45 years later – Lake Tahoe feels ripples of 1960 Games
TAHOE CITY – In 1958, Argentinean ski team member Osvaldo Ancinas was in Austria for the World Championships when he learned something shocking about California – it had mountains. He learned this fact from Alex Cushing, who was in Europe promoting his as-yet unknown ski resort which, just three years earlier, had been awarded the 1960 Winter Olympic Games.
“Everyone was surprised. We thought California was all beaches and palm trees,” recalled Ancinas. “That’s what Squaw Valley did for skiing in California, it opened it to the world … (and) it opened the gates for the rest of the world to come over and enjoy beautiful Lake Tahoe.”
Ancinas, who came to Squaw Valley to compete in the 1960 Winter Olympics, never left. He met his wife there and, 45 years later, has three children and three grandchildren.
Just as the 1960 Winter Games changed Ancinas’ life, so too did the games forever change Lake Tahoe. By bringing international attention to the Tahoe area and the sport of skiing, the Olympics accelerated the move from a sleepy, summer-time only economy to a year-round, world class tourist destination. The advent of the Games precipitated a 30-year period of growth that created much of the infrastructure seen today, as well as many of its modern problems. Forty-five years after the Winter Olympics were held here, some wonder whether the area is living up to its Olympic legacy.
Winter economy emerges
Prior to the 1960 Winter Olympics, Tahoe was a summer-only destination. Most businesses shut down during the winter, and residents boarded up their houses for warmer pastures. Skiing was only beginning to take shape as a viable sport in the U.S., and the handful of small ski areas sprinkled around the lake and Truckee – most of which had one rope tow or a pummel lift – were geared more for locals than tourists. Sugar Bowl, which opened in 1939 with California’s first chairlift, and Squaw Valley, which opened 10 years later with one chairlift and a rope tow, were some of the bigger mountains.
All that changed with the 1960 Winter Games. As the first Olympics to be televised live, 1960 saw the eyes of the world focused on a quaint Sierra community that was relatively unknown outside California.
“The Olympics catapulted Lake Tahoe into international stardom,” said local historian Dave Antonucci. “It was no longer just a regional resort area. It now had international name recognition.”
But the transformation into a year-round destination did not happen overnight. It was a gradual process that took almost two decades to materialize. Bill Briner, who was Placer County Supervisor in the 1960s and an official Olympic photographer, invited the Finnish Olympic Team to stay at his resort, Sunnyside. It was the first time he had opened the resort in the winter. The same was true for Ferrari’s Crown Resort, which for the first time since 1956 was open during the cold season. According to Dave Ferrari, most of the cabins and trailer parks in Kings Beach were designed for summer-only use. It wasn’t until the 1970s that people started living in them full-time.
“The impact of the Games brought winter business to Lake Tahoe,” Briner said. “It was slow, and not everything opened immediately every winter, but within four to five years most of the rooming facilities around Lake Tahoe were open year-round. That was a big impact.”
As a result of Tahoe’s growing winter popularity and the exposure skiing received from the Olympics, more ski resorts began to pop up in the basin. Alpine Meadows and Homewood opened the winter after the 1960 Olympics, and Northstar opened in 1972. Today, Tahoe’s ski resorts, a $400 million business, account for the majority of the $500 million California ski industry.
Growth on the rise
Placer County, however, was unprepared to deal with the period of rapid growth that followed the 1960 Olympics. Large projects like high-rise casinos and the Tahoe Keys, which was built on the biggest filtration meadow in the basin, went in without any environmental analysis. In the 45 years since the Winter Games, the number of homes in the basin has increased five-fold, from around 7,000 in 1960 to 35,500 in 2000, according to Antonucci and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. The lakewide population has had even a bigger jump, growing from around 3,000 to 63,000 during the same period of time.
Some residents say that many of the area’s problems – such as lack of affordable housing and transportation issues – can be traced back to the era of unbridled expansion between 1960 and 1980, when the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency began to limit development.
“If the Olympics weren’t here, things would have developed more slowly, maybe with a little more intelligence in the long run,” said Russel Poulsen, whose family was one of the first to settle in Squaw Valley.
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