Winter is here, there is snow and frost on the ground and right now the world is getting ready for the Winter Olympics. Many people do not understand that if it were not for Walt Disney, the Olympics as they are celebrated across the globe may not have happened. If you are not familiar with the story it is not surprising. It is often lost in the history, legend, and legacy of Walt Disney. But let’s turn back the pages of Disney history and rediscover what is an absolutely amazing story….
This is the story of the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California. Although it didn’t start out to be so, it really is a fairy tale come to life. The story begins with what was in essence a publicity stunt by Alexander Cushing. Alexander was the only resident of the troubled and struggling ski resort at the time. For a variety of reasons, this Harvard University graduate decided to put in a bid for his resort to become the host of the Olympics. The world was stunned when the IOC – The International Olympic Committee awarded the Olympics to Squaw Valley. This vote taken in 1955 would send the Winter Olympics to the California resort and much to the dismay of some of the more popular and established ski resorts in Europe, the Olympics were on the way.
To understand why it the decision was so stunning you need to understand a little bit about Squaw Valley at the time. It was not really a world class resort and was not in position to host an event of this magnitude. Consider that it had one chairlift, two tow-ropes and a fifty room lodge. That is it. It was more of a place to ski than it was a resort and it surely was not poised to be the site of an international Olympic event. When the bid for the Olympics was submitted, the IOC President Avery Brundage told Cushing, “The USOC (United States Olympic Committee) has obviously taken leave of their senses.”
So what do you do when the odds are overwhelming? Alexander Cushing turned the resort’s size and lack of things already in place into an Olympic advantage. There was so much room to improve, it was a blank slate that could be custom built, unlike anywhere else in the world, to be the perfect home to the Olympics. It was as if Cushing had taken a page from the Walt Disney playbook… dare to dream, be willing to work, and dreams can come true.
The Olympics were going to happen in Squaw Valley.
Once the decision was made the clock began to tick and tick loudly. The California Olympic Commission, which didn’t exist before this moment, now would have five very short years to build a fully-functional, Olympic-ready facility in the mountains near Lake Tahoe.
How bad was it really? Well, if you are familiar at all with the modern day Olympics this will give you an example. So unprepared was the location that at the close of the 1956 Winter Games, Squaw Valley had no local government to accept the Olympic flag from the mayor of previous host Cortina d’Ampezzo.
As a result, a member of the International Olympic Committee from California stood in and accepted the flag. It was official and really going to happen. The Winter Olympics were coming. Cushing had done the impossible and now the winter storm was on the way.
But wait a minute? Isn’t this a story about Walt Disney and how changed the Olympics forever?
Yes, it is…and in order to understand that story you needed to know the background. Not only did Walt forever change the Olympics but in many ways… he would save the Olympics in Squaw Valley. It happened over lunch. In 1958, three years into the preparations, there were changes being made to the resort and although structural changes were being made there was something missing. Organizing Committee President Prentis Hale made a trip to the Disney studio in Burbank for lunch with Walt. He shared what was going on, where they were, how big a task they were involved in, and they needed help… they needed the Disney touch. He asked him to become Chairman of the Pageantry Committee for the Games. This would mean creating the opening and closing ceremonies, the victory ceremonies for each event, and the Olympic torch relay.
Walt Disney agreed, he was now officially involved and a part of our story.
He would later say, “I didn’t know then what I was getting into!”
History sometimes forgets what it takes for moments to occur. The big dream, the great “why not give it a try?’ Olympic bid from Cushing and the USOC, the willingness to create something out of what at the time was nothing is nothing short of incredible. How many times in life do we miss out on the amazing or spectacular simply because we don’t try? We take a look at the situation or resources we have and decide that we just can’t try something because it is too big.
How many things are not accomplished because we aren’t willing to do the work to make a dream come true? What is it that you are dreaming of? What dream has been placed on your heart that seems so big it could never happen? What is it that you would like to try but because the circumstances are not right you are convinced you shouldn’t try?
Is it possible to do everything?
But the discoveries we can make on the adventure of chasing our dreams are the memories of a lifetime and change us forever. That is at the heart of the Squaw Valley Olympic story.
Perhaps that is a life lesson we can all learn from this moment in history.
One other lesson worth learning is that if you are going to make dreams come true it never hurts to ask for help, share your dream and vision and see if others will embrace it. You never know who might become a part of the dream with you. That is how Walt got involved in the Olympics.
Who might you find to help you chase your dream?
Jeff Dixon is an author, teacher, and transformational architect who lives in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom in Central Florida. He is the author of a series of mystery thrillers set in and around Walt Disney World that are loaded with Disney history, trivia, little known facts, and the trivia is never trivial. Discover more at www.DixonOnDisney.com (The Key to the Kingdom and Unlocking the Kingdom are available from booksellers everywhere)
Research and inspiration for this article comes from The Walt Disney Family Museum and Michael A. Crawford, Disney historian, who share the story of Walt and his involvement in the Olympic quest on their website. Additional research was found at Progressland USA, Jim Hill Media, and notations in the book, The 1960 Winter Olympics by David C. Antonucc. Life lessons and commentary on how to live the Disney Driven life created by Jeff Dixon.