Squaw Valley was a surprise choice to host the Games, as the Lake Tahoe resort was unincorporated at the time, and little-known. In fact, at the time of being awarded the Games officially in 1956, the site only had one chair lift and one lodge with a capacity of only 50 guests. Yet, with the promise of heavy financial support from the US Olympic Committee and the California state legislature, the IOC was persuaded to go with Squaw Valley over more traditional applicants Innsbruck, St. Moritz, and Chamonix. Once awarded, the race was on - within the four years to the start of the Games, the tiny resort became the city of Squaw Valley (called Olympic Valley today), and successfully built all appropriate facilities, including two athlete dormitories, a speed skating oval, and an ice arena.
The Games went off without a hitch* and provided a number of firsts:
- The first 'athletes' village' to be used at a Winter Games
- Artificial ice was used for the first time, for skating and hockey
- Longines provided timing to the hundredth of a second
- The IOC, for the first time, sold exclusive television rights in the U.S., to CBS for $50,000 USD.
- In an immediate review of a taped ski race, CBS came upon the notion of 'instant replay'
- an 'Olympic anthem' was used for the first time in ceremonies, and ever since
- South Africa competed for the first time in a Winter Games
- Women's speed skating and men's biathlon were introduced, and
- Metal skies (as opposed to wooden) were first used to win a gold medal, by Jean Vaurnet of France in the men's downhill.
Looking back with present-day eyes, these Games sure seemed small, though. Only 27 events were held, with 665 competitors from 30 nations over ten days. The Soviet Union decisively won the medal race, with 21 overall (out of 27 events!), with the U.S. back in second with ten. Compare that to what the Sochi Games looked like: 98 events, with 2,873 competitors from 88 nations, over 12 days. And while the Squaw Valley Olympics cost a staggering $80million USD, the Sochi Games cost an even-more staggering $51billion USD. But, some things do kind of stay the same...in 2014, Russia won the medal count (33), but only just ahead of the U.S. (28) this time.
It struck me as I walked through the village that the Games hosting-days may be far behind Squaw Valley, given the growing scope of the Games now and the still-small vibe the site has retained. But if some had their way, another bid could be in the mix in the future. That would be a welcome return to what some claim is the spirit of the Winter Olympics, cozy and compact and a decisive rebuke of the out-sized largess Sochi has wrought. (Can you imagine how large a Beijing Games in 2022 might feel?). Squaw Valley accomplished a lot of innovation; so maybe organizers there can accomplish a much-needed scale back as well. I'll be watching.