Take a look back on Squaw Valley’s 1960 Winter Olympics, 60 years later.

Olympic Gold

Story Patty Malesh

It was February 27, 1960, and North Bay resident Kaeti Bailie found herself flirting with the bad boys of the US Olympic hockey team in Blyth Arena at the Squaw Valley Ski Resort. She was 16 and sitting right behind the US team’s penalty box. Thanks to Olympic rules at the time, she shared quite a bit of cheeky banter with the boys. (Players were required to stay in the box for their full penalty time, even if the other team scored during their power play.) And that other team did score in that first period. Twice. 

The other team was Russia, which took gold in ’56 and was also unbeaten so far in the ’60 games. But that did not stop the US team, underdog though it was, from besting Russia, its Cold War rival, during the first televised Olympic Games, ultimately winning gold for its efforts. 

This was the first time the US won an Olympic gold medal for hockey, and the team still holds the record for being the only US Olympic hockey team to date to remain undefeated throughout the games. They did not suffer a single loss or tie. Twenty years later, in 1980 at Lake Placid, another US men’s hockey team would do the same—upset Russia. That win would come to be known as the “miracle on ice” and harken back to the O.G. miracle on ice. The 1980 US gold would be the first time Russia had not won Olympic gold for ice hockey since its defeat at Squaw Valley in 1960.

The Olympic Bid 

This win was a proud moment for the US nationally and a lovely 10th anniversary present to Squaw Valley Ski Resort, which opened for business in the 1949-50 season. While the Olympic Games did not put Squaw Valley on the map—it already boasted a naturally heavy snowpack and the longest double chairlift in the world at the time—it did show the world that Lake Tahoe’s mountain terrain was destined for epic recreational greatness. 

The first US win for the 1960 Olympics, it could be argued, goes to Squaw Valley itself. Thanks to the rabid competitive spirit of skier turned lawyer and Squaw Valley founder, Alex Cushing, Squaw Valley beat out Reno, Nevada; Anchorage, Alaska; and Innsbruck, Austria, to become the host of 1960 games. And with this win came some very high stakes. 

Since this was to be the very first televised Olympic Games, Cushing had to impress both audiences in attendance and those in their armchairs half a world away. So, he did what any American who sought to create a spectacle would do at that time: He hired Walt Disney. 

Prior to the Olympics, Cushing had already disrupted American notions of ski resort etiquette. He modeled Squaw Valley after its European counterparts, rather than its US ones, by building resort elements like restaurants on the mountain instead of at the base. 

Once the Olympic bid was won and Disney was on board for the opening and closing ceremonies, the $80 million village and “Olympic experience” would boast what Disney deemed a culture of “innovation and firsts.” This culture is still part of Squaw Valley today as an epicenter for free-skiing and extreme sport junkies.

Winners, Losers, and Firsts 

For the first and last time in Winter Olympic history, the 1960 Olympics at Squaw Valley did not include bobsledding. However, it did include the biathlon, which premiered here as an Olympic event. Prior to 1960, a precursor to the biathlon called military patrol, which included both skiing and riflery, did take place at the Winter Olympics in ’24, ’28, ’36, and ’48. However, it was only open to athletes who were members of the armed forces. The event disappeared from the Olympics in the wake of WWII and returned as the depoliticized biathlon in 1960. 

Women’s speed skating also premiered at the ’60 Olympics. For long track skating competitions, including speed skating, Squaw Valley was charged with creating artificial ice, and this was the first time it was used during the Olympics. It has been used ever since. 

There was only one ski jumping event at the 1960 Winter Olympics, and it was held on the last day of the games just prior to closing ceremonies. This event marked the first time the gold medal was won by a non-Nordic competitor: Helmut Recknagel, a German. Similarly, his teammate Georg Thoma took gold in the Nordic combined ski jump and cross-country event—also the first non-Nordic competitor to take gold. 

When all medals had been awarded, Russia swept the games with a total of 21 medals and nearly twice as many gold medal wins as its closest competition. The US came in second with 10 medals, three of which were gold. The United Team of Germany (comprising both East and West German athletes) took home four gold medals. This post WWII Olympic union lasted from 1956 to 1964, when each nation began competing separately, until 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

The Cold War on Ice

As the Cold War heated up, the most visible battlefield became the Olympics. And while the big players were the US and Russia, it was what and who they represented that garnered the most concerning international attention. China’s contested claim to Taiwan led to a significant uptick in tensions between the US, which supported Taiwan, and Russia, which backed China, prior to the 1960 Winter Olympics. Tensions ran so high that the IOC—the governing body of the Olympics—worried the US would not allow communist countries to participate in the games at Squaw Valley. In 1957, less than a year after awarding Squaw Valley the bid to host the 1960 Winter Games, Avery Brundage, president of the IOC, announced a potential reversal of that decision. 

In the spirit of the games (and in the hopes of putting the Cold War on ice), he told the US that any attempt to deny entry to the games to communist countries would lead to a complete revocation of America’s right to host the games. It would also leave Squaw Valley in a bad way. Ultimately, the US backed down and agreed to Brundage’s terms, but China, amid still unextinguished disagreements about Taiwan’s participation in the Olympics, refused its invitation to participate in the 1960 Olympics. 

Going to Extremes

Today, amateur and professional skiers and snowboarders of all nationalities (and all counties in California) flock to our state’s treasured mountains thanks in great part to what did and didn’t happen on the slopes and in the living rooms of millions of viewers around the globe in 1960. Squaw Valley’s unrivaled challenging terrain, consistent snowpack, and steeps and cliffs in the North Bay’s backyard are a playground for residents and visitors alike. And for some of us visitors (in my case, as a high school sophomore in Baltimore, Maryland, over spring break in 1989), our first visit to Squaw Valley led to our North Bay life today, 30 years later. Now that the Cold War is over, perhaps we can just enjoy the cold. 

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