Squaw Valley – The Forgotten Games


This and all other images, Copyright the IOC

As I’ve said before, I really geek out over the Winter Olympics. Having them in North America again, is wonderful because it allows me to follow the events in real time, even if NBC elects to tape delay the broadcasts. As you may have heard during the US – Canada game, the Sweaters that Team U.S.A were wearing were a 50th anniversary tribute to the gold medal winning US Team from 1960. In fact, there was a documentary recently released that also commemorates that event. It’s called the “Forgotten Miracle” because it has long been overshadowed by the events of 1980, which had the benefit of occurring in the middle of the media age, when there was a certain zeitgeist that imparted the Miracle on Ice with a significance far beyond a sporting event. Which got me to thinking, and wondering about the 1960 Winter Olympics. So I did a little internet research to fill in that blank area in my knowledge, as I like to do. What I found out about the 1960 games, has fascinated me, so I thought I would share it here.

The 1960 Winter Olympics were held in Squaw Valley, California, which was the extent of what I knew about them prior to this week. Squaw Valley is place I had trouble picking out on a map when I first heard about them as a kid. All I knew was that it was in the Sierra Nevada, somewhere in California. Unless you have a detailed map, you’d still be hard pressed to find it. About 5 years ago I was at a conference in Reno (yeah, lucky me) and took an afternoon to drive up into the mountains around Lake Tahoe. When I came upon signs to Squaw Valley I expected that there’d be a town there, or at least a village. I was surprised to find nothing but a ski resort. And therein lies one of the most fascinating things about these Olympic Games. They were held almost entirely on the grounds of a single Ski Resort.

Finish Line of Alpine Ski Races - Ice Arena, and Speed skating oval visible on the right

The story behind it is that the resorts creator, Alexander Cushing, got the wild idea to bid for the winter Olympics after seeing an article that mentioned that Reno, Nevada, and Anchorage, Alaska were considering submitting bids. The fact that Squaw Valley was a town with no mayor, and claimed one ski resort with only one chairlift, two rope tows, and a fifty-room lodge, apparently did not deter him. In fact, Cushing was the only permanent inhabitant and homeowner in the whole area. He must have been quite a salesman because he eventually convinced the USOC to back his bid. How he managed to make the IOC’s list of finalists alongside, Innsbruck, Austria, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, and St. Moritz, Switzerland is beyond me. The fact that he beat them out would lead a cynic would think that bribery had to be involved. Regardless, after winning the bid in 1955, he had 5 years to create a Winter Sports infrastructure to support an Olympic games.

View of the Oval and Ice Arena from top of the Ski Jump

Now, in all fairness, the Winter Games in 1960 were not the extravaganza they are today. There were only 750 athletes from 30 nations, that competed in 15 alpine and ski jumping events, 8 speed skiing contests, 3 figure skating competitions and 28 hockey matches. In fact, he managed to house all of the athletes in the same purpose built hotel. It wasn’t an “Olympic Village”, just an “Olympic Hotel”.

From an infrastructure perspective, he needed to create only a ski jumping hill, the alpine ski runs, a speed skating oval, an ice rink, and cross country ski trails. He managed to build all of these within a one square mile area. The pictures of the site are astounding. It’s as if the Olympic Games were a county fair. It’s interesting to note, that no Bobsled run was built, and that the IOC instead awarded the Olympic medals for Bobsleigh that year to the winner of the St. Moritz, World Cup meet.

View of Alpine Runs from inside of Blythe Arena

As you know, I also get geeked out over old photos. And these pictures which were taken from the IOC website, are amazing.

Hockey Game in Blythe Arena - Showing ropes hanging behind rings

Blythe Arena, the Ice Rink, was an open air arena built under an A-frame roof. The side of the arena facing the ski hill was open to the sunlight, allowing a vista of the Ski Jumps, and Speed Skating Oval, as well as the finish area for the alpine events. The openness caused a bit of a headache in the lead up to the games, as the powerful sunlight began turning the ice on the rink into slush. So workers proceeded to hang strips of heavy ropes, like a bead curtain, to help diffuse the light. It must have worked because the games went on as planned.

Another view from inside of the Arena, Ski Jump Hill visible on the left - before the ropes were hung from the ceiling

The 6,000 ft. altitude caused some difficulties for the athletes, and a few countries took advantage of oxygen tanks, to help their athletes recover after exertion. The story goes that the captain of the Russian team visited the locker room of the US team, in the second intermission of their gold medal game against Czechoslovakia, to tell them of this trick. The US followed his advice, and it helped them to score 6 goals in the 3rd period, and defeat the Czechs (guaranteeing, the Soviets a silver in the process.)

Roger Christian of Warroad, MN scores on the Soviets

The Squaw Valley games were also the first winter games to be televised live in the U.S. The opening and closing ceremonies, and many of the decorations around the site, were provided by none other than Uncle Walt Disney. Hard to get more post-war American than that.

American's celebrate a win

Anyway, enjoy the photos. Sadly, most of the infrastructure of the games has long since been torn down, and replaced with parking lots for the Squaw Valley Ski Resort.

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