'The World Was Shocked': How the Winter Olympics Came to Tahoe in 1960

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An Olympic symbol at Palisades Tahoe reminds visitors today of the ski resort's history as host of the 1960 Winter Games. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

The 24th Winter Olympics are unfolding in Beijing right now with endless hours of coverage and athlete profiles. It's a much bigger event than the winter games held in the Tahoe valley back in 1960. At that time, there were no huge ski resorts and bustling crowds. The Olympics jump-started Tahoe's reputation as a winter sports destination.

Osvaldo and Eddy Ancinas live in Olympic Valley near Lake Tahoe — right where the 1960 Olympics took place. Both remember those winter games as if they were yesterday. Back then, Osvaldo was a dashing member of Argentina's ski team, who competed in three alpine events — downhill, giant slalom and slalom. Eddy was one of the young multilingual women employed to make the visiting dignitaries feel welcome.

"It's like when you meet a wonderful family," said Osvaldo, who can remember the folk song he performed at the athlete's talent show held during the games one night.

The Olympic Village, 1960. The complex housed athletes and was mostly off-limits to others. (Courtesy Bill Briner)

Outsized and lasting impact

The Ancinases said the 1960 Olympics weren't just memorable for the people who were there, like them. The event also had an outsized and lasting impact worldwide because of the many firsts and innovations that happened there.

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Technologies that we consider commonplace today, like instant replay and a first-of-its-kind refrigeration mechanism for the speed-skating oval, were pioneered or developed at those games. Also, this was the first time the Olympics were televised live nationwide. CBS bought the exclusive rights for $50,000, and Walter Cronkite reported live throughout the event.

Pageantry chair Walt Disney at the 1960 Olympics. (Courtesy Bill Briner)

Walt Disney himself was the pageantry chair. The entertainment king and winter sports enthusiast turned the event into a theatrical extravaganza worthy of TV.

Disney's team booked choirs and bands to play in Olympic Village and created giant, white statues of athletes that looked like they were carved out of ice (though in reality they were fashioned from wire and papier-mâché). At various points they released fireworks, balloons and even pigeons into the sky.

Eddy Ancinas said the event took on an almost supernatural quality under Disney's direction, especially after a heavy snowstorm delayed the start of the opening ceremony.

One of the massive athlete sculptures created by Walt Disney's team for the 1960 Olympics. (Courtesy Bill Briner)

"The blizzard suddenly ended, the sun came out and the sky was blue," she said. "It was kind of like maybe God had a hand in this or something."

Myth-making vs. lost reality

The weather wasn't the only element to give the 1960 Olympics an almost mythological aura. Another is the U.S. men's ice hockey team's triumph against the fearsome Soviets — a big deal during the Cold War.

Historic ice hockey game between the U.S. and Soviet Union at the 1960 Olympics. The U.S. won 3-2. (Wikimedia Commons)

And then there's the narrative about how the games even made it to an obscure corner (at the time) of the Sierra Nevada in the first place.

"It's a David and Goliath story," said Eddy, who wrote a 2019 book about the region's ski history. "There was nothing there, so they had a clean slate. To make that into an Olympic site was quite a feat."

But what tends to get lost in accounts of the 1960 Olympic Games is the fact that they took place on unceded Indigenous lands — stolen land that had belonged to Native people for thousands of years.

"People view this land as pristine and untouched," said Herman Fillmore, culture and language resources director for the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. "But this land was actually shaped by Indigenous peoples and our cultures."

At the time of the Olympics, Fillmore said his tribe was in the middle of a decades-long lawsuit against the federal government for the theft of roughly 6 million acres of Washoe lands, including the area where the Olympics were held. The Washoe had never formally entered into a treaty nor received compensation for land occupied by the United States.

"While Washoe people were undergoing a court case to gain any sort of restitution for the taking of our land, we coincidentally have the 1960 Olympics, where other nations are freely welcome to Washoe homelands, a place that Washoe people were no longer allowed to be," Fillmore said.

Washoe tribespeople in their ancestral lands in the valley of Lake Tahoe. (Library of Congress)

Both the tribe and local historians say the organizers of the Olympic Games did not consult Washoe people about their plans.

To make matters worse, owners named the resort that hosted the games Squaw Valley, a racist and misogynistic term used for Indigenous women. European settlers had given the land that name in the mid-19th century.

The resort kept the name until September 2021, when management rebranded it Palisades Tahoe. Tribal members had been asking for the derogatory name to be removed for years.

"The renaming of Palisades was long overdue," said Fillmore.

The 1960 Olympic story

Most historical accounts of the Tahoe Olympics begin with a picture of a sparkling white landscape, practically untouched by human hands.

"There was almost nothing here: one lift, two rope tows, a lodge and a dirt road leading to it off the highway. And there were only two year-round families that lived in the valley itself," said David Antonucci, an avid cross-country skier, long-time Tahoe resident and author of the book “Snowball's Chance: The Story of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games.”

The Tahoe Olympic story began in the waning days of 1954.

"Alex Cushing, who is a co-founder of what was then known as the Squaw Valley ski area, was reading the paper," said Antonucci. "And he saw that the city of Reno was submitting a bid to host the 1960 Winter Olympics."

That was all it took to give Cushing the improbable idea of pitching his own little ski resort as a contender for the privilege of hosting the 1960 Olympics, said Antonucci.

"He thought, 'Heck, Squaw Valley is a better mountain. I've got better conditions here. I wonder if I could submit a bid and just get some publicity for it?'"

Cushing was a Harvard-educated lawyer with many rich and powerful friends. He hurriedly put together a proposal, got financial backing from the California state Legislature, and traveled to New York to pitch the U.S. Olympic Committee.

"And much to the surprise of everybody, the U.S. Olympic Committee decided to nominate Squaw Valley to host the 1960 Winter Olympics," Antonucci said.

A view of the opening ceremonies at the 1960 Olympics. (Courtesy Bill Briner)

But Cushing still had to go to Paris and convince the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that Tahoe should host the Games. Even though by this point he had the support of both the state of California and the U.S. federal government, his chances of winning looked pretty slim.

"He's being told, 'Forget it. You've got no chance. You're just wasting your time,'" said Antonucci. "People in the Olympic orbit said, 'Innsbruck, Austria, has it tied up.'"

But Cushing and his team didn't give up. They started working their contacts around the globe. The lobbying effort included the then-unorthodox step of printing their proposal in Spanish — not just the official Olympic languages of English and French.

"He actually traveled or had representatives travel to South America to visit with IOC representatives that normally wouldn't be interested in the Winter Olympics to get their support and make sure they would be in attendance and could vote," Antonucci said.

And it worked.

After two nail-biting rounds of voting, California prevailed, beating Innsbruck by just a couple of votes.

"The world was shocked," said Antonucci, adding that another year would pass before the IOC definitively green-lit Cushing's winning bid, asking him to raise several million dollars in funding first.

Disappearing history

If you visit Palisades Tahoe, the massive white mountains set against the limitless blue sky are just as awe-striking today as they likely were back in 1960. Antonucci points out where some of the Olympic races took place.

"If we look up this canyon here, this was the men's downhill course," he said. "It started up on that peak, which is called Palisades."

And the Olympic logo, with its five, colorful interlocking circles symbolizing global unity, is a favorite location for a photo opp.

But only a smattering of the original Olympic era structures remain. One such building is the Olympic Village Lodge, part of the complex that was used to house the athletes for the duration of the games.

The Olympic Village Lodge’s cavernous dining hall is where the athletes came together to socialize, eat and enjoy evening performances by some of the leading acts of the day like Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye.

"Walt Disney arranged for entertainment every night, and that was held in this room," said Antonucci.

Inside the dining room at Olympic Village Lodge, one of just a few spaces built for the 1960 Olympics that remain at Palisades Tahoe. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

But this historic building, like most of the others still standing at Palisades Tahoe, isn't in great shape. The dining room roof is currently propped up by steel columns, following snow damage from a few years ago.

"After the Olympics, the facilities were originally to be operated by the state of California through its Department of Parks and Recreation as a public winter recreation site," said Antonucci. "But it never became viable."

Antonucci said the state eventually sold the buildings off bit by bit to developers and investors, until it all ended up under control of a privately owned resort.

New developments

The current resort owner, Alterra Mountain Company, proposed a plan in 2016 to demolish the historic buildings in order to make way for new development, including high-rise hotels and an indoor waterpark.

Local anti-development activists managed to stall these plans in court last year.

"People who really value the sense of place that we still feel in the Tahoe Sierra are working together to demand something better," said Tom Mooers, executive director of the Nevada City-based conservation group Sierra Watch.

"We are committed to carrying out a responsible development project," said Palisades Tahoe President and COO Dee Byrne in an email. "This project will provide significant benefits to our community, such as new jobs, increased tax revenue, new affordable housing units and millions in funds for conservation and transit to Olympic Valley and the region. Unfortunately, due to the 2021 court decision, we will now have to wait longer to see those benefits come to fruition and begin to serve our community."

Regardless of what happens next in court, David Antonucci is resigned to the idea that eventually the historic buildings will likely come down. He expressed sadness, but said the structures mostly fall short of current ADA and energy conservation standards.

"Something has to happen," Antonucci said. "These buildings are at the end of their useful life."

Olympic future at Tahoe

Ever since the 1980s, a variety of local groups, such as the Reno Tahoe Winter Games Coalition, have been working to bring the Olympics back to the Sierra Nevada.

The most recent efforts fell by the wayside in 2018. But that doesn’t put a definitive end to the possibility of the games returning at some point down the line.

Eddy Ancinas, David Antonucci and Osvaldo Ancinas in Tahoe City. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

The idea, however, holds little interest for Eddy and Osvaldo Ancinas, even though they hold cherished memories of the 1960 event.
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"It's just so different right now," said Osvaldo. "The cost is going to be horrible. Billions."

"So many people," said Eddy.

In the meantime, the couple, together with David Antonucci, are part of a group working to salvage the region's Olympic history as best as they can. They're planning to build a 20,000-square-foot museum at the entrance to Olympic Valley, right where the Olympic torch still burns.

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