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Alex Cushing groomed Lake Tahoe’s skiing reputation, and a successful 1960 Winter Games could prove influential in Reno-Tahoe's campaign to host a future Olympics.
Photo: Eddy Ancinas (above & bottom)
The year is 1955. Alex Cushing, the owner of Squaw Valley ski resort, is bruised but not broken after a tumultuous half-decade in which his property endures a devastating flood, a series of damaging avalanches, and a disastrous fire.
Despite the series of unfortunate events, Cushing has miraculously won the bid to host the 1960 Olympic Winter Games. Just two votes from the International Olympic Committee is the difference, and Cushing departs Paris victorious by the slimmest of margins. The outcome sets into motion five challenging years for him and others as they hastily prepare for the Games’ arrival.
The IOC’s decision is such a shocker that California and Nevada struggle to open transportation routes to accommodate the increased traffic. From June 1958 to January 1960, nearly 50 miles of four-lane freeway are constructed on the California side, as part of the conversion of U.S. Highway 40 into Interstate 80. Hotels and restaurants are also built in short order—the PlumpJack Squaw Valley Inn, for instance, was originally built to house the Olympic delegation.
It seemed as if nearly every obstacle that could present itself did, even up to the start of the Olympics, when an eight-foot snowfall put the alpine skiing events in jeopardy, until hundreds of U.S. servicemen boot packed the downhill course by linking arms and repeatedly walking it until it was fit for competition.
Against all odds, 50 years ago in February, more than 650 athletes and 30 national teams competed in the VIII Olympic Winter Games at Squaw Valley. The unprecedented event is still a source of pride and nostalgia in the Reno-Lake Tahoe region. “To this day—I’ve lived here [Reno-Tahoe] almost 30 years—if I talk to someone who took part in the 1960 Olympics, there is such a romance with the experience that it’s very much a motivating factor in the effort to bring the Games back to the region,” says Jon Killoran, executive officer of the Reno Tahoe Winter Games Coalition.
If the Olympics do return to Reno-Tahoe, perhaps as early as 2022, it will be folks like Killoran who are faced with a new set of trials and tribulations than those that define the legacy of Cushing, Squaw Valley, and the ’60 Winter Olympics.
FANTASY TO REALITY TO ROMANCE
Ironically, given the fact that the Reno-Tahoe region will have to work together from the outset to bring the Games back, it was a bit of healthy regional competition that motivated Cushing to throw his resort into the bidding war. In 1954, after reading that Anchorage, Alaska and the City of Reno had submitted bids to host the ’60 Games, Cushing decided that it would be in Squaw’s best interest to do the same—if nothing else as a marketing ploy.
In January 1955, the U.S. Olympic Committee in New York became increasingly enthralled with the idea of a little-known California valley that “had never been schussed (a term for creating a fast and straight downhill run) successfully.” Ultimately Squaw Valley was chosen by the USOC to go before the International Olympic Committee, which decides the Olympic host.
The IOC met Cushing with resistance immediately, but he was undeterred and managed to organize a strong campaign. If there was ever a symbol of Cushing’s never-give-up attitude, it was the 3,000-pound model of Squaw Valley he had built to persuade the IOC. The model was so large a special plane had to fly it from the U.S. to Paris. It didn’t fit in the IOC Exhibit Hall, so Cushing had it placed in the U.S. Embassy. The 15-minute walk from the IOC headquarters to the Embassy allotted Cushing that much more time to make his case.
“We are proud of the legacy that remains 50 years after Squaw Valley hosted the first Olympic Winter Games held in the Western United States. The Reno Tahoe Winter Games Coalition is working diligently to build on this impressive legacy and become the next North American region to host an Olympic Winter Games.”
In June 1955, Squaw Valley was awarded the Olympics, even after numerous IOC members tried to convince Cushing it was hopeless up to the final vote. “He was one of those guys that if you told him he couldn’t do something, he’d want to do it that much more,” says David C. Antonucci, author of the new book, Snowball’s Chance: The Story of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games, released in November. Antonucci is also a member of the Olympic Heritage Celebration Committee and recently led a lecture and walking tour of Olympic sites at Squaw Valley.
To prove how much Lake Tahoe’s reputation has changed in a half century, Cushing was asked a number of times by various dissenters where people skied in California. In addition, the international perception was that American Western society was uncivilized, conjuring images of the Wild West in the minds of those trying to come to grips with the possibility of the event being hosted in the Reno-Tahoe area. This stereotype especially hurt the City of Reno’s chances. The Olympics did wonders to change the area’s perception, and today Squaw and the surrounding area and resorts are known for world-class skiing. “I think [the ’60 Games] changed California and skiing forever,” says Nancy Cushing, chairman and CEO of Squaw Valley USA, who was married to Alex for 19 years until his passing in 2006. “Before that, a lot of people didn’t think there was skiing in California.”
As amazing as it was that Cushing scored the upset victory to host the Games, Olympic organizers were faced with the sobering reality that they had roughly five years to transform a remote ski resort in California into a venue capable of supporting a daily population of nearly 50,000. To make matters worse, an initial cost estimate of $1-2 million ballooned to $15 million by the time it was said and done—and that didn’t factor in the cost of the highways. Needless to say, there was plenty of ammunition for nonsupporters.
But, for those who had to make it happen, the ability to essentially start from scratch had a positive impact on the ’60 Games. For instance, for the first and only time in modern Olympics history, the athletes were housed in close proximity in the cozy, 600-room Olympic Village. The tight-knit atmosphere created a cultural camaraderie that transcended competition. “Alex believed that the Olympics should be held under a common life,” Nancy says. “The athletes stayed under one roof and were entertained at night. Now, they’re carefully guarded by their coaches.”
Athletes ate together, danced, even put on talent shows for one another. The village was a leisurely five-minute walk from most competition venues. “It was the perfect place for the athletes,” says Osvaldo Ancinas, a resident of Squaw Valley and a member of the 1960 Argentinean ski team. “We didn’t have to take buses or get up at 4 or 5 a.m. I met so many wonderful people.”
One of those people was his future wife, Eddy Sdarr. Sdarr was a volunteer guide for the IOC. Eddy and Osvaldo have been married for 48 years and even made Squaw Valley their permanent residence in 1973. Ancinas, 75, also competed in the 1964 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, but Squaw remains closest to his heart. “The food, the people, the smiles; put it all together, and I will never forget it,” he says.
As rural and improbable as it was, the Squaw Valley Olympics are known for some important technological firsts and some memorable celebrations. It was the first Olympics to be televised live nationwide and by tape delay to Europe and the first to use computers to tabulate results. The glass-walled, five-megabyte IBM processor was as big of a crowd magnet as the athletes and took 26 people to operate.
But perhaps the most memorable moment was the Opening Ceremonies. A heavy Sierra storm stopped shortly after the ceremonies started—a clear sign that fortune was officially on the Games’ side—and the sky cleared and the sun shined bright as then Vice President Richard Nixon gave his declaration. Walt Disney, who added a Hollywood element to the proceedings, oversaw the release of 2,000 white pigeons before the lighting of the Olympic torch.
The true mark of the Olympics, however, is the athletes, and there were plenty of achievements that stand out 50 years later:
• American Carol Heiss took the Olympic Oath before achieving an overwhelming gold-medal victory in figure skating. Fellow countryman David Jenkins skated to victory in the men’s competition.
• Before the “Miracle on Ice” (the nickname given to the 1980 U.S. hockey team’s gold-medal victory over the Soviet Union), there was Squaw Valley’s “Team of Destiny.” After beating Russia, 3-2, in the semifinals at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. hockey team scored six goals in the final period to beat Czechoslovakia, 9-4, in the finals.
• American Penny Pitou earned silver medals in the women’s downhill and giant slalom ski events.
• Frenchman Jean Vuarnet—the namesake behind the well-known sunglasses brand—won gold for France in the men’s downhill. He was the first Olympian to compete on metal skis.
The centerpiece of the winter sports park was Blyth Memorial Arena, which hosted figure skating and hockey events. The venue held about 11,000 spectators (8,500 were seated). A Tribune of Honor, orchestrated by Disney, featured the awards stage, Olympic flame, and Tower of Nations, displaying the crests of the participating countries. The tower is now located at the entrance to Squaw on California Highway 89.
Disney also spearheaded an Avenue of Athletes, consisting of 30 life-sized sculptures of various athletes. Each sculpture was made of papier-mâché and wire frames and covered with stucco, and cities from California and Nevada paid $2,000 each to sponsor a sculpture. The ski-jumping hill was the largest of its kind in the world at the time. Organizers used a nearby meadow to set up a makeshift parking lot. Sawdust from Truckee mills was used to hard-pack the snow and make it feasible to park on.
Sadly, the Blyth Arena collapsed in 1983, but a number of buildings that date to the ’60 Games still exist. The Squaw Valley Chapel, Olympic Village Inn, and California and Nevada welcome centers (even though Reno was disappointed to not receive the USOC bid, Nevada did plenty to support the Games, including funding one of these buildings) are among the original structures that remain today. Mount Rose ski resort received $30,000 to prepare a reserve downhill course in case conditions in Squaw Valley prevented the event from occurring there.
Although the forecast was bleak, Cushing proved the doubters wrong and went on to make Squaw Valley USA one of the world’s premier ski resorts, working tirelessly into his 90s. One of those doubters was Avery Brundage, president of the IOC from 1952-’72, who could not convince his peers to turn Cushing away in 1955. Brundage would later admit, “The 1960 Games were a success in every respect.”
For 10 days in January (8-17), North Lake Tahoe will honor the 50th anniversary of the Squaw Valley Games with its Olympic Heritage Celebration. As it’s now known, Squaw Valley USA—which celebrated its own 60th anniversary in November—hosts a public reception and opening celebration on Friday, January 8 complete with live music, fireworks, and a 1960 Olympians’ reception. “We’re inviting a lot of the athletes back, culminating in a gala dinner on Saturday, January 16,” Nancy says. “Carol Heiss, Jean Vuarnet, the Cleary brothers [Robert and William of men’s hockey fame]…quite a few people who are famous [in the Olympic arena]. We’re also going to reset some of the courses.” Local Olympians, including Jonny Moseley, Tamara McKinney, and Kristin Krone, will also join the festivities.
Squaw will recreate the 1960 men’s downhill course, from the top of Squaw Peak to the base, on January 11, and the women’s downhill course, from the top of KT-22, will be simulated on January 13. Also included in the 10-day celebration (see complete schedule below) are a 1960 Retro Party, Cross-Country Expo and Demo, Elementary and Middle School cross-country skiing, youth hockey, historic walking tour, figure-skating exhibition, and winter film festival.
Plans are also in the works for a Squaw Valley Ski Museum. A foundation has been established with the goal to create a permanent shrine in Squaw Valley. The building will house memorabilia and artifacts and give insight into the history of skiing in the area. Some of the Donner Summit Western Ski Sport Museum collections will be incorporated. The foundation has received an infrastructure grant from the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association, but there is a monumental amount of work to be done in terms of funding. During the January celebration, the museum team will capture oral histories of athletes, staff, volunteers, and spectators from 1960.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2022
As disappointing as it was last year for Americans to see Chicago turned away by the IOC in its bid to host the 2016 Summer Games, it created a more realistic opportunity for other U.S. cities and regions to host the Winter Games as early as 2022 (the USOC chose not to submit bids for 2018). One of those regions is Reno-Tahoe, which supporters believe has as good a chance as any to win the bid. “I strongly believe this region is very much suited to host the Games,” Killoran says. “We can only put our best effort forward.”
Unlike Cushing, who was campaigning for his own resort, a 2022 bid won by Reno-Tahoe would be very much due to a community effort. “The Games have grown in 50 years to the extent that not one of our world-class resorts could host such an event,” Killoran says. “But that’s great, because this way we can showcase even more of our region.” It’s merely speculation at this point, but some of Tahoe’s larger resorts could support alpine events, while ice events might take place in neighboring Reno.
For the next three-plus years, Killoran and the rest of the Reno Tahoe Winter Games Coalition will review and hone its bid in hopes of receiving a nomination from the USOC. One way it hopes to do that is by forming the Lake Tahoe Regional Sports Commission, which would help bring national and regional sporting events to the area. Some time in 2012 or ’13, the USOC will choose its U.S. representative. That city or region will then compete on an international level in hopes of winning the bid from the IOC, as Cushing did 55 years ago in Paris. That decision will come in 2015. “There’s a strong belief that persistence pays off when it comes to landing the Olympics,” Killoran says.
If Alex Cushing were here today, he would undoubtedly agree.
1960 Olympic Winter Games At a Glance
• First Olympics to be televised live nationwide and by tape delay to Europe
• First Winter Olympics held in the Western United States
• First Olympics to use computers
• First Olympics to hold a biathlon (cross-country skiing & shooting) competition
• Featured world’s largest Olympic ski-jumping course
• For the first and only time in modern Olympic history, the athletes were housed under one roof
• Walt Disney acted as the head of pageantry
• On February 22, 1960, 47,000 spectators packed into the valley. It was the largest group ever to watch a winter sports program in America.
NORTH LAKE TAHOE OLYMPIC HERITAGE CELEBRATION
January 8-17, 2010
All events at Squaw Valley USA unless otherwise noted
Friday, January 8
• Torch Relay from Sugar Pine Point State Park to Squaw Valley USA
• Olympic Welcome Reception
• Fireworks From KT-22 Sun Deck
• 1960 Olympians’ Reception
Saturday, January 9
• 1960 Retro Party at Olympic House
• Biathlon Reenactment, Sugar Pine Point State Park
Sunday, January 10
• Squaw Valley Chapel 50th-Anniversary Jazz Service
• Plumas Ski Club Longboarding
• Traditional Ski Jumping, Auburn Ski Club (Donner Summit)
• Après Ski Social, Resort at Squaw Creek
• Cross-Country Expo & Demo, Sugar Pine Point State Park
• Youth Slalom Race
Monday, January 11
• 1960 Men’s Downhill Course Tours Led by Olympians
Tuesday, January 12
• Freestyle Moguls Competition, Alpine Meadows
• Silver Belt Luncheon & Ski Tour, Sugar Bowl
Wednesday, January 13
• 1960 Women’s Downhill Course Tours Led by Olympians
• Elementary & Middle School Cross-Country Day, Sugar Pine Point State Park
Thursday, January 14
• Youth Hockey & Hockey Expo at High Camp
• Hockey Dinner—Tribute to 1960 U.S. Team
• Squaw Valley Institute Historic Walking Tour
Friday, January 15
• Figure-Skating Exhibition
• 1960 Nordic Olympian Dinner, Granlibakken Resort
• CNISSF Nordic Race, Sugar Pine Point State Park
Saturday, January 16
• Olympic Legends GS Challenge
• Closing Ceremonies
• Olympians’ Gala, Resort at Squaw Creek
• Biathlon, Sugar Pine Point State Park
Sunday, January 17
• Youth Figure-Skating Program
Visit Olympic Heritage Celebration Web site (squawvalley1960celebration.com) for ongoing events
Squaw Valley USA
Olympic Heritage Celebration
WORTH A CLICK
Squaw Valley Ski Museum Foundation
WORTH A READ
Snowball’s Chance: The Story of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games
By David C. Antonucci
60 Legendary Years
Squaw Valley USA’s anniversary book