TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. - More than a century after topographical engineer John C. Fremont reported his "discovery," the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley represents the moment in history when the rest of the world discovered Lake Tahoe. The Walt Disney-inspired pageantry, Hollywood celebrities, and live television broadcast brought a certain sparkle to these Winter Games, but ultimately it was the athletes who made the Olympics the ultimate in amateur competition. In 1960 the United States wasn't the world-class winter sports powerhouse it is now, but Americans would medal in dramatic ways.
Site preparation for the 1960 Winter Olympiad at Squaw Valley took five years and more than $15 million dollars. No previous Olympic host community had ever attempted even a fraction of what organizers put together at Squaw. The only thing they couldn't control was the weather, and without a snowmaking system in place, they were at the mercy of timely Pacific storms to generate a substantial Sierra snowpack.
Similar to this year, the weather pattern in the months before the 1960 Games featured persistent dry weather and an alarming lack of snowfall. With the eyes of the nation and the world on Squaw Valley and with no wet weather in sight, Olympic organizers were getting nervous. When storms finally arrived, they threatened to derail the Games. During the first half of February, a subtropical jet stream raised snow levels to 8,500 feet and nearly 8 inches of rain soaked Squaw Valley. A week before the opening ceremonies, another warm system lashed the mountains with more rain. The Olympic site was getting washed away even as crews were doing everything in their power to protect the facilities from serious damage. The parking lot of packed snow on the valley floor was nearly washed out and several ski courses suffered washouts. Damage in the Lake Tahoe area was estimated at half a million dollars. The Olympic venue at Squaw Valley was in real trouble and desperate organizers talked about hauling snow in by truck. Fortunately, cold air swept in dumping 3 feet of fresh snow on the flood-damaged parking lot. Greater amounts of snow in the higher elevations boosted the snowpack there to nearly 10 feet.
The Opening Ceremonies for the 1960 Winter Games were slated to begin on Feb. 18, but the weather had showed up late and then refused to leave. The U.S. Weather Bureau was forecasting a slight chance of flurries for the opening, but a mini-blizzard roared in that morning which cut visibility to zero and dumped nearly a foot of fresh snow on the thousands of spectators and participants arriving for the early afternoon ceremonies. Traffic was backed up for miles. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had been unable to make it to the opening so Vice-President Richard Nixon and wife Pat took on the responsibility. They were scheduled to fly from Reno to Squaw Valley by helicopter, but the nasty weather forced them to travel by motorcade.
The heavy snowfall and monumental traffic jams delayed Nixon's arrival and forced Olympic officials to postpone the opening ceremony by about one hour. As it turned out, the timing was perfect. Shortly after Nixon's arrival the snowstorm quit, the wind let up, and the skies temporarily cleared. Bright sunshine poured down on the grateful athletes and crowds of spectators. The change was so dramatic that some described it as a biblical event. Russian delegates began thinking about the Cold War and the intense competition in science and technology between the Soviet Union and the United States and wondered, "Have the Americans perfected weather control?" Shortly after the opening ceremonies ended and everyone headed home, it began to snow again.
Walt Disney, the famous animator, avid skier, and part owner of the Sugar Bowl ski area, was chairman of the Pageantry Committee for the 1960 Winter Games. The focal point and backdrop for all ceremonies was an 80-foot Tower of Nations fashioned of open steelwork, featuring the colors and emblems of all participating nations. (The original structure is located at the intersection of Highway 89 and the entrance to Squaw Valley.) The Opening and Closing Ceremonies involved 5,000 participants, including 1,285 musical instruments and more than 2,600 singers from 52 California and Nevada high school bands. There were also dramatic ice sculptures designed by Disney himself and various fireworks displays. At one point, 2,000 "peace doves" (white pigeons) were released into the brilliant blue sky. In announcing his plans for the festivities, Disney said, "Nothing is more important than creating lasting goodwill among our visitors, and we shall do everything we can to make their stay a happy one."
Stay tuned for part 2 next time.
- 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: www.tahoenuggets.com