Northern California Glory: Remembering the 1960 Winter Olympics in Lake Tahoe

The 1960 Winter Olympics at Tahoe’s Squaw Valley will forever be known as Northern California’s bright shining moment. All eyes were on NorCal as men and women from across the world travelled to Tahoe to compete against the best in the world in their respective sports.

With international politics growing tense, the rising popularity of television broadcasts and the advancement of each winter sport, these games would be a major achievement for not only NorCal, but the entire United States. Let’s take a look back at 1960 Winter Olympics at Tahoe’s Squaw Valley.

Squaw Valley Selection

The selection process began when Wayne Poulsen and Alexander Cushing, the founders of Squaw Valley, had seen a newspaper article mentioning that Reno was expressing interest in hosting the 1960 games. The men quickly reached out to California Governor Goodwin Knight to support their bid to host the Olympics. Knight threw $1 million into promotion, which in turn inspired President Dwight Eisenhower and the federal government to support the selection.

On April 4, 1956, the right to host the 1960 Winter Olympics was officially awarded to Squaw Valley over Innsbruck, Austria. And while it was a major victory for Squaw Valley the work to host the games was just beginning.

Preparation

When the International Olympic Committee surprisingly chose Squaw Valley as the location of the 1960 Winter Olympics, the resort consisted of one chair lift, two rope tows, and a fifty-room lodge. It cost $80 million to retrofit the resort to be the destination of the best winter athletes in the world.

And it wasn’t just the venue that needed to be retrofitted for the incoming Olympics. In the four years leading up the Olympics, they needed to expand roads, bridges, water and the electrical capacity of the region. Hotels, restaurants, administration buildings, a Sheriff’s office and a sewage pumping and treatment plant were all built to accommodate the incoming influx of visitors.

They also built the Blythe Memorial Ice Arena along with three more outdoor skating rinks and four housing dormitories to house athletes. The Blythe Arena would become the centerpiece for the winter games, hosting the ice hockey and figure skating events along with the opening and closing ceremonies.

Fro legal purposes, they officially deemed the the Squaw Valley Resort as the City of Squaw Valley.

Politics

It was a tense time in the late 1950’s, with the Unites States becoming more opposed to international communism. There was some international concern that the United States, being the host country, would oppose any participation by a communist country.

China, a communist country, had not participated in the Olympics since 1952, and there was concern the United States would take a hard stance against their participation in the 1960 games. The International Olympic Committee threatened to pull the bid, so the U.S. was forced to allow all athletes to compete.

The 1960 Winter Games

On February 18th, 1960, in the midst of a Tahoe blizzard, Walt Disney coordinated an opening ceremony that included 5,000 entertainers, the release of 2,000 pigeons, and a military gun salute of eight shots, one for each of the previous Winter Olympic Games. Vice President Richard Nixon represented the United States government and declared the Olympic Games open.

Although televising the Olympics was not a new practice, the sale of the exclusive U.S. TV rights to CBS for $50,000 turned out to be a momentous occasion. Following the massive success of the broadcast for CBS, the Olympic committee then sold the rights to the 1960 Summer Olympics to CBS for an astounding $550,000. 

Television’s impact was felt immediately during the games. When officials weren’t sure if a men’s Slalom competitor had missed a gate, they asked CBS to review their tapes of the event. This gave CBS the idea for the instant replay.

The Events

Medals were awarded in 27 events over 4 sports. Events in the games included Ice Hockey, Alpine Skiing, Figure Skating, Cross-Country Skiing, the Biathlon, Nordic Combined, Ski Jumping and Speed Skating. It was the first time the Biathlon was held in the Olympics, along with women’s speed skating events. After only nine nations said they would bring a bobsled team, the Olympic committee cancelled the bobsled event, citing the expenses of building a track.

In what was considered the major achievement for the U.S. during the games, the United States Men’s Ice Hockey team completed an incredible upset and took home the gold medal. Before the games, the public had deemed the team outmatched by the dominant Canadian and Soviet Union teams, but the U.S. proved otherwise, going undefeated through seven games during the Olympics.

Canada won the silver medal followed by Russia with the bronze. The United States win still lives in the lore of hockey enthusiasts:

Figure Skating became a bright spot for the Unites States as well, with Carol Heiss and David Jenkins winning the gold medal in both singles events. Those golds, along with the men’s ice hockey team, were the only gold medals won by the U.S. during the games.

The games were also known for some of the most intense Alpine Skiing courses to date, with the advanced terrain of Squaw Valley proving to be difficult for the competitors. Both men and women competed in the downhill, giant slalom and slalom with all 6 events held between February 20 and 26. United States’s Penny Pitou was the only multiple medal winner with two silvers in the downhill and giant slalom.

The Soviet Union dominated the medal count, with Germany following at a distance behind. The United States was third in medal count, with three gold medals, four silver medals and 3 bronzes. Here is the entire medal count:

The Soviet Union continued their athletic dominance during that era, bringing home 21 total medals including 7 golds. Controversy surrounded the dominant Soviet team, as the hockey players were given “amateur professional” status as members of the military. Although opposing countries argued they gave their elite hockey players phantom jobs in the military that allowed them to play hockey full-time, the players were still allowed to participate.

As we look back on the 1960 Winter Games, it’s a story of tremendous pride and American ingenuity. When the eyes of the world were on NorCal, we delivered. 

Check out this short documentary on the games:

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