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Walt Disney and the 1960 Olympic Games

Walt Disney and the 1960 Olympic Games

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On Thursday, February 18, 1960, the greatest winter athletes in the world gathered in Squaw Valley, California. The sky had been stormy for quite a while and threatened to dampen or delay the opening. As the sun broke through briefly, 2,000 pigeons were released into the air. An audience of 1,000 competitors and 20,000 spectators stood quietly as the Olympic Torch completed a 9,000 mile odyssey from Oslo, Norway and was placed in front of the Tower of Nations. Following the Olympic Oath and the Star Spangled Banner, the Games were officially declared "open" while the sky erupted into a kaleidoscope of fireworks and colorful balloons.

Alexander Cushing, the founder and Chairman of the Board of Squaw Valley Ski Corporation, had startled the sports world by having this little obscure ski resort near Lake Tahoe make the bid for the Winter Olympics in 1955. The resort had no mayor, just one chair lift, two tow ropes and a fifty room lodge. All of it owned by Cushing as well as most of the surrounding land.

Once it was announced in Spring 1955 that Squaw Valley was to be the location, there was a rush to construct roads, hotels, restaurants, and bridges, as well as the Ice Arena, the speed skating track, ski lifts, and the ski jumping hill. It still remains one of the most successful and efficient Winter Games ever held. At the time it was the largest Winter Olympics ever held and the first to be held in the United States since 1932.

There were 15 alpine and ski jumping events, 8 speed skiing events, and 3 figure skating events. It was the first year for women's speed skating and the men's biathlon. This was the first Winter Games to be nationally televised (on CBS who had paid a mere $50,000 for the broadcast rights) and to house the athletes in their own Olympic Village. For the first time in Winter Olympic history artificial refrigeration was utilized for speed skating events and electronic IBM computers were used to tally results.

However, despite the many other historical moments of these Winter Games, for readers of this website, probably the most important "first" was that in 1959, Walt Disney was asked to chair the Pageantry Committee for the event. Walt cheerfully and eagerly accepted.

Walt had become interested in skiing when he made the live action feature, THIRD MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN in Switzerland in 1958 and which had inspired the addition of the Matterhorn attraction to Disneyland in 1959.

In 1960, Walt's interest in creating a ski resort attraction resulted in him commissioning Economics Research Associates to survey the ski resort potentials at San Gorgonio Mountain (in the San Bernardino range) and also at Mineral King Valley (near Sequoia National Park). Being very thorough, he later ordered surveys of Aspen, Colorado and Mammoth Mountain in California. (At the Olympic games, Walt met Bavarian ski expert Willy Schaeffler who was later hired by Walt to help scout a location for the Disney ski resort and Schaeffler confirmed Walt's choice of Mineral King.)

The opportunity to work on the first Winter Olympics ever held on the West Coast as well as the first time the Olympic flame had ever been flown over the North Pole en route to an Olympic site seemed to be an inspiration for Walt.

Walt's good friend Art Linkletter was the vice-president in charge of Entertainment, Walt's son-in-law Ron Miller was made the pageantry coordinator and Card Walker was the director of publicity. Walker went on to become Chairman of the Disney Company and later served on the Executive Committee of the Los Angeles Organizing Committee and was instrumental in the Disney Studio designing the official mascot (Sam the Eagle created by Bob Moore) for the 1984 Olympic Games. Walker also drew up preliminary plans for the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1984 Games.

In 1959, Walt sent Ron Miller, *** Nunis and Tommy Walker (the person most responsible for Disneyland's parades and fireworks) two months before the festivities to begin the planning. Olympic officials complained about the costs for some of Walt's elaborate plans but Walt silenced those complaints when he declared, "Either we're going to do it the right way or Disney will pull out."

Walt sent Imagineer John Hench to Dartmouth in New Hampshire and Quebec, Canada to look at decorating the Olympic site with snow sculptures. Hench eventually created thirty-two impressive sculptures for the event. Thirty of the sculptures towered sixteen feet tall and were placed along the Avenue of the Athletes. The remaining two statues which stood roughly twenty-four feet tall were alongside the Tower of Nations (also designed by Hench), as the centerpiece of the presentation area. The thirty-two snow sculptures personified men and women competing in Olympic events such as skiing, hockey and skating. Spectators remembered these statues as one of the memorable highlights of the Games.

This Winter Olympics also introduced Disney artist John Hench's Olympic Torch design, which all further torches have been based on.

Disney came up with the concept of thirty steel poles for the flags of all nations participating in the games. Each flagpole came with a plaque from Walt thanking the sponsors for their contributions. (This was another "first" of having official sponsors for the Games.) The flagpoles ranged in cost from only $500 to $600. After the Games were over, each company received the flagpole their finances had helped place at Squaw Valley. One of those flagpoles ended up in front of the Disney Studio Commissary in Burbank.

To entertain the athletes, Walt presented the first film festival and Art Linkletter employed live performers like Danny Kaye for nightly entertainment for the athletes and officials.

Art Linkletter who had hosted the opening of Disneyland in 1955 told interviewer Larry King the following: "I first got to know Walt very well when he was asked by the president of the Olympic Society to provide entertainment for the athletes and the officials at the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley. And he called me and he said, 'Would you like to come along and be my master of ceremonies and assistant producer?' So I went up and lived with him and his family, brought some of my family. And we presented shows to all of those athletes -- we flew up stars. So we flew up people, we put on the greatest shows and I had more fun, and I started to ski then. I was 50 years of age, by the way."

The Opening and Closing Ceremonies involved 5,000 participants, 1,285 instruments and 2,645 voices from 52 California and Nevada high school bands. Disney set new pageantry standards for future Olympic games. In the Los Angeles Times, reporter Braven Dyer wrote, "The opening ceremony was the most remarkable thing I ever saw. No matter how much credit you give Walt Disney and his organization, it isn't nearly enough."

The success of the event whetted Walt's appetite further for the development of his own year round ski resort in Mineral King in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In what was to be his last official press conference on September 19, 1966, Walt talked about how it would feature skiing, a skating rink, an alpine village, restaurants and much more. In fact, the Country Bear Jamboree attraction was originally developed for this project. However, long and costly legal opposition by the Sierra Club eventually resulted in one of Walt's final dreams being unfulfilled.

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