History Stories

The 1960 Winter Olympics: Where Underdogs Ruled

Revisit the feats of athleticism at the VIII Olympic Winter Games, held in California's Squaw Valley in February, 1960.
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    The 1960 Winter Olympics: Where Underdogs Ruled

    • Author

      Allison McNearney

    • Website Name

      history.com

    • Year Published

      2018

    • Title

      The 1960 Winter Olympics: Where Underdogs Ruled

    • URL

      https://www.history.com/news/1960-squaw-valley-winter-olympics-underdogs-firsts

    • Access Date

      August 14, 2018

    • Publisher

      A+E Networks

History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.

When the Olympic Committee announced that Squaw Valley would be the 1960 Winter Games host, there were more than a few raised eyebrows. The Winter Olympics were relatively new, having been founded in 1924 in Chamonix, France, and with cities like Innsbruck, Austria, St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Reno, Nevada vying for the role, Squaw Valley was a long-shot contender. But in June 1955, the authorities awarded the honor of hosting the eighth Olympic Winter Games to the newly established American ski resort. It had only one hotel at the time.

The underdog story of Squaw Valley was just the first of many from the 1960 games. From the introduction of new sports and new athletic records to creating Olympic traditions that would be carried on for years to come, the 1960 Winter Games—attended by 30 countries fielding 665 athletes in 27 events—was a rousing success.

The Story of Squaw Valley

Squaw Valley was founded by Alexander Cushing, who had big dreams of developing the land into a renowned ski resort. He built a lodge and one ski lift on the California property, but it wasn’t the immediate success that he had hoped. In what he claimed was largely a publicity play, he decided to submit a bid for the 1960 Winter Olympics. “I had no more interest in getting the Games than the man in the moon,” he told Time Magazine in 1959.

Cushing’s intentions notwithstanding, he advertised Squaw Valley to the International Olympic Committee as a pristine, undeveloped site on which the perfect Olympic facilities could be created from scratch. They went for it. In only five years, everything from sports tracks and arenas to logistical structures were quickly built. Given the lack of existing lodgings or locals to house athletes, Squaw Valley gave birth to the idea of creating an Olympic Village to host athletes and their trainers.

By all accounts, Cushing’s plan to turn the site into an Olympic paradise led to a year of both fierce competition and fierce camaraderie. “It was the first and only time that all alpine and skating events, and the 80-meter ski jump, were within walking distance of one another. Skiers and skaters watched and cheered at each other’s events on the way to and from their own competitions,” Eddy Ancinas, a volunteer guide for the Squaw Valley Olympics wrote in The Atlantic in 2009. 

The Games Will Now Be Televised

In the U.S., these Winter Games were special not just because the country was playing host, but also because it was the first time that Americans could watch the Olympics on television. CBS purchased the rights to broadcast the Games for $50,000, and they did so with a young Walter Cronkite as host. It was during these Olympics that CBS also invented instant replay, which not only proved itself useful for deciding tough races that year, but has become a staple in many sports.

With the nation’s TVs now tuned in, the spectacle of the Games had to be bigger than ever. For that, only one American could do the job: Walt Disney. The king of entertainment was tapped to plan all of the pageantry surrounding the eleven-day event, including the opening and closing ceremonies.

A Winter Olympics of Firsts 

Every Olympic Games has its firsts—new records set, new events debuted, and new traditions created. But Squaw Valley was overflowing with these noteworthy moments. To begin with, the men’s biathlon and women’s speed skating events made their inaugural runs in 1960. It was a first of another sort for the bobsled; after discovering that only nine countries intended to participate, the Olympic Committee decided to scrap the sport—and save money on building a track—for the first and only time in Olympic history

It was also a record-setter for athletic achievements. French skier Jean Vuarnet was the first gold medalist to win on metal skis (everyone else was skiing on wood). And in an amazing feat that many refer to as the first “Miracle on Ice,” the amateur American ice hockey team, who had only practiced together for a month, went on to beat the powerhouse teams from Canada and Russia. They faced off in the finals against Czechoslovakia to win the first gold medal in ice hockey in U.S. history.

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