The Olympic flame still burns after 42 years

The world's eyes will be focused on Salt Lake City over the next few weeks, but once upon a time those eyes were focused on Squaw Valley, Calif., site of the 1960 Winter Olympics.

It wasn't supposed to be. European powerhouses such as Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Innsbruck, Austria, were the favorites.

But Alex Cushing, the flamboyant chief at Squaw, thought having the Olympics at his ski resort would be great for business -- and for the American West. So he, with the help of Curly Grieves, sports editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Daily News columnist George Weller and French war hero Joe Marillic, launched Squaw's bid for the 1960 games.

On Jan. 7, 1955, Cushing met with the U.S. Olympic Committee in New York. He had a film and speech ready, but he didn't need them. Instead, the committee was fascinated by the "idea of a California valley with an annual snowfall of 450 inches and areas that had never been schussed."

Incredible, but Cushing won.

Avery Brundage, chairman of the International Olympic Committee, told Cushing "the USOC has obviously taken leave of its senses." And IOC member John J. Garland warned, "I think you are on a wild goose chase. Innsbruck has the bid locked up."

Garmisch and St. Moritz were eliminated in the first round of voting, leaving Squaw and Innsbruck to battle it out.

Cushing had a ton-and-a-half model of Squaw built, but it was too large to fit in the IOC viewing hall, so it was stashed in the U.S. embassy, a 15-minute walk for delegates. Cushing walked each group to the exhibit, extolling Squaw's virtues all the way.

But Cushing was told again and again it was hopeless. But on June 17, 1955, with a final vote of 32 to 30, Squaw won.

In the end Cushing felt it was the power of an idea -- a return to Olympic ideals of simplicity with a focus on athleticism and diversity. His multi-language bid proclaimed that "the Olympics belong to the world. Not just one continent."

One can view Squaw's relatively modest event with the multi-million extravaganza going on now at Salt Lake City. One man's vision rather than a committee's work.

There was much to do -- roads to be built, trails to be cut, buildings to erect for these first games to be held in the Western United States. Thousands of workers and volunteers pitched in. It was truly to be a people's games, even with refugees from the Soviet invasion of Hungary helping cut cross-country trails and officiate.

The first cross-country trails cut specifically for an Olympics were hacked out of the forests near what is now Tahoma on the west side of Lake Tahoe. The first ever biathlon would be held there.

These were the first games to be televised around the world. Computers from IBM were used for the first time to tabulate results. The Olympic Village Inn was built to house the more than 1,000 athletes (3,900 are due at Salt Lake City), the only time in modern Olympic history that all competitors were housed in one structure.

The days before the opening of the games, Feb. 18, 1960, were typical Sierra weather, rain washing away much of the 20 feet of snow. But the night before opening, a storm moved in and dumped 12 feet of snow. Military troops "boot-packed" the slopes. On opening day the skies were clouded but as the sun broke through, Walt Disney arranged for 2,000 pigeons to be released. The 1,000 competitors and 20,000 spectators roared their approval.

Vice President Richard M. Nixon declared the games open and Andrea Meade Lawrence skied down Papoose Mountain to hand the flaming Olympic torch to Kenneth Henry, who lighted the Olympic Flame. Figure skater Carol Heiss took the Olympic oath for all the athletes.

That flame still burns at the entrance to Squaw, where it is enclosed by the Tower of Nations structure from 1960 which displays the emblems of the 34 nations taking part.

There were 15 Alpine and Nordic events, eight speed skating contests and 28 hockey matches, dwarfed by the massive event in Utah.

It was unexpected, but the U.S. hockey team battled its was to stun a highly favored Soviet hockey team 3-2 and to go on overwhelm the Czech team 9-4. (Twenty years later at Lake Placid, N.Y., history repeated itself.)

As far as the competition went, Penny Pitou of Laconia, N.H., won silver medals in the women's downhill and giant slalom to emerge as America's top Alpine performer and the nation's sweetheart.

That was all 42 years ago. Some buildings from those days still exist. And Alexander C. Cushing still rules at Squaw Valley, older, grayer but still moving on to new frontiers. Time has changed much there, now a modern village, but the flame and the spirit of the Olympics still burn in Squaw Valley.

Now, there is Salt Lake City.


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