The Winter Olympics are on us once again and many fans are eager to watch young athletes give amazing performances on snow and ice. It’s been nearly 60 years since Olympic Valley hosted the 1960 Games, but the Reno Tahoe Winter Games Coalition is trying for an encore with the 2026 Winter Olympics. That decision, however, is ultimately up to the U.S. Olympic Committee.
The complicated bidding process required to host the Olympics today can be frustrating and requires patience. Upfront construction costs in the billions of dollars have given many cities and countries pause — is it worth the investment to accommodate one of the world’s premier, but short-lived sporting events.
The man who brought the Winter Games to Lake Tahoe in 1960 was blissfully unaware of the formidable obstacles he faced in gaining approval by both the U.S. and the International Olympic Committees (IOC). But Alexander “Alex” Cushing, president of Squaw Valley Development Corp., proved himself an adept businessman and marketing whiz, even after Avery Brundage, president of the IOC, called Squaw Valley nothing but a “cow pasture with a chairlift.”
Cushing admitted that initially he was primarily looking for publicity. He said, “I had no more interest in getting the Games than the man in the moon.”
The shrewd, Harvard-educated attorney needed a unique pitch to outbid America’s better-known and better-financed winter resorts such as Lake Placid, Sun Valley and Aspen to secure the nomination, but his persuasiveness, persistence and luck paid off in the end.
Realizing the importance of the financial aspects of the Olympics, he promised to build from scratch a state-of-the-art facility and expected to spend less than $20 million for the entire project. The total expenditure for hosting the Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley came in at about $17 million. To get beyond Cold War politics, Cushing intended to house and feed the rival athletes together in a private Olympic Village.
Ultimately, he snatched the 1960 Winter Olympics away from Innsbruck, Austria, generating shock and disbelief in Europe. Cushing had employed savvy marketing tools and marshaled strong public and political support to perform a minor miracle that steered the VIII Winter Games to a little known alpine valley near Lake Tahoe.
In a break from tradition due to a communication mix-up, the Olympic flame was not ignited at the sacred flame at ancient Olympia in Greece. Instead, the flame was lit at the hearth of ski pioneer Sondre Norheim’s home in Morgedal, Norway. The flame was flown from Norway to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, site of the 1932 Summer Olympics, and from there began the long torch relay to Olympic Valley.
A lack of snow nearly derailed the 1960 Games, but timely Pacific storms dumped 13 feet of snow by the Feb. 18 opening ceremonies. Walt Disney, famous animator, avid skier and part owner of the Sugar Bowl ski area, was chairman of the Pageantry Committee.
Virtually every athlete at the Squaw Valley Olympics came with a personal story of sacrifice and accomplishment. Highlights of some American achievements offer a taste of the excitement that these Winter Games generated, both in the United States and throughout the world.
Penelope “Penny” Pitou, a 21-year-old ski racer from Gilford, N.H., was the top ranked American woman. With the U.S. men’s alpine ski squad decimated by injuries, America’s best chance was with the U.S. women racers. At Squaw Valley, Pitou won silver medals in both downhill and giant slalom disciplines. She became the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in the downhill race and today leads European ski tours for her New Hampshire-based business.
American figure skater Carol Heiss had an especially poignant story. Raised in Queens, N.Y., Heiss earned her first national championship in 1951 at age 11. She skated in the 1956 Winter Olympics in Italy and won a silver medal. Not long after, Heiss finished first in the World Figure Skating Championships, the first of five consecutive world titles.
Shortly before Heiss’s competitions in 1956, her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. After the Games, Heiss offered to turn professional and skate in ice shows for money, but her mother made her promise to retain her amateur status so that she could win a gold medal at the next Winter Olympics.
After her mother’s death, the distraught teenager dedicated herself to fulfilling the promise she had made. Heiss came to Squaw Valley on a personal mission — to win a gold medal for her mom. Despite intense pressure, her inspired skating performances were so eloquent and perfectly executed that all nine judges awarded her top scores. The following week she won her fifth consecutive world championship and permanently retired from competitive skating. On her return home, Heiss became the first Winter Olympian to receive a tickertape parade in New York City. She married Hayes Alan Jenkins, the gold medalist in men’s figure skating in Italy in 1956. She still skates regularly and teaches near their home in Lakewood, Ohio.
In 1960, Canada dominated Olympic ice hockey and at Squaw Valley the betting money was on them. The Russians were also a formidable team, having won the gold medal in the 1956 Olympics. The U.S. hockey team had garnered a total of six medals (none gold) in seven previous Olympiads, but in 1960 the team wasn’t considered much of a threat. The U.S. media disparagingly portrayed the American team as a recently organized ragtag group of college athletes, firemen, salesmen and talented amateur players.
During their training, there was talk among the American players of revolt against their demanding, often hot-tempered coach. Despite his squad’s dissension and previous lackluster performance against collegiate teams, coach Jack Riley remained confident that the Americans could medal at Squaw Valley.
Blyth Arena was crowded with spectators for the three big hockey contests: the United States vs. Canada, then the Soviet Union and finally Czechoslovakia. In an amazing display of skill, guts and determination the American squad vanquished all the world’s hockey powerhouse teams to win the gold medal. It was America’s first “Miracle on Ice.”
The 1960 Winter Olympics catapulted the Tahoe Sierra into a national and an internationally recognized winter sports destination. Televised competitions projected images of Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe into living rooms across the world.
History talks at Retro Ski Film Series
5 p.m. | The Chateau | Incline Village, Nev.
Feb. 15 | History of the 1960 Winter Olympics
March 1 | Reign of the Sierra Storm King
March 8 | History of Lake Tahoe and the Comstock