is not necessarily a priority, but that giving one’s best and striving for personal excellence is.

One aspect of the tough-as-nails philosophy of Coach Brooks was that if you worked hard, you could achieve anything. He truly believed that if he could teach his players a new style of hockey and get them in top physical condition, they could play against anyone, even the Soviet Union. He expected them to work harder, be faster, and most of all he dared them to dream. “They were mentally tough and goal-oriented,” said Brooks of his squad. “They came from all different walks of life, many having competed against one another, but they came together and grew to be a real close team. I pushed this team really hard, I mean I really pushed them! But they had the ability to answer the bell. …Throughout the Olympics, they had a great resiliency about them. I mean they came from behind six or seven times to win. They just kept on moving and working and digging… it was just an incredible experience for all of us.”

Brooks also believed that if he pushed his players hard and long enough, their dislike of him would bind them together as a team. He believed there is no “I” in “Team.”

He continually stressed the importance of dedication to the game and to each other, even if it was a united hatred of him, instead of each other. He even went so far as to say that “the name on the front of the jersey is more important than the one on the back.” This concept of unity can also be found in another recognizable symbol connected with the Olympic Movement- the five interlocking rings (blue, yellow, black, green, and red). This symbol was designed by Coubertin to represent the five parts of the world that were joined together in the Olympic Movement: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia and Europe. They are interlaced to show the universality of the Olympics and the meeting of the athletes of the whole world during the Olympic Games.

Another well-known feature connected with the Olympic Games is the Olympic Flame. From the moment the flame is lit to the moment it goes out, a very precise ritual is observed. It is ignited during the opening ceremony, and burns day and night during the games. Only when the Olympic Flag is lowered at the end of the closing ceremony is the flame extinguished. The tradition of the Olympic flame began during the ancient Olympic Games over 2700 years ago in Greece and symbolized the death and rebirth of Greek heroes.

Herb Brooks also had a ritual; he would bring his players down and then build them right back up again. Ultimately, Brooks’s use of negative reinforcement galvanized the group into a team that would simply not accept defeat, regardless of the odds it faced. In the end, the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team, prevailed against the longest of odds, defeated one of the best hockey teams ever to lace up skates and won the Olympic gold medal. “Citius, Altius, Fortius.” - that’s what it took to bring a team and a country together.

Other well-known symbols identified with the 1980 Winter Olympic Games can be found on many of plaques found in Lake Placid. In the Olympic Center there one dedicated to all the participants of the 1980 Winter Olympic Games. The Olympic Emblem, as well as the Olympic Rings can be found on this plaque. The symbols on the emblem represent the mountains surrounding the Olympic region, as well as a double Olympic cauldron, commemorating the games already held in Lake Placid in 1932 and in 1980.


The second aspect of my project was to create a photo essay on the plaques found at Lake Placid. I chose this project because much like understanding the meaning behind the Olympic symbols, you can’t fully understand the impact that was “Miracle at Lake Placid” until you understand the people who contributed to this event and helped made it happen. As you drive into the village of Lake Placid and walk on Main Street symbols from the past can still be seen- the torch remains at the horseshow grounds, the site of the Opening Ceremonies, the ski jumps can be seen over the trees, pictures, plaques and murals adorn most of the walls at each Olympic Venue; and memorabilia can be seen in shop windows. In the village, I could feel the spirit of the place and when I think back to all the events that happened there- ‘wow’ is what comes to mind.

Some of the most prominent plaques in Lake Placid can be found outside along the walkways and are dedicated to legendary athletes such as Jack Shea, Rev. J. Bernard Fell, and Sonja Henie, who put the Placid games on the map in 1932. The plaques that honor these people contribute to the mystique of the place- it is what causes people to become nostalgic and re-live the great events of the past.

Winter Olympics speed skating legend Jack Shea was the patriarch of the first family with three generations of Olympians and the winner of two gold medals in the 1932 Lake Placid Olympic Winter Games. He was a local hero who made it a personal quest to help persuade the International Olympic Committee to stage the Winter Games in his hometown again in 1980. “I felt I would like to accomplish one more medal, to bring the Olympics back to Lake Placid,” Shea said. Shea became a member of the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee and was the first vice-chairman of the Olympic Regional Development Authority, (ORDA) managing entity of the 1980 Olympic facilities. His name is one of the four on a plaque outside of the Olympic Speedskating Oval. The 1932 Olympic Area inside the Olympic Center is also dedicated to Shea as well as a bench outside the Olympic Center.

Rev. J. Bernard Fell was another key contributor to the 1980 Winter Olympics. He was elected President of the 1980 Lake Placid Organizing Committee in 1978 and if weren’t for him and his committee, the Winter Games in Lake Placid probably wouldn’t have happened in 1980. His plaque is a bust which can be found outside the Olympic Center Oval. The site of the Opening Ceremonies, where the torch is erected is also dedicated to Rev. Fell.

Sonja Henie, a Norwegian figure skater, dominated the 1932 Winter Olympics with her speed, jumps, and choreography and won the second of her three gold medals at Lake Placid. An Ice Fountain in front of the Olympic Center is dedicated to her accomplishments and is absolutely stunning when it is lighted at night.

There are other symbols of the games found in Lake Placid including the flags in the front of the Olympic Center on Main Street, a gift to honor the counties and their athletes who participated in the 1932 Winter Olympics and the impressive plaque dedicated to all the participants of the 1932 Winter Olympic Games.