The Reno Tahoe Winter Games Coalition is working hard to land the 2026 Winter Games for the Tahoe Sierra region. They’re not alone in their efforts. In addition to other countries hoping for a chance to host the XXV Games, several U.S. cities are also bidding including Denver, Colo., Anchorage, Alaska, and Lake Placid, N.Y. The International Olympic Committee will make its decision sometime in 2019, which will leave about six years to prepare for one of the world’s greatest sporting extravaganzas.
It won’t be the first time the region has attempted to host the Winter Olympics. In 1928, Tahoe City was one of three California locations that wanted the 1932 Winter Games. It was a competition between North Tahoe, Yosemite National Park and a small ski area in the Southern Sierra. The California Chamber of Commerce chose Yosemite to represent the state due to its scenic mountain beauty, which was bound to impress an International Olympic Committee dominated by Europeans, as well as its history of organized cross-country ski racing. There was no Olympic downhill skiing at the time, only ski jumping and cross-country skiing.
Alex Cushing and California snatched the opportunity from Reno, Nev., which was already aggressively pitching to host the upcoming Winter Games.
In addition, the recently completed $1 million Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley could provide luxurious accommodations for visitors with enough money to travel during a crushing financial depression that was hobbling the American economy. Ultimately, the Games were awarded to Lake Placid. It was the first time the United States hosted a Winter Olympics.
Nearly 30 years later, Squaw Valley was the site of the 1960 Games; the Olympic rings on the signs at the entrance to the valley attest to that. People familiar with Tahoe’s winter sports history know the intriguing story of how Alex Cushing, CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Corp., miraculously snagged the Olympics from the grasp of Innsbruck, Austria, in a classic tale of the underdog snatching victory.
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Cushing was hungry for free publicity in the winter of 1955 when he declared his interest in hosting the 1960 Games. To his surprise, the idea quickly gained traction among leading California politicians and businessmen and it became a rallying cry. Cushing himself was swept into a last-minute bidding process. He later admitted as much, saying, “I had no more interest in getting the Games than the man in the moon. It was just a way of getting some newspaper space.” At the time, Squaw Valley Ski Resort had only one chairlift and was a relatively unknown ski resort.
Ironically, Cushing and California snatched the opportunity from Reno, Nev., which was already aggressively pitching to host the upcoming Winter Games. It was a newspaper article about the strong effort of the Silver State’s political leadership, business community and residents to get the Winter Olympics that caught Cushing’s attention. In terms of the groundwork done to market its location, Nevada was well ahead when Cushing realized that hosting the Olympics could save his failing enterprise. Squaw Valley Ski Corp. was running low on investment capital and the resort was struggling financially. Floods, fires and avalanches in the early 1950s had negatively affected the company’s bottom line. An Olympic event would pump nearly $20 million in infrastructure development into Cushing’s ski area. If he could pull it off, it would be a miracle.
Nevada, however, was ready to fight for this rare chance to show off its Tahoe Alps, a region of nearby mountains that included scenic alpine terrain in and around Slide Mountain and Mount Rose, including present-day Diamond Peak and Rifle Peak, all overlooking Lake Tahoe. In a letter to the International Olympic Committee in December 1954, the mayor of Reno promised: “the enthusiastic support and cooperation of every citizen in our community.” Nevada’s senators sent their own missives. Sen. Alan Bible assured the committee that his state had outstanding facilities and that he personally would travel to New York City to provide “firsthand information of any kind.”
The president of the Reno Chamber of Commerce stated that the bid for the eighth Olympic Winter Games “has the whole-hearted support and backing of the 1,000 firms that comprise the chamber’s membership. Reno is a town composed of sports lovers and winter enthusiasts. We believe the winter games at Reno will be the most successful in terms of facilities and hospitality in many years.”
When the Olympic Committee held its U.S. meeting in New York, Nevada officials offered to provide an airplane free of charge to fly members to Reno.
In early 1955, Nevada released a promotional publication showcasing reasons why the Reno area was a perfect location for the Games. Its airport could handle aviation traffic from any major population center or port anywhere in the United States. The flight from Boston was more than 12 hours, but everyone knew those times would be shortened by the coming jet age. Reno was also served by two major railroads and located at the intersection of three major highways.
The Winter Games were to be held in two concentrated areas of western Nevada, both within 25 miles of each other. The bobsled, ski jump, cross-country and downhill ski disciplines were focused in the Tahoe Alps, primarily near Slide Mountain. All ice events, such as figure skating, hockey and speed skating, were to be held at new facilities on the University of Nevada, Reno campus. The school’s current sports stadium would be enlarged and a new civic auditorium built. A site south of Reno was tentatively planned for an isolated Olympic Village. Optimistic planners calculated that there should be enough lodging built on Lake Tahoe’s North Shore sufficient to house 75,000 spectators.
Meanwhile, Cushing wasn’t resting on his laurels. Despite his statement that he wasn’t looking to hook the Olympic rings for Squaw Valley, Cushing quickly secured the endorsements of a California state senator and the governor who strongly backed the effort. There were only six weeks until the bidding deadline and Cushing wasted no time. He and two associates traveled thousands of miles to personally meet with 42 of the 62 voting delegates. That effort, along with a “hastily prepared brochure and charming dissertation,” made the difference and Cushing pulled off a miracle, squeaking by Innsbruck to host the 1960 Winter Olympics. Those Games launched Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe into the international spotlight as world-class vacation destinations.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books, including his new book “Snowbound! Legendary Winters of the Tahoe Sierra,” are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com or read more at TheTahoeWeekly.com.