Snow way

Despite the naysayers, one underdeveloped ski resort took on the 1960 Winter Olympics and made history

It was the Winter Olympics that almost wasn’t. Squaw Valley gets about 450 inches of snow each year, and there’s almost always a huge snow pack by February. Except in 1960.

With the Games approaching, the slopes were bare. Members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe were summoned to the mountain to perform a snow dance. It apparently worked; by late January, more than 10 feet of snow blanketed the ski runs. The dancers had apparently summoned the legendary Sierra Storm King to do his thing. But then the Storm King must’ve headed south on vacation.

The first half of February saw Squaw get dumped on, but not with snow. It was rain—more than eight inches of it—which melted the snow and left everyone on the mountain staring imminent disaster in the face. Alex Cushing, Squaw’s founder and owner, told the San Francisco Examiner that he was “pushing the panic button.”

From Reno to Lake Tahoe, tiny motels and sprawling resorts were packed with guests. Harrah’s at Stateline crowed that its entertainment lineup that month included Liberace, Victor Borge and Marlene Dietrich. But could it be possible that the headliners would be the only ones putting on a show?

At the 11th hour, temperatures dropped, and the cursed rain turned to blessed snow—several feet of it. As the opening ceremonies got underway on the afternoon of Feb. 18, visibility had been reduced to zero. The region was in the midst of a blizzard.

But minutes later, the snow stopped, and the sun came out. Some of the Russian competitors wondered whether the Americans—their Cold War rivals—had created a machine to control the weather.

Alex Cushing didn’t have a weather machine, but he truly had worked some magic in getting the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to pick his obscure California resort over the frontrunner: Innsbruck, Austria.

Cushing had only a couple of friends to help him mount his bid. The outside financial support totaled a whopping $5, contributed by the town of Truckee.

Cushing’s widow, Nancy, says what turned the tide was her late husband’s dogged approach. He and an old friend traveled the globe, buttonholing IOC delegates, most of whom had never even heard of Squaw Valley.

“They were down in the Amazon, sitting around with a parrot, talking about skiing and winter sports,” she recalls. “Whether they [the delegates] have an interest in winter sports or not, they all vote.”

And vote they did, 32 to 30 in Squaw’s favor.

The amazing feat put Alex Cushing on the cover of Time magazine in February 1959, one year before the Games. The story—titled “Bonanza in the Wilderness”—included the thoughts of naysayers who didn’t believe Cushing could pull it off.

“Don’t think you are going to parlay one ski lift into an Olympic Game,” a German delegate was quoted as saying. But probably the most damning words came from Avery Brundage, a former Olympic athlete who chaired the IOC: “Cushing, you’re going to set back the Olympic movement 25 years.”

He was, of course, wrong. As Vice-President Richard Nixon looked on, Brundage officially declared the Games “open.” As the IOC leader ate some humble pie, fireworks erupted on the mountain in an elaborate celebration orchestrated by Walt Disney.

Probably the biggest excitement at the games themselves came when the U.S. ice hockey team took gold, first eliminating the Soviet Union and then beating Czechoslovakia in the final.

The Czechs led the Americans four goals to three at the end of the second period. That’s when the captain of the Russian team, Nikolai Sologubov, in broken English, urged the American players to inhale pure oxygen to give them a boost. Sologubov told them that oxygen had helped his players adjust to the thin air at 6,200 feet.

“He told us to use it when he came into the dressing room … and even helped administer it,” Jack Riley, the Americans’ coach, told the Associated Press. The United States went on to score six goals in the third period, beating Czechoslovakia 9-4.

The 1960 Games were the first to have the results tabulated by computers—huge machines that took up an entire room. Peering in through picture windows, visitors seemed as interested in the computers as in what was happening outside.

At the time, most Americans viewed skiing as a sport only for rich Europeans. Indeed, the Time issue that featured Alex Cushing pointed out that equipment was expensive.

“Most beginners find themselves impelled to spend at least $150 if they are to feel properly equipped,” the article noted, adding that “an old pair of jodhpurs and an old sweater will no longer do.” But the games at Squaw—the first to be televised—helped change people’s attitudes.

“It was a big impetus to kindle skiing as a middle-class sport, instead of just an effete sport for very wealthy people,” notes Nancy Cushing. “It became a mass sport immediately after the 1960 Olympics.”