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Sports Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 5, 2009

Local athletes still carry a torch for the imperiled Empire State Games

By Jordan J. Michael

The contest isn’t over yet.

Local athletes are upset with the pay-to-play plan for the Empire State Games and are joining online petitioners in calling for the restoration of state funds.

This month’s Winter Games in Lake Placid will go on as scheduled with no fee. But bobsled, luge, and skeleton have been suspended.

Susan Hawkes-Teeter of Berne has been competing in ski-orienteering for 20 years and this year’s Winter Games will be her last, due to the changes. “I feel like the Games are primarily a youth event,” she said. “Cutting out scholastic might have been worse. But the older athletes find it important, too. This is a lose-lose situation.” 

 Fred Smith, executive director of the Empire State Games, told The Enterprise that the fight is still ongoing. “Something should enable us to still have programs this summer,” he said. “Some tough choices were made, but it’s our job to still run programs.”

The 32nd Games — a statewide Olympic-style competition — were supposed to have been held in the Hudson Valley this summer but the committee charged with the task refused after the state’s Office of Parks and Recreation announced dramatic cuts in January. The open and masters divisions along with the Senior Games were thrown away.

What the organizing committee objected to, though, was that those in the scholastic division, for high school athletes, could still participate but would have to pay fees up to $285 for the Summer Games and $100 for the Winter Games.

 “We’re in the middle of a major economic crisis in this country and New York is getting hit hard,” Eileen Larrabee, spokeswoman for the Office of Parks and Recreation, told The Enterprise soon after the announcement. “There have been cuts on lots of things and the Games are getting its share.”

The annual budget had been $3 million with $2.7 million funded by the state.

“The state funding has been cut and that was a very difficult decision,” Larrabee said. “We understand that people and athletes are disappointed. We’re looking into private fund-raising.”

The Hudson River Valley Local Organizing Committee sent a letter to Carol Ash, the commissioner for Parks and Recreation, a few weeks ago. Chairman Steven V. Lant wrote that his committee was unanimous in deciding not to host the Games. “We arrived at this regrettable decision,” Lant wrote, “based on an overwhelming feeling that the participation fee violates the spirit of the Games and that objections to this approach are so strong among our host site partners, sponsors and volunteers that maintaining the support necessary to successfully host the Games has become untenable.”

“I think its important to continue the games if you have to pay or not,” said Larrabee. “High school students have a short window for success.”

Fred Smith still has high hopes for the future of the Games. “We’re working on scenarios behind the scenes to get things back to normal,” he said. “The glass is half full. There are ways to restructure this.”

Smith hopes that the athletes and volunteers have developed a loyalty to the Games over the years. “We’ll do our best to please the people of New York and I have faith that the athletes and volunteers will come back when everything is fixed.”

Local athletes sad, push for funds

Last summer, about 8,000 athletes and staff participated in the games, according to longtime archer John McCullen. The Altamont resident was there for the first outing in 1978.

“There were probably about 4,500 athletes and staff the first time,” said McCullen. “This event has grown in popularity and was still on the rise. But now an arm and a leg have been severed.”

Brenda Goodknight, a gymnast from Guilderland, was also in the inaugural games in 1978. “There were 14 or more people in the masters group last year, so this is a real shame,” she said. “My friend called me up, crying, and we agreed to write letters to the state.”

She went on,  “Just having scholastic doesn’t really help and most of them won’t be able to pay. Masters and open had more meaning because for some older athletes this was the only competition we people had.”

“The senior games and masters divisions were already self-sufficient to begin with,” McCullen said. “I think older athletes would be more willing to pay. Teenagers don’t have that kind of money.”

“The money issue just kills the overall point of the games,” said Jill Norray of Berne, a 20-year participant of both the Summer and Winter Games. “Anyone could go to the event; rich, poor, young, and old. Do only people with money get to go to the Olympics? I don’t think so.”

Norray told The Enterprise that there is a petition online to save the games. It is not known who started the petition, but it currently has over 4,000 signatures.

“We have a very good understanding of the economic crisis New York State and the entire country are facing,” the petition says. “However, we do not feel that the programs offered through the Empire State Games are a drain on the economy, rather we feel they help increase revenue in the regions where they are held, and they promote a healthy living style to ALL New Yorkers.”

“There’s some cool numbers in that petition that really make sense,” Norray said. “The state is worried about funding, but the games are a self fund-raiser. It brings a lot of money to the host cities.”

The online letter is addressed to Governor David Paterson and Commissioner Ash. It states that the Summer Games bring between $10 and $15 million dollars to each host city, compared to $1.5 million brought to Lake Placid in the winter.

“If we add the $10 million (low end) to the $1.5 million, the State tax on this comes to $460,000 directly back to the State in tax revenue,” the petition calculates. “At a cost to the State of $2 million, we feel this is a VERY wise investment.”

“In general, I would say people are pretty angry. Athletes are being hung out to dry,” said Thomas Stark of Voorheesville, who competed in masters division shooting. “New York is going further down and it’s scary to think about. It will be hard to earn the trust back.”

“You also have to worry about the volunteers who put on the events,” Hawkes-Teeter said. “They might be less inclined to put it on now. The volunteers might be lost all together.”

“You just have to believe. Charging money one time around might be tolerable,” said Norray. “However, this won’t fly if it becomes the normal. People will squawk and not stand for this madness.”

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