On Friday in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the Winter Olympics will officially kick off in a frenzy of K-pop and designer costumes, with a glitzy opening ceremony held in a roofless and potentially frigid $100 million stadium that will be used precisely four times before it is knocked down.
It is the latest iteration of the kind of financial and cultural excess we’ve come to expect from a contemporary sporting spectacle populated largely with professional athletes instead of amateurs; it is also, perhaps not surprisingly, a notion born in America, at a remote ski resort in the Sierra Nevada mountains that managed to host the first truly ostentatious Olympics. Those Winter Games were held in 1960, in Squaw Valley, California, and, not coincidentally, their template of opulence sprang from a naked marketing ploy.
The story of Squaw Valley—and, one might say, the story of every over-the-top Olympic moment since then—begins with a silver-tongued entrepreneur named Alexander Cushing. In 1954, a few short years after he had abandoned his law career to take over an oft-impassable ski slope in Squaw Valley that was routinely bombarded by the elements, Cushing came across a brief newspaper article about nearby Reno’s bid to secure the 1960 Winter Olympics. Cushing was wealthy and well-connected, and he immediately began calling in favors: to the sports editor of the San Francisco Examiner, which published a prominent story claiming that Cushing’s resort would also make a concerted push for the Games; and then to a state senator, Harold “Bizz” Johnson, who used the Examiner article to convince the governor of California, Goodwin Knight, to help secure $1 million in taxpayer money for Squaw Valley’s bid.
Within weeks, Cushing somehow found himself presenting the case for Squaw Valley to the United States Olympic Committee. The whole thing felt like such a ridiculous gambit that not even Cushing himself—who later admitted to a Time interviewer that he hatched the whole idea to publicize his struggling operation and had “no more interest in getting the Games than the man in the moon”—believed it was actually possible. Squaw Valley’s amenities were spartan, and Cushing’s property was subject to avalanches and floods; at one point, the lodge burnt to the ground. And yet Cushing was also a first-rate promoter, and he framed his pitch to the committee around Squaw Valley’s roughly 450 inches of yearly snowfall.
When the USOC chose Squaw Valley over Reno (which it rejected for a “lack of morals”) as its candidate for the 1960 Games, the president of the International Olympic Committee, an American named Avery Brundage, was incredulous. Brundage declared that the USOC, in promoting these “picnic grounds” for the Olympics, “obviously has taken leave of their senses.”
And yet the country rallied around Squaw Valley; President Eisenhower even signed a Congressional Resolution of Support. Cushing promised the IOC in his official proposal that his Olympics would be modest and economical and would offer athletes a meeting place replete with “privacy and dignity.” Squaw Valley would, he said, serve as a gateway for the world to familiarize themselves with western North America, which at that point had never hosted a Winter Olympics. Cushing also appealed, in part, to lingering good will among European IOC delegates toward the American intervention in World War II. And his strategy worked: Thanks to Cushing’s charm and salesmanship, Squaw Valley beat out Innsbruck, Austria, by two votes.
What transpired, five years later, was both far bigger than Cushing could have envisioned, and far more influential. Buoyed by emerging technology, televised live to Americans for the first time ever, and overseen by Walt Disney himself, the Squaw Valley Games were glitzy and star-studded and futuristic. They were also the first Winter Olympics to embrace the concept of an Olympic Village, where athletes bunked up to four to a room, challenged each other to games of ping-pong, danced in jitterbug contests, and watched free screenings of films. Disney paraded a series of Hollywood luminaries to northern California to entertain the athletes and participate in carefully choreographed opening and closing ceremonies; Bing Crosby and Roy Rogers made appearances, Danny Kaye performed, and Marlene Dietrich posed for a photo with the German hockey team.
“They had all of the folks coming up from Hollywood,” Penny Pitou, an American skier who won a silver medal in the women’s downhill in 1960, told me. “All I remember is that there was something going on every night.”
Pitou also competed in the 1956 Olympics in Italy; video shows that the opening ceremony at those Games was a simple and unadorned parade of athletes. Pitou stayed in a hotel that year with her teammates, and because she couldn’t afford to make a long-distance call to her parents in New Hampshire, they didn’t find out about her results until they read the newspaper a day later. But in 1960 the athletes were centralized, and the Games were on network television, and everything got bigger in order to accommodate and captivate a worldwide audience.
Those 11 days in Squaw Valley proved an ambitious melding of money and star power that forever altered the paradigm, elevating a sporting event into a spectacle—and helping to gradually push the Olympics, over the course of the following decades, from an amateur affair into a professional pursuit. Hatched from Cushing’s entrepreneurial gambit, those Games wound up setting the standard, for better and for worse, for every Olympics that came after.