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Empire State Winter Games fall to COVID

Lake Placid’s Ryan Grady carries the torch while being joined with Olympic ski jumper Nick Fairall at the Olympic Center during the opening ceremony for the Empire State Winter Games on Jan. 31, 2019. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

LAKE PLACID — The 2021 Empire State Winter Games have been canceled.

In a news release on Tuesday, the games’ organizers announced their decision to cancel the 41st annual event, citing uncertainty and safety concerns created by the coronavirus pandemic. The games were scheduled for Jan. 28 to 31, 2021.

The games take place not only in Lake Placid but also Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Wilmington and Paul Smiths. In recent years they have drawn more than 2,000 athletes, plus family members, friends and others sometimes estimated at 10,000 to 20,000.

“Although the decision to cancel the Games in the traditional sense is a hard one, it is of the utmost importance to keep everyone safe during these unprecedented times,” Molly Mayer, executive director of the Empire State Winter Games, said in a statement. “We are dedicated to producing a high-quality event and ensuring all parties involved, including our local communities, remain safe.”

Mayer did not respond to requests for more information by deadline.

Sled hockey players on opposing teams congratulate each other for a job well done after a game at the Saranac Lake Civic Center on Feb. 1, 2019, during the Empire State Winter Games. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

The organizers say they hope they will be able to host a virtual or social media-based event in 2021 for Empire State Winter Games participants.

Every winter the games bring thousands of amateur athletes, athletes’ families and friends, coaches, support staff and spectators to Lake Placid and the greater Tri-Lakes region. The first Empire State Winter Games was held March 13-15, 1981, in Lake Placid, a year after the village hosted the 1980 Winter Olympics, and they have returned here every year since. The event was first announced as an extension of the Empire State Summer Games, which began in Syracuse in August 1980.

Organizers of the first winter games — who had six weeks’ lead time to put together the event — contended with record-breaking warm weather that year, according to a 1981 Enterprise article. The first winter games attracted around 350 athletes across five contests and a figure skating exhibition. A significant portion of those athletes — more than 50 of them — were from the Tri-Lakes region.

New York state used to run both the summer and winter Empire State Games, but it dropped them in 2010 while facing a massive deficit. The summer version ended, but not the winter version; local municipalities and organizations such as the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism picked it up and have run with it ever since — and grown it to record levels.

The four-day event this coming January was set to feature more than 30 different sports. Common winter pastimes such as hockey, figure skating, and Alpine and Nordic skiing are present. So are disciplines normally associated with the Winter Olympics: bobsled, luge, skeleton, biathlon, speedskating, freestyle moguls and collegiate ski jumping — new this past year at the recently-upgraded Olympic Jumping Complex. There are idiosyncratic sports with loyal followings, such as ski orienteering — map-and-compass wayfinding on skis in the woods — and bike races on downhill ski runs. E-sports were added in 2019. The ESWG also has adaptive sports for people with disabilities: biathlon, cross-country skiing, sled hockey and, new this past year, para-bobsledding.

Players battle for the puck during a contest at the Saranac Lake Civic Center on Feb. 1, 2019, during the Empire State Winter Games. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

The games also include two torch relays to Lake Placid: from New York City and western New York.

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