Monday, March 30, 2009

Op-ed column: Sharing the costs would let Empire State Games continue

This ran a couple months ago, Why is it, I wonder, that the most commented piece I've written upon in the past year is UFOs?

Things that make you go hmmmmmm . . .

From the Daily Gazette:

Peter Huston

Because of the economic crisis, the Empire State Games, a statewide athletic competition run by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, is facing budget cuts. Details are undetermined, but the plans are disturbing to supporters of the Games, and sledding sports in particular. As a former participant in an apparently cut event, naturally I have strong feelings.

The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation announced earlier this month that state funding for the Games was cut, and that most athletes, save for those participating in events for the physically challenged, will have to pay a fee to compete.

Summer Games athletes would pay $285, which includes room and board during the Games. The Winter Games fee is undetermined, but could be $100 per athlete. (Winter Game athletes do not receive room or board.) Some events will be eliminated from competition completely. This year, all sledding events — bobsled, luge and skeleton — will be cut.

As a former skeleton sledder who twice proudly participated in the Games, this saddens me.

Which brings me to two issues: First, the fate of the Games themselves; and the second, lesser issue, sledding sports in the Games.

The Empire State Games are one of the nicer things about living in New York. Not only do they allow New York athletes to show pride by representing themselves but through a diverse range of competition, the Games show our state at its finest. The program encourages physical fitness and offers attainable, achievable honors for state residents who reach a high level.
Accessible to all

The Empire State Games, in my opinion, should be supported and structured in such a way that it is accessible to all qualified persons in the state, regardless of income and ability to pay fees.

Nevertheless, money is tight. The state government must be cut.

I propose that if the state cannot afford to fund the Games, it adopt a “pay by the piece” fee structure. Divide the costs of participation: room and board, athletes’ sweatsuits, the opening ceremonies, the officiating, track use, etc. Determine the approximate costs per athlete for each aspect of participation. Decide what can be funded, through taxes or outside assistance, then allow athletes to select what they wish from the Games.

For instance, both years I participated in the Games, I was given an Empire State Games sweatshirt, sweatpants and hat. Today, these are among my proudest possessions and I would have been quite willing to pay a reasonable fee to cover their costs. On the other hand, the opening ceremonies just held no interest for me and I skipped it twice.

Although I expect my days as a Games athlete are past, should the opportunity present itself again, why should I be required to pay for something I don’t use or want?

Same for the room and board for the Summer Games. By making this fee optional, persons who only wish to arrive for their event, or who live nearby or who can find cheaper housing or camp, could do so.

Budgeting often means learning to do without or make do with what one has, instead of merely charging a fee for unnecessary services. The park’s spokesman told me such a structure was not considered, although he was unable to say why. It should be considered.

Athletes and volunteers are already encouraged to buy additional Games items, like emblazoned sweatshirts and gym bags.
Sledding sports

As for the inclusion of sledding sports in the Games, these have always held an odd position. On one hand, bobsled, skeleton and luge are not commonly practiced consumer sports. Aside from the junior children’s bob and luge programs, there really is no easy way for a person of moderate athletic ability to enter these sports and participate in a regular but casual manner. (My participation 10 years ago took nerve, stubbornness and a lot of question-asking, personal traits that far surpass my athletic ability.)

However, high-speed sledding sports are exciting and exotic, and represent an important part of New York’s athletic heritage. Until the 1988 Calgary Olympics, the only place for these sports in the entire hemisphere was here in New York, a state that many do not realize hosted the Winter Olympics twice, once in 1980 and earlier in 1932. Today, our track in Lake Placid is still just one of three on this continent.

Some sources argue that the real reason for the event cuts is that the world championships for bobsled, luge and skeleton are in Lake Placid, site of the Empire State Winter Games, the same weekend. (The park’s spokesman told me that the decision to cut sledding was a “combination” of these two things.)

Let’s all hope the Games strive to be affordable to as many qualified people as possible. And I want to see them include New York’s full athletic heritage. This means high-speed sleds flying in Lake Placid, two-time home of the Olympic Games.

Peter Huston lives in Scotia. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

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