How Squaw Valley Won the 1960 Winter Olympic Bid

How Squaw Valley Won the 1960 Winter Olympic Bid

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How Squaw Valley Won the 1960 Winter Olympic Bid

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How Squaw Valley Won the 1960 Olympic Bid

By Mike Wilson (the journalist not the stuntman)

In October 1955, Squaw Valley co-founder Alex Cushing got a condescending letter from a powerful man.

Four months earlier, Cushing had conned the International Olympic Committee into giving the 1960 winter games to Squaw Valley even though the resort had only one chair lift and two rope tows. The decision had shocked the world.

Now IOC President Avery Brundage – who had remained neutral during the voting – was writing to say he didn’t think Cushing could handle the job. He was hoping Squaw would bow out and let the IOC give the games to somebody else.

 “It is not easy,” Brundage sneered, “to transform a picnic ground into a high class winter resort in four years.” 

A picnic ground!

The story of how Squaw got the 1960 Winter Olympics is a beaut, showcasing the salesmanship and unmitigated chutzpah of Alexander Cochrane Cushing, blueblood-turned-resort operator.

But the tale of how Cushing hung onto the games in the face of intense opposition – a story that isn’t as well known – may be even better.

Hardly anybody besides Cushing thought it was a good idea for the IOC to give the games to Squaw. Among those ridiculing the decision: a few million angry Europeans, Ski magazine and most of the American press, members of the United States Olympic Committee, ski racing officials around the world, and Cushing’s former business partner Wayne Poulsen, who owned most of the land in Squaw Valley but hadn’t even been consulted about staging the games there.

But by far the most influential skeptic was Brundage, the American president of the IOC. The extent of his opposition is revealed in his personal papers – thousands of pages of letters, memos, newspaper clippings, and photos stored in the Avery Brundage Collection at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Brundage’s private letters – many quoted here for the first time – make it plain that he saw a disaster coming, one that would deeply embarrass him, the IOC and the United States.

Alex Cushing, an aloof, moneyed, Harvard-educated lawyer, was 41 years old in 1954, living in the Lake Tahoe area and running the ski resort he and Poulsen had founded in 1949. Read enough about Cushing and you’ll find several versions of how he got the idea to bring the Olympics to Squaw Valley. It seems fitting, with such an unpredictable character, that it’s hard to get at the truth.

A True magazine article from 1957 says Cushing was in the San Francisco airport in December 1954 when he happened to see a newspaper story saying Reno was bidding for the 1960 games. A Saturday Evening Post from a year later says Cushing was in his Squaw Valley home on Dec. 28 when he read the item. The Squaw website doesn’t say where Cushing was when he got the idea, but says he got it the day after Christmas, not the 28th.

This much is clear: Cushing wasn’t remotely serious about hosting the Olympics.

“I had no more interest in getting the games than the man in the moon,” he told Time magazine in 1959. “It was just a way of getting some newspaper space.”

He got plenty.

The publicity surrounding Alex Cushing’s audacious bid for the Olympics piqued the interest of Cushing’s state senator, who persuaded lawmakers to pass a bill promising $1 million if Squaw got the games. Gov. Goodwin Knight happily signed it. Cushing carried the state’s pledge to the USOC meeting in New York, where Squaw would vie for the right to represent the United States in the international bidding process. The competition: Reno, Lake Placid, Sun Valley, Colorado Springs-Aspen, and Anchorage.

Cushing made his presentation in early January. “He talked eloquently of Squaw Valley’s beauty,” the Saturday Evening Post wrote. “Squaw Valley’s unique layout, he continued, was such that spectators, all of whom would be quartered in surrounding areas, could commute for each day’s events and empty out at night.”

Lake Placid, host of the 1932 games, harrumphed that it “would stand some chance of gaining the winter award, whereas Squaw Valley would almost certainly stand none.” But the USOC sided with Cushing, largely because Cushing had that $1 million pledge. The date was Jan. 8, 1955. Cushing had spent less than three weeks preparing his bid.

His next challenge: Win over the International Olympic Committee in Paris that June. Let’s just say he didn’t go in with a lot of support. A month after the USOC vote, Cushing met with IOC Chancellor Otto Mayer in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. According to a letter Mayer wrote later, he told Cushing: “Remember Mr. Cushing that you will never get the games for 1960 as I may understand that you are not ready at all to take the great responsibility of organizing them.” 

Thanks, Otto!

But Cushing’s real worry had to be the opposition of IOC President Avery Brundage, one of the most powerful and controversial figures in sports in the 20th century.

Brundage – himself a fine track and field athlete who competed in the 1912 Olympics with Jim Thorpe – was a lifelong proponent of amateurism in sports. After serving as president of the Amateur Athletic Union, he ran the USOC for a quarter-century. In 1936 he supported the United States’ participation in the Berlin summer games even though Germany was excluding Jews from competition. “I have not heard of anything to indicate discrimination of any race or religion” in Germany, he said. He warned that “certain Jews must now understand that they cannot use these Games as a weapon in their boycott against the Nazis.” After the games he applauded the Nazi regime for their contribution to “international peace and harmony.” He took over the IOC in 1952 and ran it for 20 years, ending with the controversial decision to let the Munich summer games go forward after the murder by terrorists of 11 Israeli athletes. He and his wife were childless, but Brundage had two sons from an extramarital affair in the early 1950s. He lived in fear that the affair would be exposed and the Olympic movement embarrassed. 

He was, suffice it to say, a complicated guy. 

“I’ve met some cold fishes,” Cushing told True magazine, “but Brundage is the coldest man I’ve ever met.”

Alex Cushing’s relationship with Avery Brundage got off to a singularly unpromising start. One week after the USOC chose Squaw, Cushing’s PR man, Dick Skuse, wrote a letter to Brundage:

“I was talking with (a member of the USOC board) this morning, and he mentioned your conversation with him, and that you did not know the exact whereabouts of Squaw Valley, Calif.

“He suggested I send this photo along to you, thinking it would give you a clearer picture.”

You know you’re a long shot to host the Olympics when the American president of the International Olympic Committee has no idea where you are and needs a map to find you.

Cushing had just a few months to get his presentation ready for the IOC site selection meeting in Paris. No doubt eager to get the IOC president on his side, he sent regular cheerful updates to Brundage in Chicago. In March, Cushing invited him to Squaw Valley. He wanted to Brundage to school him in how to schmooze the European IOC delegates whose votes he needed: “(We want) the benefit of your valuable experience in meeting the views of European delegates.” Brundage never showed.

In early April, Cushing copied Brundage on the pitch letter he was sending to all IOC members. The letter revealed some of the arguments Cushing planned to make in Paris: The snow was better in the Sierras than in Europe; instead of putting each national team in its own hotel, as the European resorts had always done, Squaw would house all the athletes together “as brothers in sport”; it was time for North America to have a chance to stage the games.

The letter didn’t say anything about who was going to pay for the games. But Cushing had ideas about that, too.

Squaw Valley had formidable competition to host the 1960 Olympics: St. Moritz, Switzerland; Chamonix, France; and Innsbruck, Austria. St. Moritz and Chamonix had hosted the games before, and Innsbruck was one of the premier winter resorts in the world.

As Cushing prepared for the decisive IOC meeting in Paris in June 1955, he hoped to use their qualifications against them by arguing that it would be unfair to give the games to Europe again. After all, the Winter Olympics had been held in Europe six out of seven times in their history. 

That spring, Cushing persuaded Chicago Daily News foreign correspondent George Weller, a Harvard chum, to take a leave of absence to pitch the Squaw Valley Olympics to IOC members around the world. Weller focused on delegates who might be amenable to staging the games outside Europe. He made a lot of friends in South America.

Back in California, Cushing commissioned a six-by-12-foot model of Squaw Valley showing the facilities he would build. But when he got the model to Paris, it wouldn’t fit inside the IOC exhibit room. Lucky break, it turned out. Cushing and Weller got a lot of private time with delegates as they escorted them to see the model in a building down the street.

The text of Cushing’s formal presentation to the IOC runs to eight typewritten pages. I found a copy on file in the Avery Brundage Collection and have never seen one anywhere else.

 

Keep reading HERE – How Squaw Valley Won the 1960 Winter Olympic Bid [Part 2]

 

About the Author: 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 mike@sptimes.com.

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