How Squaw Valley Won the 1960 Winter Olympic Bid [Part 2]
by, Mike Wilson
Alex Cushing began his prepared statement to the Olympic committee this way: “Gentlemen, I am not a mayor but I do represent Squaw Valley, a mountain community situated in the California Sierra, about 245 kilometers east of San Francisco.”
It mattered that he was not a mayor because the IOC rules specifically said the Olympics had to be awarded to a city. Squaw Valley wasn’t a city. It was just a ski resort, and Cushing was just a smooth-talking resort operator. Right out of the box, he was asking the IOC to disregard its own rules and history. (When he won the games, True magazine cracked, “It was the first time in history an Olympic bid had been granted to a piece of real estate.”)
Cushing described Squaw Valley as “a great natural amphitheatre” where spectators would be able to stand in one place and watch a downhill race, ski jumping, and a skating event. He reminded delegates of Squaw’s heavy snowfall, addressing a perennial worry about the Winter Olympics. He said it would be easy to get to Squaw Valley by train, car or plane.
Cushing made a lot of what Brundage would later derisively call “glittering promises.” Squaw was so ideally located, Cushing claimed, that competitors could travel there, stay three weeks, and return home, all for under $500. “It is absolutely guaranteed,” he said. (This was absurd, and the claim caused a huge stink later.) Athletes would all be housed together in a modern hotel in Lake Tahoe, 10 minutes away by bus. (Cushing may have had a hotel in mind, but he hadn’t secured the right to use it. In the end, athletes’ housing was built at the base of the mountain.)
But Cushing’s most audacious move was when he quoted Knight, the California governor, saying, “I pledge that the resources of the state of California will stand behind the 1960 winter Olympic games at Squaw Valley.”
“The governor has pledged the resources of the state,” Cushing reiterated. The implication was that Knight had written a blank check, but of course he hadn’t, and couldn’t. California wasn’t going to spend a dime beyond the initial $1 million without the approval of the legislature, and Cushing didn’t have any promises from them.
Cushing dedicated the last several pages of his speech to his argument against Europe, and for North America. He started with flattery, thanking the Europeans for leading the way in developing winter sports and congratulating them for producing so many champions. Because of Europe’s leadership, “we have as many winter sports enthusiasts in the U.S. and Canada as you have in Europe.” Therefore, wasn’t it time for the North Americans to experience the Winter Olympics? (Remember, the Squaw games were the first to be televised. Before then, if you couldn’t go to the games, you couldn’t see them.)
“And gentlemen,” Cushing chided, “let me give you this gentle reminder. We have been visiting you regularly for 28 years – winter and summer. It seems only fair that you should visit us once every quarter century.”
He concluded: “Winter sports are now developed to the point that the winter Olympic games, like the summer Olympic games, belong to the world. They no longer belong to the continent that fathered them.”
At the 1955 IOC meeting in Paris, it was time for the voting. No bidder got a majority on the first ballot because the Europeans split the vote. Squaw Valley won the Olympics on the second ballot, 32-30, beating Innsbruck.
It was like taking the Super Bowl away from Dallas Cowboys Stadium and awarding it to a high school in Skokie.
After Squaw won the games, Avery Brundage wrote two memos. The undated notes apparently were written for his files and weren’t sent to anyone else. You can sense his astonishment and irritation at what happened.
“When Cushing first appeared (on the scene) I told him that no one had heard of Squaw Valley, that there was no community organization there that had any experience with international sport, let alone the Olympic games, and therefore he would be lucky to receive serious consideration (in the next) 20 years.”
Brundage continued: “When he arrived in Paris I still felt that no serious consideration would be given to Squaw Valley so I did not oppose it. When I discovered that he was enlisting support, the meeting had started and it was too late. Since I had been president of the USOC for 25 years, I could not very well ridicule its endorsement.”
When Cushing produced his letter from Gov. Knight, it was like a rabbit out of his hat. “I could not very well say that the Governor had no authority to write such a letter,” Brundage wrote.
Brundage’s second memo begins:
“Squaw Valley is now in the big league, which involves the assumption of certain serious responsibilities. These Games must be a success. If not, it will be a disgrace to the United States, to the State of California, to the United States Olympic Association, to the International Olympic Committee, and to Avery Brundage because he did not stop the award.
“Many members came to me, and because I wouldn’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, they voted for Squaw Valley. I was neutral, I wouldn’t help and I wouldn’t hurt Squaw Valley, but because I did not say ‘no’, I am now involved in the award. Five words from me could have stopped the award.”
Then Brundage wrote this ominous line: “The IOC can switch the Winter Games very easily on less than a year’s notice.”
That summer and fall, Brundage rarely missed an opportunity to ridicule Squaw. In a letter to Kenneth “Tug” Wilson, the USOC president, he grumbled about Cushing’s “high pressure salesmanship campaign” and “glittering promises.” Brundage said he was “deeply concerned” – especially about his own reputation.
“…(If) these Games are not the best ever … it will be a black eye for the whole country, and I, as President of the International Olympic Committee, will be especially blamed because I am an American.
“There is even the chance of a major disaster,” Brundage continued, “with thousands of spectators marooned in the High Sierras with an inadequate system of roads and meager food and housing facilities.”
Thousands of spectators trapped in the valley, freezing and hungry! Brundage didn’t draw comparisons to the Donner Party, but he might as well have.
Brundage told Wilson he was “skeptical” about whether Squaw Valley could muster the money or organization to get the job done. “I can assure you,” he said, “that the IOC will be very strict.”
In September Cushing wrote to Brundage touting the people on the Organizing Committee. Brundage wrote a scolding letter in return, saying the $1 million committed by the state of California wouldn’t be close to enough. The true cost would be closer to $5 million, he wrote.
“Even if you get the men and money required, it is not going to be a simple matter to provide the facilities and organize the Games properly.”
The tension between Avery Brundage and Alex Cushing escalated in October, four months after the award. At a press conference in San Francisco, Brundage went public with all the doubts he had been expressing in memos and letters. His broadside was picked up in newspapers around the country.
“I think Brundage’s statement was very unfair,” Cushing told reporters. “He’s never come up here to look at what we’re doing and he’s never asked, either.”
Within days, Cushing wrote to Brundage. “Here are the facts,” he began. Some of the country’s best architects and engineers were at work on “our great project.” Construction of a bobsled run had begun. (It was never built; the sliding events were cancelled because not enough countries agreed to participate.) Squaw was in touch with the individual sports federations. The state highway commission was working on the roads.
“The best and most talented men in our State are running this show and appear to have the situation well in hand. Public opinion is strongly in favor of the Games. California is rich. We appear to have no financial problem. …
“…Unless there is something we should be doing that we are not, I find your remarks somewhat puzzling. … You, of course, have made some people mad – but maybe that was your intention.”
Cushing closed by inviting Brundage to Squaw Valley in November. The IOC president still hadn’t been there, even though he had a map.
Brundage wrote back to Cushing within a few days. “Dear Cushing,” he began.
He said the situation in Squaw Valley reminded him of Melbourne, which was to be the site of the 1956 summer games. The Australian city had asked for the games 10 years before it was ready, and the result had been “five years of bickering.” Brundage was worried that the Melbourne games would be a mess.
“I don’t propose to have that happen again,” he wrote.
Brundage went on. Thanks to Cushing’s “superb job of salesmanship” in Paris, the IOC had awarded the games to Squaw, and now the IOC is under attack “in the newspapers of half a dozen countries in Europe for making a mistake and failure is being predicted for the Games. In one paper the headlines … were ‘The Scandal of Squaw Valley.’”
Cushing’s organizing committee was undoubtedly composed of outstanding people, but “very few of them, I am sure, understand the task before them and the enormous expense involved.”
Then Brundage fired off the zinger about the “picnic ground.” Cushing’s reaction to this bit of snobbery is, alas, lost to history.
Brundage finished with a stern lecture for Cushing. “While you have accomplished a great deal, it is only a beginning and there remains the tremendous effort necessary to carry out the promises made in Paris. The total cost of this enterprise must be determined, an appropriation must be obtained to cover it, and an organization must be built not only to provide the facilities but also to handle the Games. There is no community of Squaw Valley and as you told us last summer, we must rely on the State of California. We want to be sure that we can.”
About this time, according to his papers, Brundage was hearing a lot of carping about Squaw as an Olympic venue. Cortlandt Hill, a railroad heir and ski racing pioneer, wrote to say he was “terribly worried about the Downhill in particular and a number of other events in general. … This whole thing might blow up in our face. … Squaw Valley as a business concern is a pathetic mess.” (Brundage said in reply that he was “dumbfounded when this award was made.”) Ski magazine came out with a story criticizing Squaw’s selection, painting Cushing as a fast-talking dilettante, and quoting Europeans unhappy with the IOC’s choice.
In November, Brundage sent a letter to a USOC member saying, “Squaw Valley is 10 years ahead of itself and the tremendous expense and enormous difficulties of trying to get ready for the 1960 Games are out of reason. It would be much better for them to give up the Games until they are ready to handle them in a first class manner.”
And that was before he found out that Alex Cushing didn’t own the land in the valley and didn’t have the right to put the Olympics there at all.
On Nov. 21, 1955, five months after the IOC awarded the 1960 Olympics to Squaw, Wayne Poulsen wrote a letter to J. Lyman Bingham, the executive director of the USOC.
Poulsen was the co-founder of Squaw Valley and Alex Cushing’s former business partner. Cushing had ousted him from the leadership of Squaw, and Poulsen remained bitter.
Poulsen’s letter pointed out that he owned 1,240 acres in Squaw Valley – 90 percent of the level, usable land there. That included the mile-wide swath of land that provided access to the ski resort. At no time during the bidding process, he wrote, was he consulted about the development of the valley for use in the 1960 Olympics.
“It would not be possible to hold an adequate, well-planned Olympic Games without extensive usage of our land,” Poulsen wrote. “This letter is to warn you not to permit any further planning based upon the use of our lands in Squaw Valley for the 1960 Olympic Winter Games without prior approval in writing from me.”
Poulsen and his wife Sandy said that Cushing and other members of the Olympic organizing committee had raging conflicts of interest because they were stakeholders in the Squaw Valley Development Company.
“They tell the architect for the Olympic Games what is needed for the Games in Squaw Valley, what to design for them and where to locate it,” Wayne Poulsen wrote in a different document. They are then in a position, as the Organizing Committee, to ask the Olympic Commission for taxpayers’ funds to build the buildings. …
“One of the most serious charges hurled at the United States’ bid was that (it) was strictly a private, not community, enterprise. So far it appears they were 100 percent correct.”
J. Lyman Bingham forwarded the Poulsens’ concerns to Avery Brundage with a dire message: “If Mr. Poulsen should appear before the IOC at their meeting in January, it might be the spark which would bring about cancellation of the award.” In reply, Brundage agreed that “this is not a healthy situation.”
Cushing’s fate – and the future of the 1960 Winter Olympics – were decided in the first months of 1956.
That January, Cushing acknowledged his conflict of interest and resigned from the organizing committee. The man who had won the Olympics for Squaw Valley would no longer have any say over how they were run. Nothing in Brundage’s papers indicates his reaction to this, but he must have seen it as a victory.
But Brundage was still worried about who would pay for the games. When the IOC met in Italy that January, Brundage issued a threat: If the California legislature didn’t pledge another $4 million by April 3, or he would give the games to Innsbruck.
By that time, a long list of prominent Californians had lined up behind the Olympic effort. They spent weeks lobbying legislators and appearing before committees. In March, both the Assembly and the Senate approved the $4 million budget item, and on April 3, 1956 – Brundage’s deadline – the governor signed it.
Brundage was quoted saying Squaw Valley was now the official site of the 1960 games. Alex Cushing’s whim was going to become an actual Olympics.
As for Wayne Poulsen and his objections, well, the state simply crushed him. Declaring the Olympics to be of vital public importance, it took his land by eminent domain, utterly ignoring his concerns about the development of the valley he had settled. When I spoke to Poulsen’s son Russell this summer, he was still furious, saying, “The state stole our land.”
* * *
The California legislature wound up kicking in another $2.99 million for the Squaw games, for a total of almost $8 million, and the federal government ponied up several million more. All that money did wonders for Cushing’s picnic ground, and for his investment.
The 1960 Winter Olympics were held February 18-28. The American hockey team unexpectedly won gold. Walt Disney was in charge of pageantry. Art Linkletter enterained athletes at the Olympic Village. The official program mentions Alex Cushing as Squaw’s owner, but doesn’t say a word about his role in getting the Olympics.
When the games were over, Brundage wrote a message to the state of California. It’s quoted in David C. Antonucci’s well researched book, “Snowball’s Chance,” about the 1960 games.
“Californians can take pride in the superb way their State carried off the games and the role of the host,” he said. “It has taken 25 to 100 years in Europe to accomplish what has been done to a great extent here in four years.”
“I am pleased – in fact, astonished – that it has turned out so well.”
Mike Wilson is a managing editor at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, and author of Right on the Edge of Crazy, about the U.S. men’s downhill team. He can be reached at email@example.com.