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Opening date: 18 February 1960
Closing date: 28 February 1960
Country of the host city: United States of America (USA)
Candidate cities: Innsbruck (AUT), St. Moritz (SUI) and Garmisch-Partenkirchen (GER)
In just five short years a dream was turned into a reality as a remote site in the mountains of northern California was transformed into an Olympic winter wonderland.
In June 1955, despite stiff competition from the Austrian resort of Innsbruck, Alexander Cushing convinced the IOC to place their confidence in a dream and choose Squaw Valley as host city for the VIII Olympic Winter Games.
Yet to call Squaw Valley a city, or even a town, was misleading. In reality it was merely a scenic but relatively undeveloped valley in the wilderness, situated close to the historic Donner Pass. Unlike the yet to be distinguished Valley, though, the Pass was already famous. It was there that a wagon train of pioneers travelling to California in the 1840s had become stranded and forced to face the harsh winter elements before some were eventually rescued.
In 1955, Donner Pass and Squaw Valley were still remote and rugged places but the Organizing Committee was not intimidated. Instead, backed by a promising start of US$5 million in funding from the State of California and a blank canvas to draw upon, they saw only potential in the location.
Work on carving an entire Olympic site out of the wilderness quickly got under way. In addition to the sports venues, Organizers also had to plan for a number of other logistical necessities such as roads, snow removal and postal services. The result, with the exception of the nearby cross country skiing venue and the absence of a bobsleigh run, was a compact site that even included the first official Olympic Village for a Winter Games.
When 18 February 1960 arrived everything was ready. Ironically though, a blizzard that briefly delayed the Opening ceremony would serve as a reminder to all those in attendance that Squaw Valley still sat in the midst of a wilderness.
Thankfully, blue skies and sunshine soon emerged and the festivities planned by none other then Walt Disney were able to begin. Despite the fact that in 1960 the ceremonies for the Games were focused on protocol, Disney still managed to inject an extra bit of ambiance amongst Olympic elements that included the reintroduction of Spiros Samaras and Kostis Palamas’ Olympic anthem.
The Disney touch was also evident elsewhere. Snow sculptures, inspired by statues of athletes that had decorated the ancient Olympic Games site in Greece, lined an “Avenue of Athletes”. An 80-foot “Tower of Nations” featuring the emblems of all the participating nations served as a dramatic backdrop for the victory ceremonies.
It was the first time that all five continents were represented in the Winter Games and, ultimately, it was to be the athletes’ performances that took centre stage in Disney’s winter wonderland.
Under the roof of the Olympic ice rink, it was the figure skaters who dazzled. With triple jumps well beyond the realm of most of his fellow competitors David Jenkins performed a demanding free skate that first silenced and then wowed the crowd. The judges were equally impressed and crowned Jenkins Olympic champion in the men’s singles event.
Although a lack of entries meant that for the first and only time in Olympic history there was no bobsleigh competition, men’s biathlon was included for a first time. It enjoyed a memorable debut as gold medallist Clas Lestander’s less impressive skiing was offset by his 20 out of 20 perfection in the target shooting.
The speed skating events proved equally memorable thanks not only to the introduction of women’s events but also to a number of noteworthy performances, both male and female. In the men’s 10,000m race the world record was broken not once, not twice, but three times. In two cases the skaters even managed to smash the 16 minute barrier.
World records, Olympic firsts, and dazzling performances would all become part of the history that was written in Squaw Valley. It was the Valley itself though, along with the Organizers who had turned a wilderness into a host ‘city’ that would be the main starts in this chapter of Winter Games history.
Consistency or a case of déjà vu? That was the question that some might have asked when Yevgeny Grishin flashed across the finish line in the men’s 500m and 1,500m speed skating events in Squaw Valley.
Remarkably, Grishin’s results in 1960 were almost identical to those he had achieved four years earlier in Cortina d’Ampezzo. For the 500m it really was déjà vu as Yevgeny again came out on top and skated a world record time. In the 1,500m the result was the same but also different as he once more tied for first place, but this time it was with Roald Aas of Norway.
Grishin earned one last Olympic medal, a silver in 1964. Ironically he tied with two other skaters in doing so. He made his final Olympic appearance in 1968 and later became the national team coach.
In 1960, speed skater Lidiya Skoblikova took her first step towards becoming an Olympic legend.
Making the first of three appearances at the Winter Games, Skoblikova not only skated to her first Olympic gold medal in the 1,500m event but also broke the World record in doing so. She earned a second gold in the 3,000m.
Squaw Valley was just the warm-up though as Skoblikova’s performance merely offered hints of the even greater Olympic performance she would achieve four years later.
In 1964 Skoblikova was the favourite to take three of the women’s speed skating titles. She did one better, capturing gold in all four women’s events and setting three Olympic records on route. Her performances in Innsbruck also made her the first athlete to win four gold medals at a single Winter Games.
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