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  • Op Ed: 1960 Squaw Valley Looks Back for 50th Anniversary


    David C. Antonucci, author of Snowball’s Chance – The Story of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games, Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe.
    The story of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games is the saga of the highly improbable that becomes the wildly successful. Within it are compelling personal stories of underdogs that become unlikely champions, American ingenuity and fearlessness for team and country. The inspiring story includes a promise kept to a dying loved one, brash stars that falter in the glare of a world spotlight and risky strategies that pay off with golden results.

    Squaw Valley Ski Area President Alexander Cushing’s idea of holding the Olympic Winter Games began as a marketing ploy with no real chance to succeed. With his perseverance, shrewd strategy and adept salesmanship, the impossible became the possible, then the probable and finally, the stunningly triumphant. It is here the first Olympic Winter Games in the New West occurred and elevated the Tahoe region to international resort status.

    The VIII Olympic Winter Games took place over Feb. 18-28, 1960 at Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. From 30 countries around the world, 665 athletes gathered over 11 days to engage in five recognized Olympic winter sports contested in 27 events. These sports and events included alpine skiing, Nordic combined, cross-country skiing, biathlon, figure skating, speed skating, ice hockey and ski jumping.

    The Opening Ceremony of the 1960 Winter Olympiad was produced by Walt Disney. (Squaw Valley Olympic Heritage Celebration Committee)
    Here for the first time we see elaborate Olympic pageantry in the ceremonies and venue decorations instilled by the creative force of Pageantry Chairman Walt Disney. The “Miracle of Squaw Valley” astonishes spectators during the opening ceremonies. American women lead the way in alpine skiing and Soviet women show their strength in speed skating and cross-country skiing. The once dominant Austrian men struggle with team dissension and poor results in alpine skiing competition. We witness the peak of the Jernberg-Hakulinen Era where two Scandinavian men thoroughly dominated international cross-country skiing over a 12-year period.

    A surprise Swedish victor emerges in the first Olympic biathlon. Speed skaters set new world records on the world’s first artificially chilled speed skating oval. Drama unfolds as a largely pickup team of American ice hockey players become the “Team of Destiny.” They fight to an unbeaten record, defeat the Soviets and come from behind late in the championship game to capture their country’s first gold medal. Once again, Americans sweep the individual figure skating gold medals with flawless performances by Carol Heiss and David Jenkins. We see athletic achievements that become the stuff of sports legend such as Finn Veikko Hakulinen’s thrilling effort to erase a 20-second deficit in the 4x10-kilometer relay and win by 0.8 seconds.

    We recall the near-perfect pair figure skating performances of Canadians Barbara Wagner and Robert Paul. The graceful ski jumping of German Helmut Recknagel captures the first ski jumping gold medal for a non-Scandinavian country. German Georg Thoma equals his compatriot Recknagel accomplishment by taking gold in the Nordic combined event of ski jumping and cross-country skiing. American Penny Pitou takes two silver medals in alpine skiing and becomes the first American woman to win a medal in the downhill.

    Once dominate countries find themselves challenged by upstarts that write new chapters in sports history and create a new order of elite athletes. Here, we see for the first time Soviet athletes thoroughly dominate the Winter Games by taking twice as many medals as the next closest country (United States).

    For the only time in Olympic history, the venues and athlete residence halls are located in a compact intimate setting that encourages sportsmanship and socializing among nations. The mixing of rivals occurs for the first time when athletes of all nations live
    Snow arrived just in time for the Squaw Valley Olympics. (Courtesy OHC)
    under one roof in Olympic Village.

    Metal-plasticwood composite alpine skis make their debut in Olympic competition and prove their effectiveness by carrying Frenchman Jean Vuarnet to gold in the downhill event. The skiing world forever changes with the introduction of never before used special grooming techniques. For the first time, electronics and emerging American computer technology plays a central role in measurement and reporting of results.

    Anchored by the venerable Walter Cronkite, CBS-TV cameras train on the Olympic events for first national live coverage of any Olympics. TV broadcasts to a captivated world elevate winter sports to a new level. The Olympic Winter Games forever change the region; kick starts the Western ski industry; and delivers a new winter season economy to the Lake Tahoe region.

    International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage declared the VIII Olympic Winter Games an unqualified success in every respect. They far exceeded expectations of even the most jaded critics.

    We will remember these Winter Games for their pageantry, exceptional organization, informal atmosphere, first-rate skiing terrain and scenic backdrop of Lake Tahoe. The memories, the valor and the compelling stories of personal triumph in these Olympic Winter Games live on in Olympic tradition.

    Excerpted and adapted from "Snowball’s Chance – The Story of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games, Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe" by David C. Antonucci. Available on

    The Squaw Valley Olympics took place in 1960 from Feb. 18 to 28.

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