One of my earliest childhood memories is of being four years old and carsick in the back of the family car as we slowly wound our way behind some smelly truck on narrow Highway 40 over Donner Summit. Interstate 80 hadn’t yet been built, so I was stuck being tormented by my pesky older sisters and sadistic older brother for what seemed like an eternity on our frequent trips to the Bay Area. It was in the early 1960s, just a few years after the live television broadcasts of the Squaw Valley Olympics let the world know that Lake Tahoe was a beautiful place, and just before all those people who saw those broadcasts decided to come to Tahoe.
Dave Antonucci, who wrote “A Snowballs Chance: The story of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games,” says that the Squaw Valley Olympics “clearly quick started the western ski industry.” Along with the completion of I-80 in 1963, which was spurred by the Olympics, our sleepy little summer tourist town morphed into a world-renowned, all-season resort. With the London 2012 Summer Olympics a little over a month away, I thought I would look back on what it was like growing up just after the Olympics were held, and then look forward to what it might be like if the Olympics were to return to Tahoe again.
As a kid growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, I was too busy pretending to be a major league pitcher throwing curve balls against the driveway retaining wall to worry about the condo and housing developments that were popping up like wildflowers everywhere you looked. I do remember, however, that when we moved to Dollar Point in 1966 the majority of the lots in the area were vacant.We turned them into our playgrounds. Sadly for us, in the next 10 years our prime terrain for hide-and-seek was covered up with a bunch of boring old houses.
By the early 1970s, all those second homeowners, tourists, and permanent residents coming here to ski made it feasible to make a living operating restaurants, gift shops, and commercial buildings. The daughters and sons of those busy contractors and business owners filled up the schools, leading to the construction of the North Tahoe Middle and High schools in 1974. North Tahoe kids loved our new school. It eliminated at least an extra hour a day of driving or sitting on a bus, and put the kibosh on a series of tragic early-morning car accidents involving high school kids headed from Tahoe to Truckee.
Unfortunately, rapid growth led to a fervent anti-tourist attitude among the locals. I still remember the irony of receiving a Christmas card from one local motel owner proudly showing a member of his family wearing a “No Turkeys” T-shirt. For those of you who moved to Tahoe after 1980, “turkeys” was the affectionate term for tourists back then, much the same as “gaper” is today. Those departing Tahoe from the West Shore were even greeted with a large hand-painted “Good-Bye Turkeys” sign on Labor Day.
Eventually, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency showed up and put the hammer on development, the economy took a nosedive because of a global political and economic crisis, and local attitudes changed when folks remembered that tourists provided the money that put food on our plates. Then we looked around and wondered how our little Lake Tahoe had become a place that people named cars and cookies after.
So what would happen if the Olympics came back to Tahoe? According to the Reno Tahoe Winter Games Coalition (RTWGC), which is organizing a bid for the 2022 Olympics, the Squaw Valley games held 27 competitive events. By contrast, Vancouver in 2010 had 87 events, and in 2014 Sochi, Russia, is scheduled to have 99 events. There will be about 3,000 athletes in 2014, compared to the some 600 who came to Squaw Valley. The days of having a quaint, little Winter Olympics at one ski resort are long past. “There is not a single resort on the planet that could do it all today,” says RTWGC Director Jon Killoran.
A Reno-Tahoe Games would probably hold most of the indoor events in Reno, with the outdoor competitions spread all over the region. With several billion people seeing the Tahoe Basin on TV, it would certainly be a marketing bonanza. It would also be an economic boon for those involved in the construction of the Olympic facilities. The actual event could be a well-organized example of how to smoothly transport thousands of people to dozens of different venues, or it could just be a major mess of a traffic jam. Either way, while the event would only last two weeks, construction and road improvements would certainly have an impact on the community in the years leading up to the Winter Games.
What the Olympics would mean to the community after the event is probably more important, yet more difficult to determine. Would there be new facilities built that would draw people to the area and provide for a better quality of life for locals? Would a new public transportation system be developed? Would the impacts be felt more in Reno than in Tahoe? Salt Lake City talks proudly of the economic benefits that accrued to the State of Utah because of the 2002 Olympics, but would we see the same here?
The long quest to bring another Winter Games to Reno-Tahoe begins in 2013 with the selection of a host city by the United States Olympic Committee, followed two years later by the International Olympic Committee picking the winner from dozens of applications from all over the world. Just like in 1960, trying to become an Olympic host city is a fierce competition, and it might just take another smooth talker like Alex Cushing to miraculously convince the IOC to bring it to our little corner of the world again. That is, if we want it.
~ Tim Hauserman is the author of “The Tahoe Rim Trail: The Official Guide for Hikers, Mountain Bikers and Equestrians.” While his parents were having a blast at the 1960 Olympics, he was a toddler left at home. Comment on this column below.