1960 Winter Olympics Anniversary, Part III

Skiers at Squaw Valley, circa 1959. | Courtesy Nevada Historical Society

In 1955, Alex Cushing, president of Squaw Valley Ski Corp., came out of nowhere to boldly snatch the 1960 Winter Olympics away from the pre-approved choice of Innsbruck, Austria. The surprising, last-minute upset that selected Squaw Valley as host of the prestigious event generated shock among European nations, which had dominated international winter sports. On the other hand, Pacific Rim countries such as China, South Korea, Japan and Chile were elated. Cushing had pushed back against European hegemony and declared: “Bringing the Olympics to California will end the quasi-monopoly of the European countries on the Winter Games.”

Read Parts I & II

Cushing employed savvy marketing tools and marshaled strong public and political support to perform a minor miracle that steered the VIII Winter Games to a beautiful but little-known alpine valley near Lake Tahoe in California.

Selecting remote, undeveloped Squaw Valley to represent America’s choice was a risky decision that led U.S. Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage to admonish his fellow officials who had “obviously taken leave of their senses.”

Selecting remote, undeveloped Squaw Valley to represent America’s choice was a risky decision that led U.S. Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage to admonish his fellow officials who had “obviously taken leave of their senses.” Brundage had a point. Cushing’s fledgling ski operation consisted of only two rope tows, one double chairlift and a small lodge, all accessed by a dirt road.

Construction began immediately and for the next four years, the valley buzzed with activity as crews worked quickly during the snow-free summer months to construct an Olympic site. Downhill and cross-country ski courses were designed, snow studies made and avalanche safety procedures developed. For the most part, work proceeded on schedule, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Bitter controversy over forced private-land acquisition from jilted founding partner Wayne Poulsen — who resisted the eminent domain process attempting to acquire his land below market value — made national headlines.

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Protests by Scandinavian ski officials over the location of the cross-country competitions threatened to derail the Nordic events. Initially it had been proposed that all Olympic competition would be held within the valley, but by the time potential courses were surveyed for the cross-country ski events, key terrain had already been lost to private developers. Another problem was the last-minute addition of a 20-kilometer ski-and-shoot biathlon — a first in Olympic history — that required an expansive safety zone. As an alternative for the Nordic events, California officials chose a site on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe (McKinney Creek drainage near Sugar Pine Point State Park) to build an extensive 65-km trail system. The new location was a 12-mile drive from Squaw Valley, but it boasted a more reliable snowpack and superior trail terrain. Scandinavian officials, however, complained that the altitude was higher than normal for European racers and that it was too far from Squaw Valley for its skiers to access the courses for practice and early start times.

Snow surveyors relaxing at Squaw Valley, circa 1959. | Mark McLaughli

Sigge Bergmann, president of the Swedish Ski Association, charged that the California Olympic Committee had “completely ignored” the advice of European experts who had been dispatched to Lake Tahoe by the International Ski Federation. He said that problems at Squaw Valley had created considerable animosity in Europe and warned that Sweden, Norway and Finland might be forced to stage their own official Nordic Winter Games if the new proposals were not revised to meet the original recommendations. Bergmann also demanded that a complete dress rehearsal of all Nordic events would be necessary in order to determine whether the cross-country ski courses were satisfactory: “I hope California organizers will make it possible for Scandinavian cross-country teams to practice at Squaw Valley during the winter of 1959. If this rehearsal is of good quality, we have nothing to worry about for 1960. If not, we must discuss the situation at the International Ski Federation Congress in Stockholm in June 1959. This Congress makes final decisions about Olympic courses.”

With the threat of a boycott on the table, all parties agreed to a pre-Olympic competition and facility inspection at the upcoming North American Championships already scheduled for Squaw Valley in 1959. The competition would be international in scope, with practice runs and racing contests for any country willing to send its athletes to California. In early February 1959, skiers and skaters from 13 foreign nations arrived in Reno and San Francisco to compete in the North American Alpine and Nordic Ski Championships, a medley of the most challenging tests of mental skill and physical endurance in winter sports.

These athletes were among the best skiers and skaters in the world. The skiers were anxious to tackle the steep, challenging downhill runs or the towering 80-meter jump. Skaters wanted to check out the new ice rinks — one of them the world’s first artificially frozen Olympic speed-skating oval. More than 90 U.S. Olympic hopefuls would be competing in the various events. Vying for berths on the U.S. ski team were Tahoe-local Dick Dorworth, from the University of Nevada, Reno. Ace downhiller Buddy Werner from Colorado was also there. U.S. team members were excited to prove their mettle against the stiff foreign competition.

The 1959 North American Championships were not the Olympics, but the event certainly had the feel and international excitement commensurate with the Winter Games. For American skiers, these were the first tryouts to make the U.S. Alpine team. Extraordinary talent from around the world descended on Squaw Valley, which drew extensive media coverage and international attention.

All the competitions were free and open to the public, but those wanting to check out the jumping exhibitions or the invitational speed-skating competitions had to shell out $2. Promoters warned that because several buildings were still under construction, there would be limited eating and drinking facilities and virtually no shelter against bad weather. Spectators were told to dress for mud and snow and bring a bag lunch. Despite warnings that Squaw Valley was not yet ready for a huge influx of visitors, up to 10,000 people were expected for the most popular events.

Squaw Valley’s location along the crest of the central Sierra Nevada is a bulls-eye zone for powerful winter storms barreling out of the Pacific Ocean. The top of the mountain averages 450 inches of snow annually and ranks high in avalanche danger. In 1957, Monty Atwater, a 10th Mountain Division veteran and the country’s top avalanche expert, was hired to study the slide hazards and develop a snow-safety program that would protect athletes and spectators from deadly avalanches. Atwater and his crew mapped out the slide zones and worked on stabilization techniques using protective skiing, hand-thrown explosives and military artillery fired from a 105-mm recoilless rifle.

Stay tuned for the next part in the series in the next edition and at TheTahoeWeekly.com.