Alex Cushing’s astounding feat

Squaw Valley 1960 Olympic Opening Ceremony | Courtesy Robert Reid

Every once in awhile the paths of an extraordinary individual and luck cross. I’ve gathered that the story of how Alexander Cushing, founder of Squaw Valley USA, secured the 1960 Winter Olympic Games is one example of something amazing happening when ingenuity, persistence and power meet luck.

 

When the International Olympic Committee chose an unknown, barely developed mountain as the location for the Olympics, Cushing’s legacy in books, personal stories, movies and the celebrated terrain of Squaw Valley became inevitable.

 

Cushing’s history was marked by privilege, challenge and success before he dedicated his life to developing Squaw Valley USA. He began boarding school at a young age and was a graduate of New England’s Groton School, Harvard University and Harvard Law School. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked and served in South America and the Pacific for five years. Cushing retired as a Lieutenant Commander and returned to practicing law at a well-regarded Manhattan firm before being introduced to the magnificent, endless bluebird days and astounding terrain of the Sierra Nevada and Squaw Valley in particular.

 

“Riding with Cushing on the tram (at Squaw Valley USA), it’s apparent that the man is an anomaly. At 6’5″, he towers over the other heads in the car. A sheepskin coat covers his signature attire – a colorful turtleneck worn beneath a sports coat – and all this clashes with the ski suits, colored hats and mirrored goggles of his patrons,” Andy Dappen wrote in the Harvard Law Bulletin, Spring 2003.

 

In regard to his work as a lawyer, Cushing confided in Dappen: “I was up against people who enjoyed law much more than me. You can’t compete with someone who is having more fun than you are. You have to find something you’re passionate about.”

 

And, he did. The combination of Cushing’s passion, persistence and connections brought about the extraordinary.

 

By all written accounts, Cushing reversed the prevailing sentiment that the VIII Olympic Winter Games would be held in Innsbruck, Austria. He brought the 1960 Olympics to Squaw Valley, a remote destination with little infrastructure. At the time, the resort had a sole double chair lift, two rope tows and a simple lodge.

 

What began as a public relations stint to have Squaw Valley mentioned with the likes of Anchorage, Sun Valley and Reno in a bid for the country’s nomination for the Winter Games resulted in the legendary coup that placed Tahoe at the forefront of North American travel destinations.

 

With more than 450” of annual snowfall and a promise that the location was unsurpassed, Cushing highlighted the value of simplicity and convinced ambassadors to bring the Olympics to the Western United States for the first time.

 

Squaw Valley USA had been in operation for just six years when Cushing secured the nomination from the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1955. Beating Lake Placid, Sun Valley and Aspen for the nomination, Cushing faced his next challenge – influencing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to hold the games at his mountain, a place most Europeans had never skied, nor even heard about.

 

To say it was primitive is hardly an understatement. In fact, Avery Brundage, the head of the IOC declared, “the USOC obviously has taken leave of their senses” when the announcement was made that Squaw Valley USA had won the U.S. endorsement.

 

Cushing organized a powerful campaign and travelled Europe to meet with members of the IOC and put his connections to work. With the help of Jo Marillac, a French war hero and the youngest recognized High Mountain Guide in the French Alps; George Weller, one of Cushing’s classmates from Harvard and a Chicago Daily News foreign correspondent; and Marshall Haseltine, another college classmate; Cushing made a strong case for Squaw Valley USA.

 

The IOC gave the VIII Winter Games to Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe with a vote of 32 to 30. For the second time in history, the Olympics came to the United States (the first time was in 1932 at Lake Placid, N.Y.). The following Winter Olympics were held in the favored city (before Cushing’s convincing world tour) – Innsbruck.

The list of “firsts” for the 1960 Winter Olympics is a lengthy one. Given the simple lifestyle and lack of infrastructure in Tahoe in the 1950s, the organizers were forced to build quite a bit including an Olympic Village. This was the first time that the concept of an Olympic Village was realized and athletes were lodging within walking distance to all of the competitions with the exception of the cross-country events, which took place on the West
Shore and the biathlon, the first Olympic one to date.

 

“Access roads, bridges, chairlifts, athletes’ housing, the Blyth Ice Arena, a speed skating oval and a ski jump sprang from the Valley floor,” according to Squaw Valley USA. “Two unique buildings, the Nevada Visitors’ Center, once the Opera House, and now the Far East Center, and the California Visitors’ Center, now the Members’ Locker building, still serve Squaw Valley USA today.”

 

1960 was the first year that exclusive televised broadcast rights were sold and the first time there were computer-tabulated results. For a thorough list of athletic highlights and 1960 firsts, get a copy of local resident David Antonucci’s book “Snowball’s Chance: The Story of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games.” Squaw Valley USA founding.

 

Mention of Squaw Valley USA is incomplete without giving enormous credit to one of the earliest visionaries of the Valley – Wayne Poulsen, an avid skier who had grown up in Reno and spent many winter days exploring the region. Poulsen purchased 640 acres in Squaw Valley from Southern Pacific in 1943 with the idea of developing a ski resort one day. Poulsen shared his love for the area with his family and friends. Poulsen and his wife Sandy courted potential ski resort investors by showing them the spectacular views and conditions in Squaw Valley. Cushing was one of their guests and interested in the opportunity and possibility.

 

In 1948, Cushing and Poulsen formed the Squaw Valley Development Corp. “From the beginning their partnership was marred by conflict and dispute,” wrote Robert Frohlich in his book “Mountain Dreamers,” a vivid portrayal of ski entrepreneurs and enthusiasts.

 

Before opening day on Thanksgiving 1949, the partnership dissolved and the rest became Cushing history. Poulsen, in addition to being regarded as a passionate man who cared deeply for his family and Squaw Valley, became one of the largest landholders in the Valley having amassed almost 2,000 acres. In 1980, he was elected into the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame and after his death, elected into California’s Tourism Hall of Fame. Olympic Heritage Celebration.

 

Based on the success of Cushing’s vision, the Squaw Valley Ski Museum Foundation and a group of Tahoe residents are banking on the region’s history and allure to build a new museum focused on the history of skiing in the Western United States. With a combination of passion, persistence, great fundraising and some luck, the Foundation also may accomplish the extraordinary – a 15,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art cultural institution that celebrates mountain culture, the captivating ski history of the Western United States and the incredible story of the 1960 Olympics that brought Tahoe to the world’s stage 50 years ago.

The Olympic Heritage Celebration, recognized the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, will feature festivities around the region from Jan. 8 to 17.

 

Olympic Heritage Celebration events will include a Commemorative Torch Relay to Squaw Valley, Opening and Closing Celebrations, Mountain Venue Tours, Winter Sport Exhibitions and Races, a 1960 Retro Party and The Olympian Gala, a fundraiser for the Squaw Valley Ski Museum.


For more information on Squaw Valley USA, visit www.squaw.com. For more information on the Olympic Heritage Celebration, visit www.squawvalley1960celebration.com. To view or purchase Bill Briner’s images from the 1960 Winter Olympics, visit www.1960olympicphotos.com.


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