A golden moment for Tahoe’s Olympic history
January 8, 2010
TAHOMA – The early-morning snow Friday in Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine State Park was rock hard, like it was at the 1960 VIII Winter Olympic Games.
Impervious to conventional grooming methods of the era, the icy snow was broken up by a newly invented Tucker Tiller pulled by a snowcat to prepare trails between Tahoma and Homewood for the Nordic skiing and biathlon competitions.
“The Soviets thought it was some kind of American trick to make sure the U.S. won,” said David Antonucci, the man behind the restoration of the winter trails.
Antonucci discovered an Olympic trail behind his house on a summer day in the late 1990s.
“I knew it was not a road and it was not logging skid trail,” he recalled. “So I started asking questions.”
On a brisk morning more than a decade later, Antonucci was among the speakers at an opening ceremony marking the golden anniversary of Lake Tahoe’s Olympics.
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“I have a great feeling of accomplishment and fullfillment,” Antonucci said.
John Pang was one of 11 torchbearers who carried the flame from the state park up State Route 89 to Squaw Valley, the site of all but the Nordic competitions 50 years ago.
Perhaps it was mere coincidence that the Meeks Bay fire chief would be the first to handle the torch. He arrived early to practice running on the icy park pathway.
“I hope I don’t fall down,” said Pang, who did in fact stay on his feet for the first mile leg of the relay.
The official photographer from the 1960 games, Bill Briner, feigned embarrassment when he noticed he was holding a tiny digital camera as he spoke to a crowd of about 70 West Shore community members, history buffs and state employees. “I use a different camera now,” he said.
Briner recalled how competitors in the biathlon, a combination of cross country skiing and rifle marksmanship, would wait for the steadiest of moments – between heartbeats – to squeeze the trigger.
Historian and ski writer Robert Frohlich, one of the torchbearers, said it was hard to imagine now “what a sleepy little community it was” when Tahoe was awarded the games in the early 1950s.
Development in Squaw Valley began soon after it received the bid. When Olympic organizers arrived, they were miffed to discover the area slated for the Nordic events had been built upon.
Although some Europeans complained the Tahoma site was too high in elevation and too far from the Olympic Village, the new area proved to have superior terrain because of its hills.
The Ehrman estate donated 1,975 acres to the California State Park System in 1965 with the condition all existing structures would be removed. So there is no evidence on the trails of the Olympic stadium or timing huts. However, there are historical interpretive signs along the way, and on Friday a nearly 20-foot tall replica of the Tower of Nations created by Walt Disney for the Games was placed at the trailhead.
A quarter the size of the tower at the entrance of Squaw Valley, the sculpture has flag insignias of the 30 nations who competed in eighth Winter Olympics. Many more countries will represented at next month’s XIX Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, B.C.
“If there were more countries in 1960 I definitely would not have been able to build it in our garage,” joked Joe Erman, who made the tower with his father, John.
The Ermans, no relation to the original land-owning Ehrmans, donated their labor.
“I am starting welding company and this was my first big project,” Joe Erman said. “My dad clamped and held and I cut and welded every single piece on this. I hadn’t done math since (attending North Tahoe) high school. I’m happy I had a good math teacher because I remembered a lot of the equations.”
The torch run opened 10 days of Olympic Heritage Celebration events at Squaw Valley and Sugar Pine State Park.
The course’s first sanctioned race in 50 years will be Friday, Jan. 15, for a high school and middle school cross country meet. A day later “Citizens Against the Clock” will give people the chance to be timed and scored in a biathlon. For safety, the new-age guns will fire lasers. The snow, however, likely will remain, as Tahoeans have said for 50 years, bulletproof.