TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. - Nine months ago the United States Olympic Committee decided against an American bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics and instead will focus on either the 2024 Summer Games or 2026 Winter Games. Entities associated with a Reno-Lake Tahoe bid for a future Winter Olympics were disappointed, especially since they are feeling bullish about their chances against other western contenders such as Bozeman, Mont., Denver and Salt Lake City, Utah (again?). But the committee felt it needed more time to partner up with the cities and organizations that hope to host this premier international event.
The Summer Games are considered more prestigious - fewer countries pursue the Winter Games and the bidding is less competitive. By 2026 it will have been 24 years since this country hosted an Olympic Games. The wheel of fortune is likely spinning back to an American venue. Most communities lunge at the opportunity to bid for the Olympics; they bring world recognition and a tsunami of capital improvements and enhanced infrastructure. Many people still remember how Squaw Valley successfully hosted the 1960 Winter Games, an event that showcased the area's sheer natural beauty and the Tahoe-Truckee region as a year-round playground.
It's been 53 years since those Games at Squaw Valley. Alex Cushing, the man who convinced skeptical international delegates to vote for his California "cow pasture" always said he considered landing the 1960 Games a "miracle." Fewer folks are aware of Tahoe City's failed attempt to garner the 1932 Winter Games, a disappointment that forever changed how California promotes winter sports. It also launched an alpine skiing revolution that benefited from new conveyances like rope tows that eliminated the tedious uphill climb. Better skis and equipment also made downhill skiing easier and more fun. Before 1932 visitors reached Truckee by train, but that year California's legislature funded snow removal on Highway 40, which crossed the Sierra between Sacramento and Reno. Thousands of avid skiers thronged up the plowed road to patronize ski areas that sprouted up from Cisco to Donner Pass.
Truckee had initiated a popular annual winter carnival in 1895, so locals were familiar with catering to the winter sports crowd. Then, as now, people played hard and partied hard at night. Sledding and toboggan slides, ice skating, and cross-country skiing were among the most popular daytime activities. Dining, drinking and dancing pumped money into community and business coffers. Ski clubs formed in Truckee, Tahoe City, Auburn and Reno, Nev. Ski jumps were built, and tournaments held to develop the athletic skills of local youths and adults.
By the late 1920s, many businessmen wanted to expand California's winter sports industry. Truckee had its downhill ski area and wooden scaffold jump at Hilltop across the river from downtown. Not to be outdone, Tahoe City established a Winter Sports Grounds at what is now Granlibakken Resort, and in 1927 built an on-the-snow "trajectory" jump on a small slope marketers dubbed "Olympic Hill." In 1929, the United States was chosen by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to host the 1932 Olympics, summer and winter. A wave of excitement spread over the nation's snow country as advocates began speculating about which state would be selected for the coveted event. Competition to host the first Winter Olympics in the United States grew into an intense contest between three established snow play areas; Yosemite National Park, North Lake Tahoe, and Lake Placid near Whiteface Mountain, New York. Yosemite had the opulent Ahwahnee Hotel; Lake Placid promised to construct modern facilities; and Lake Tahoe promoters boasted of a $3 million bankroll that could build anything the IOC wanted.
In California the odds were stacked against Lake Tahoe. Yosemite enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for scenery and political support that ran all the way to the White House. The Golden State secured the Summer Games for Los Angeles, but the Winter Olympics movement ran into opposition. Businesses and chambers of commerce marketing California's mild year-round climate feared the emphasis on snow and mountains would harm their efforts.
There was another problem. At the time, California skiers were poorly organized and there were only a few ski clubs, and none affiliated with the National Ski Association. This lack of organization played a major role in 1929 when the IOC turned down the Yosemite bid during a meeting in Switzerland. Ultimately, Lake Placid was picked because of its location in upstate New York's snowbelt and its history of staging winter sports events. The Olympic rejection was disappointing, but it served as a catalyst for the emergence of California as a winter sports powerhouse. The Chamber of Commerce switched gears and embraced winter sports as a viable, economic and popular commodity. When it came time to bid for the 1960 Games at Squaw Valley, politicians and businessmen gave immediate support. Psyched-up boosters for a Reno-Tahoe Olympiad hope the U.S. Olympic Committee takes Tahoe's Olympic Heritage to heart for 2026.
- Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his blog at www.tahoenuggets.com.