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Squaw Valley, The 1960 Olympic Winter Games Host, Renamed Palisades Tahoe

By Peggy Shinn | Sept. 15, 2021, 11:38 a.m. (ET)

A general view of the finish area at Palisades Tahoe as Mikaela Shiffrin competes in the women's slalom at the FIS World Cup on March 11, 2017 in Squaw Valley, California.

 

In 1960, ten U.S. athletes won medals at the Olympic Winter Games Squaw Valley. Since then, this lovely resort in California’s Sierra Nevadas has nurtured several more Olympic skiers, including gold medalists Julia Mancuso and Jonny Moseley. 

Now, the legendary Olympic site has a new name. Squaw Valley has been renamed Palisades Tahoe. The word squaw is a derogatory term for Native American women, and the new name sends a message that racism and misogyny are no longer tolerated at the legendary resort. All are welcome.

“We were compelled to change the name because it’s the right thing to do, especially for the generations yet to come, who will grow up without having to use a slur to identify the place where they chase their dreams down the mountain,” said Ron Cohen, former president and COO of Palisades Tahoe. “We know how much people love this place, and so we spent more than a year making sure that we were doing right by the community in choosing a name that would honor the past and reach out to the future.”

But the Olympic past may be hard to honor without reference to the Games in the new resort name. 

While many sports teams and locations around the country have dropped offensive names and mascots in an effort to address the oppressive history and pain these terms have caused, Palisades Tahoe’s history will require more than renaming lifts and lodges in the Olympic Valley, so named after the resort won the Olympic bid in 1955. Olympians who won medals at the 1960 Winter Games, Olympic museums, and the International Olympic Committee, among others, must decide how to refer to those Games and make changes where necessary.

“We take note of the decision taken,” said an IOC spokesperson. “It goes without saying that the IOC will call the city Palisades Tahoe in the future.”

Museums and Olympic historians will likely follow suit, using Palisades Tahoe going forward but still using the former name in reference to the 1960 Games, with an asterisk or added paragraph reflecting the name change (as Olympedia, an Olympic history and statistical database has done in the near term).

“No one would understand a reference to the 1960 Palisades Tahoe Olympics,” noted Jeff Leich, executive director of the New England Ski Museum. “It seems historically inaccurate and confusing to apply a new name retroactively after some sixty years.”

Penny Pitou, who won two silver medals in alpine skiing at the 1960 Olympic Winter Games, believes the name should be changed but wishes the new name honored the resort’s Olympic history.
 
“I think it should be Olympic Valley,” she said by phone from her office at Penny Pitou Travel in New Hampshire.

Athletes attend the Opening Ceremony during the Olympic Games Squaw Valley 1960 on Feb. 20, 1960 in Squaw Valley, California.

 

History of the Valley’s Name

Palisades Tahoe sits in (and above) a lovely flat-bottomed valley surrounded by soaring granitic peaks. For millennia, the Native American Washoe people gathered here in the summers. When gold seekers moved west in 1849, they likely called it Squaw Valley after finding mostly women and children summering there; most of the men were off hunting. 

In 1939, Wayne Poulsen — a California ski jumper, coach, and ski area operator — took out an option to purchase 600 acres in Squaw Valley. It was a perfect location for a ski area. He just needed funding.

Seven years later, Poulsen, by then a pilot for Pan Am, met Alex Cushing at Sugar Bowl, one of the first ski resorts in California. Cushing had broken his ankle but was still hanging out at Sugar Bowl because his companions needed a fourth for bridge. Cushing was a Wall Street lawyer and Harvard graduate with deep-pocket connections.

Poulsen told Cushing about the stunning valley near Lake Tahoe. The two traveled there, and Cushing purchased 1,200 acres. By 1948, the two men had formed the Squaw Valley Development Corporation and a year later, opened the ski area. But while Poulsen was interested in real estate development, Cushing cared more about the skiing. 

“The upshot was that Mr. Cushing won complete control of the company from his partner, who was away flying at the time Mr. Cushing called the critical shareholders’ vote,” read Cushing’s New York Times obituary.

With one chairlift (reportedly the world’s longest), two rope tows, and a 50-room lodge, Cushing set about marketing his remote ski area about 200 miles east of San Francisco.

The Olympic Bid

In the early 1950s, Cushing learned that the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee planned to bid for the 1960 Olympic Winter Games. Other locations included well-known winter destinations such as Sun Valley and Aspen. Cushing saw it as a publicity stunt.

“I had no more interest in getting the Games than the man in the moon,” he told Time Magazine in 1959. 

But the bid announcement caused so much excitement that he changed his mind, and with the help of California’s governor, two senators, and financier and philanthropist Laurence Rockefeller, Cushing convinced the USOPC to select his resort for the bid. Then, in what’s been called the biggest sports marketing coup of all time, Cushing successfully lobbied the IOC to select his little-known resort over Innsbruck. He had promised the IOC to restore the Olympic ideal with the untarnished environment. The valley, but not the resort, was renamed Olympic Valley.

Development quickly followed, with stadiums for Opening and Closing Ceremonies, figure skating and hockey rinks (artificially refrigerated), and — it must be said — a sewage treatment plant. The 1960 Olympic Games were the first ever to have an Olympic Village to house the athletes, be electronically timed, and have computerized results. 

The 1960 Games were also the first to be televised in the USA. With the valley’s scenic beauty broadcast around the U.S. and parts of the world, Squaw Valley became “a household name and helped the heady growth of the ski industry through the following decade,” reads a biography of Cushing in Skiing History Magazine.

Olympic torch bearers light the Olympic Flame at the Olympic Games Squaw Valley 1960 on Feb. 18, 1960 in Squaw Valley, California.

 

Palisades Tahoe Renaming Effort

Now the resort hopes that Palisades Tahoe will become a household name. 

The renaming effort began a year ago, when resort personnel began researching the history of the area and its geography. They considered the history of the Washoe tribe and footage from extreme ski movies that featured the resort, conducted surveys, and held focus groups that included locals, long-time passholders, athletes who grew up on the slopes, employees, and members of the Washoe tribe. 

A press release states that they chose Palisades Tahoe to capture the majesty of both the Olympic Valley and neighboring Alpine Meadows. Both resorts feature steep granite walls punctuated by steep, snowy chutes and pistes. The terrain inspired many a skier and snowboarder, from the 1960 Olympians who won medals there to the more recent Olympians who were raised here. 

Julia Mancuso, who won four medals in three Olympic Games, passed the Olympic rings going to and from school every day. To a young skier, it drove home the fact that she could strive to be the best in the world. 

On the ski resort’s terrain, she also learned to love free skiing as much as ski racing. She talks about the freedom and joy of ripping up deep powder on KT-22, a peak within the resort, with as much passion as she discussed ski racing.

Asked if changing the name won’t erase the resort’s history, the resort’s answer is: “While the resort name has changed, this special place will always be the location of the 1960 Winter Olympics.”

Current president and COO Dee Byrne acknowledged that the new name will “take some getting used to.” But “at the end of the day, ‘squaw’ is a hurtful word, and we are not hurtful people.” 

“We have a well-earned reputation as a progressive resort at the forefront of ski culture,” she added, “and progress can’t happen without change.”

Peggy Shinn

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered six Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.