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An inspiration for Whistler and a message to the IOC

One of the inspirations for Whistler passed away a week and a half ago at his summer home in Rhode Island. Alex Cushing, the founder and chairman of Squaw Valley Resort, was 92.

One of the inspirations for Whistler passed away a week and a half ago at his summer home in Rhode Island. Alex Cushing, the founder and chairman of Squaw Valley Resort, was 92.

Cushing was a Navy war veteran and Wall Street lawyer when in 1946 he and a few friends took a four-day train trip from the East Coast to the Sierra Nevada. On his first day skiing at Sugar Bowl Cushing broke his ankle.

At the urging of his friends, who apparently needed a fourth for bridge, Cushing hung around Sugar Bowl, watching other skiers and swapping tales on the sundeck. There he heard about a nearby place that reportedly had the best skiing in the country. Cushing went to Squaw Valley with his friends and, on crutches, watched from the valley while they hiked and skied the mountain.

Three years later he opened the Squaw Valley Development Company, with the world’s largest double chairlift and two rope tows. And four days after the resort’s grand opening in November of 1949 a flood closed everything down. But with Cushing and his skeleton staff working 18-hour days the resort was back open by Christmas.

Avalanches then destroyed the Squaw One chairlift each year for the first three years of operation.

Cushing was stubborn and persistent, rather than mad – despite questions raised by his first wife. When Cushing asked if she would like to move to the mountains Justine Cutting, described by the New York Times as "an heiress and a top amateur golfer," reportedly replied: "Are you out of your mind, Cushing?"

Others apparently had similar thoughts when he announced in December 1954 he was launching a bid to bring the 1960 Winter Olympics to Squaw Valley, a town with no mayor and a ski resort with few lifts and a single 50-room lodge. By January 1955 Cushing had convinced the U.S. Olympic Committee to support Squaw Valley’s bid, which prompted IOC President Avery Brundage to say to Cushing: "The USOC obviously has taken leave of their senses." Another IOC member told Cushing he was "on a wild goose chase. Innsbruck has the 1960 bid locked up."

But Cushing travelled the world lobbying IOC members, including South American delegates who usually took little interest in the Winter Olympics. He succeeded, according to an online history of Squaw Valley, "through the power of an idea – a return to the Olympic ideals of simplicity with a focus on athleticism and diversity."

And in Paris in the spring of 1955, IOC delegates awarded the 1960 Games to Squaw Valley by a 32-30 margin over Innsbruck.

The significance for us, of course, is that it was the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley that inspired a group of Vancouver businessmen, with the support of Canadian IOC member Sidney Dawes, to look for a site to host the 1968 Games. And that search led them to Whistler.

There are stories from Whistler’s early days that rival those of Squaw Valley – the non-believers, the obstacles to development, the disasters, and the single-mindedness and vision of individuals to overcome all of the above. Cushing saw the results first hand in 1990, when he was invited by the Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts to speak at one of its resort development workshops.

But it was one of Cushing’s decisions in the lead up to the 1960 Winter Olympics that should resonate most clearly with Whistler 50 years later. The budget for facilities for the 1960 Games was $15 million, underwritten by the states of California and Nevada and augmented by federal subsidies. That did not include the roads, hotels, restaurants and bridges needed to get to Squaw Valley and service the people there. Because the money was so tight, the organizing committee – which Cushing no doubt had a great influence over – decided it could save $750,000 by not building a bobsled track. The rationale was the small number of countries committed to taking part in the bobsled event: five according to the CBC website; nine by the IOC website.

Regardless of the number, no bobsled track was built and, for the only time in Winter Olympic history, the bobsleigh event wasn’t held.

Cushing is now gone, a larger-than-life figure from a colourful era that ended some time ago. Conversely, in the half-century since the Squaw Valley Games the Olympics have become one of the most influential and best recognized brands in the world. And the IOC has grown proportionately in power.

But as powerful as the IOC is, and as beneficial as the 2010 Olympics may be for Whistler, we should learn and take inspiration from Cushing’s example.

It is absolutely wrong for the IOC to retroactively impose another $10 million-$20 million cost on Whistler, VANOC and Canadian taxpayers. That’s the estimated dollar cost of adding 350 beds to the Whistler athletes’ village that the IOC now says are required.

The IOC decided on the additional bed requirement after a review of the Torino Olympics. But those beds weren’t required at the time the Vancouver-Whistler bid was submitted, in 2003. And the only events added to the Olympic schedule between the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 and Torino in 2006 that will be held in Whistler were the mass start biathlon for men and women.

Whistler Mayor Ken Melamed and council are right to tell the IOC, through VANOC, that if they want more beds in the Whistler athletes’ village they will have to pay for them. Otherwise we’ll take inspiration from Alex Cushing and ignore the demand.