Tahoe’s 1960 Winter Olympics | Part I

In February 1959, Time magazine honored Alex Cushing. | Courtesy Squaw Valley

In 2020, we’re celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Winter Olympics that were held in 1960 at Squaw Valley. More than a century after map maker John C. Frémont recorded his sighting of Lake Tahoe on Valentine’s Day 1844, the 1960 winter games represent the moment when the rest of the world discovered Big Blue.

Read Mark’s series on the founding of Squaw Valley.

The Walt Disney-inspired pageantry, Hollywood celebrities and television broadcasts instilled a certain energy to these winter games, but ultimately it was the talented athletes that generated the real excitement. In 1960, the United States wasn’t the world-class winter sports powerhouse it is today, but Americans would medal in dramatic ways.

At the time, Squaw Valley had only one chairlift and was a relatively unknown ski resort. In a tense battle of voting for either Innsbruck, Austria, or Squaw Valley, international delegates chose California by two votes.

Ironically, Alex “Alec” Cushing, CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Corp., in cahoots with the state of California, snatched the opportunity to host the winter games from Reno, Nev., in 1955. What caught Cushing’s eye was a newspaper article about the Silver State’s strong political and economic effort to land the games. In terms of the groundwork done to market its bona-fide skiing terrain — the Tahoe Alps near Mount Rose — Nevada was well ahead when Cushing first realized that hosting the Olympics could save his failing enterprise.

Squaw Valley Ski Corp. was running low on investment capital and the business was struggling financially. After opening in November 1949, the ski area suffered from floods, fires and avalanches that negatively affected the company’s bottom line. An Olympic event would pump millions of dollars into infrastructure development at Cushing’s barebones resort. If he could pull it off, it would be a miracle.

Tahoe ski history talk
Feb. 27 | 6:30-8 p.m.
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Cushing was also hungry for publicity in the winter of 1955 when he declared his interest in hosting the 1960 Olympic Games. To his surprise, the idea quickly gained traction among leading California politicians and businessmen. It became a rallying cry for the Golden State. Cushing himself was swept into a last-minute bidding process. Despite his obvious need for a strong injection of capital, Cushing later insisted: “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.”

The 1960 Olympics opening ceremonies. | Bill Briner

At the time, Squaw Valley had only one chairlift and was a relatively unknown ski resort. In a tense battle of voting for either Innsbruck, Austria, or Squaw Valley, international delegates chose California by just two votes.

Flag bearers at the opening ceremonies. | William S. Young

Site preparation for the 1960 Winter Olympics took five years and more than $15 million dollars — most of it was provided by government funding and corporate donors. No previous Olympic host community had ever attempted even a fraction of what organizers put together in Olympic Valley — its official name. The only thing they couldn’t control was the weather and without a snowmaking system in place, they were at the mercy of timely Pacific storms to generate sufficient snow.

Unfortunately, persistent dry conditions with little snow began to cause international concern. With the eyes of the nation and the world on Olympic Valley and with no wet weather in sight, Olympic organizers were nervous. But when storms finally arrived, they threatened to derail the games that were scheduled for Feb. 18 to 28.

In early February, a subtropical jet stream raised snow levels to 8,500 feet and nearly 8 inches of rain soaked the region. Subsequent cold storms built up the snowpack, but a week before the opening ceremonies another warm system lashed the mountains with more rain on top of the fresh snow. The Olympic site was getting washed away even as crews were doing everything to protect the facilities from serious damage. The temporary parking lot of packed snow on the valley floor was nearly washed out and several ski courses suffered surface damage. The Olympic venue was in real trouble and desperate organizers talked about hauling snow in by truck. Fortunately, days before the crowds arrived, a cold storm swept in and boosted the upper mountain snowpack to nearly 10 feet.

The opening ceremonies were slated to begin on Feb. 18, but the active weather had showed up late and now refused to leave. The U.S. Weather Bureau was forecasting a slight chance of flurries for the opening, but a mini-blizzard roared in that morning that cut visibility to nearly zero and dumped 1 foot of fresh snow on the thousands of spectators and participants arriving for the early, afternoon ceremonies. Traffic was backed up for miles. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had been unable to make it to the opening, so Vice-President Richard Nixon and his wife Pat took on the responsibility. They were scheduled to fly from Reno to Olympic Valley by helicopter, but the nasty weather forced them to travel by motorcade.

The snow didn’t stop the Olympic torch. In honor of the origins of western ski sports, which began with California gold miners who made skis from the short planks of wooden storage barrels, the flame was skied into Squaw Valley on barrel staves by Truckee local Babette Haueisen. Haueisen, one of America’s best downhill racers and a future Lake Tahoe ski instructor, then proudly handed the torch to her friend Starr Walton. Walton, also a top racer, was raised at Donner Pass. A broken foot kept her off the 1960 Olympic ski squad, but she participated anyway.

The monumental traffic jams delayed Nixon’s arrival and forced Olympic officials to postpone the opening ceremony by about one hour. As it turned out, the timing was perfect. Shortly after Nixon’s arrival the snowstorm quit, the wind let up and the skies temporarily cleared. Bright sunshine poured down on the grateful athletes and crowds of spectators. The change was so dramatic that some described it as a biblical event. Russian delegates began thinking about the Cold War and the intense competition in science and technology between the Soviet Union and the United States and wondered: “Have the Americans perfected weather control?”

Shortly after the opening ceremonies ended and everyone headed home, it began to snow again.

Walt Disney, the famous animator, was an avid skier and early investor in the nearby Sugar Bowl ski area. He was chairman of the Pageantry Committee for the 1960 Winter Games. The focal point and backdrop for all ceremonies was an 80-foot Tower of Nations fashioned of open steelwork, featuring the colors and emblems of all participating nations. The original structure is located at the intersection of Highway 89 and the entrance to Olympic Valley.

The opening and closing ceremonies involved 5,000 participants with more than 2,600 musicians and singers from 52 California and Nevada high-school bands. There were also dramatic fireworks displays and innovative ice sculptures designed by Disney himself. The snow had arrived, and the stage was set: “Let the games begin.”

Stay tuned for Part II in the next edition.