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He Got Games


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It was Thanksgiving of 1954 when Alex Cushing stepped off a plane, picked up a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle and read that Reno, Nev., was bidding for the 1960 Olympics. Cushing, an East Coast native with little experience in the ski world, had left his Wall Street office six years earlier to start Squaw Valley, Calif. The struggling area was in its fifth season of operation, with one chairlift, a small base lodge and no spare cash. Upon reading the headline, Cushing turned to his PR agent, Dick Skuse, and asked, “Where’s Squaw Valley’s bid? Knowing Cushing’s compulsion to attempt the impossible, Skuse immediately sleuthed out some information. Lake Placid was heavily favored as the U.S. nominee, but the final decision would be made in New York on Jan. 3 by the U.S. Olympic Committee. The International Olympic Committee would then choose the winning site in Paris on June 15.

The notion of putting together a bid in a month-not to mention actually pulling off the Games-was outrageous. But it also sounded like a great publicity ploy, so Cushing filled out the bid form.

Just to show his face in New York, Cushing would need some commitment of funding, and considering Squaw’s brief history, none was forthcoming. With editorial support fromthe San Francisco Examiner, Cushing won credibility with California politicians who helped him resurrect a bill enacted for the 1932 Los Angeles Games. The bill guaranteed $1 million to any California city competing for the Games.

With the vote of confidence from the state and a few letters of community support, Cushing’s publicity stunt had mushroomed into a legitimate effort, but the Olympics still seemed like an improbable dream. He arrived in New York the Thursday before Saturday’s selection meeting and visited a friend, the sports editor at the New York Herald Tribune. The next morning every delegate woke up to an eight-column headline in the Herald Tribune declaring: “California’s strong bid backed by state.”

“Reno showed up with a 30-person delegation,” Cushing recalls. “And there I was, sitting alone in the corner. The few of them I knew laughed at me.” Never a fan of prepared speeches, Cushing had planned to fill the 45-minute presentation with a crude movie and to keep his comments to a minimum. But he was immediately assaulted with rapid-fire questions. “I’m a counter-puncher so that was much easier for me,” recalls Cushing. Later that afternoon, as instructed, Cushing called Lyman Bingham, secretary of the USOC, and learned he’d won the bid.

“I nearly fainted,” he recalls. By Monday morning he had recovered enough to return to Bingham’s office with the obvious question, “What do we do now?” Bingham offered one recommendation: “If I were you I would stop by Chicago and introduce yourself to Avery Brundage.”

Brundage, the stern IOC president, gave Cushing an icy reception. “The USOC has obviously taken leave of its senses,” he remarked, unimpressed that Cushing’s sporting history was centered on country club golf and tennis. He finished their meeting with the prediction that if Squaw won it would “set the U.S. Olympic movement back 25 years.”

Undeterred, Cushing set about preparing for the International selection with an exploratory mission to Olympic sites in Europe. Once there, Cushing met George Weller, a foreign correspondent for Knight Ridder newspapers and fellow Harvard alum. Cushing had a car and Weller needed a ride to Garmisch. After getting acquainted on the road, they hatched up a plan to win the bid.

First they created a tag line. Because the previous six Olympics had been held in the Alps, they asserted that the Games “Belong to the World”-and thus should be held somewhere new. Then they split up and embarked on a World Tour, introducing themselves to nearly 60 delegates of skiing and non-skiing countries. Weller, a master of words, was well-versed in European sensibilities and knew that Europeans loved the American spirit of adventure, but detested their displays of wealth. Cushing, as ambassador, was armed with little more than passion and a dream. Together, bearing Weller’s artfully written materials and Cushing’s contagious enthusiasm, they became the bid committee for the “California” Games. Squaw Valley may have been unknown, but the intrigue of skiing in the land of beautiful weather and movie stars was universally compelling.

Even Brundage was intrigued, and came to take the Squaw Valley tour. Throughout the day, he shared his philosophy that nothing good is accomplished in this world by anyone but amateurs. Brundage, who was known for his strict stance on amateurism in athletics, used the term broadly to connote a person who would rather do his job than anything else. Just months away from the international selection, Squaw Valley had no ice arena, no ski jumps and no semblance of a village. But this was a prototypically beautiful Sierra day full of promise, when it feels like there is no finer place on earth. In the end, Brundage paid Cushing his own form of compliment: “I’m still against you, but I will say one thing: You’re an amateur.” By then the amateur was convinced that Squaw needed the Olympics, and vice versa.

Cushing arrived in Paris with a model so big that it had to be housed in the American Embassy, a 15-minute walk from the IOC headquarters. The round trip gave him an extra 30 minutes with each delegate, an unintentional coup. After the presentations were made, and the night before the decision was to be announced, the IOC secretary gave word that Rome had officially won the summer Games. Then, Cushing remembers, the secretary added that, “Tomorrow there will be an even more extraordinary announcement when we pick Squaw Valley.”

The Austrians jumped to attention, starting rumors overnight that the Squaw bid was a sham. The decision was delayed from morning to afternoon to evening, and finally Cushing was asked to reappear the following morning for four hours of intense questioning. Again, Cushing returned the barrage with ease and in the end, even with six new members (appointed overnight) who voted against it, Squaw won 32-30.

The rest of the story is well chronicled in memories, pictures and the first TV coverage of a Winter Olympics. The international recognition brought by the success of the 1960 Games jump-started Squaw and the development that followed transformed Lake Tahoe into a major skiing destination. The true message-that people could come together for sport and show their best-was never clearer. At the height of the Cold War, 500 foreign journalists sent their stories of friendly competition around the globe. The photo of the Russian hockey player supporting his American competitor said more than the Voice of America ever could.

Before the Opening Ceremonies, fierce storms had gripped Lake Tahoe. But as Andrea Mead Lawrence skied down Red Dog with the Olympic flame, the sun broke through and shone for 10 perfect days of competition.

Former Olympian Edie Thys lives in New York City and can be reached at Check out her previous Racer eX columns at .