Soviet Union shows up, gathers golds in Italy in 1956 Olympics
Editor’s note: In the buildup to the Winter Olympic Games beginning Feb. 12 in Vancouver, British Columbia, the Steamboat Today has partnered with the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum on a series of articles that reflect on past Winter Olympic Games, beginning with the first Winter Olympics in 1924. This is the third installment in that series.
After having to cancel the 1944 Winter Olympics because of World War II, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, finally was able to host the winter games from Jan. 26 to Feb. 5, 1956. The town in northern Italy won the Olympic bid over Montreal, Colorado Springs and Lake Placid, N.Y. Several aspects made these games unusual: All of the venues were within walking distance except one, for the first time in history, the games relied heavily on corporate sponsorship (Fiat was the “official car”), and this was the first televised Winter Olympics. Thirty-two nations arrived to compete, including the Soviet Union, competing for the first time and winning more gold medals than any other nation.
Twenty-two events were featured, in four sports, plus two new events: the men’s 30-kilometer cross-country and the women’s 3-by-5-kilometer cross-country races. The Finnish team introduced a new aerodynamic style for ski jumping, with arms flat against the body, instead of over the head in a diving position. Additionally, the men’s Nordic cross-country 18-kilometer event was changed to 15 kilometers.
US, Steamboat showing
The United States finished sixth in the medal count, with seven medals (two gold, three silver and two bronze). The four-man bobsled team was awarded a bronze, and the men’s ice hockey team won silver with the United States dominating the figure skating with a total of five medals. In the men’s individual events, Hayes Alan Jenkins triumphed with a gold, Ronnie Robertson earned silver, and David Jenkins won a bronze medal. In the women’s individual events, Tenley Albright emerged victorious despite a serious injury two weeks before the competition, and Carol Heiss won silver.
The Soviet Union was a powerhouse in the speed skating events, claiming seven out of 12 possible medals. Austria dominated the men’s Alpine skiing events; Toni Sailer won all three and became the first Alpine skier to win three gold medals in one Olympics.
Gladys “Skeeter” Werner Walker, a member of the 1956 women’s Alpine ski team, was born in Steamboat Springs. In 1954, she became the youngest member of the U.S. National Ski Team, and she placed 10th in the downhill at the 1956 Olympics but retired from competition in 1957. After helping found the ski school at Steamboat Ski Resort, Walker spent the rest of her life in Steamboat.
Back to North America
Squaw Valley, Calif., hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics, which had not been held in North America for 28 years. Located near Lake Tahoe, Squaw Valley was the first venue to be constructed from scratch for the Olympics. The vote to hold the winter games at Squaw Valley was strongly contested, particularly by the Scandinavian nations, since it was such an unfamiliar and empty area. However, 30 countries sent athletes to Squaw Valley to compete Feb. 10 to 28. South Africa joined the winter games for the first time (and also the last for many years because of Apartheid controversies), and West German and East German athletes competed together under the United Team of Germany from 1956 to 1964.
Before the Olympics, Squaw Valley had a typical 20 feet of snow, but because of a massive rainstorm that washed most of it away, including a temporary parking lot, the U.S. military was called in to repair the damage. Luckily, 12 feet of snow fell before the start of the games.
For the first time, an Olympic Village was built to house as many as 750 athletes. A Tower of Nations was constructed at the entrance to the valley and crowned with the Olympic rings and 30 flagpoles, as well as crests of each competing nation. Walt Disney elaborately orchestrated the opening ceremonies that started with the release of white doves and starred Andrea Mead Lawrence, winner of two gold skiing medals in 1952, who carried the torch into the stadium.
Although the previous Winter Olympics were the first to be televised, 1960 was the first year the broadcasting rights were sold — to CBS for $50,000. Additionally, electronic data processing was provided for the first time by an IBM computer.
No single event brought more exposure to the sport of skiing in America than the 1960 Winter Olympics, representing a new spirit of skiing to millions through TV. The cross-country races were held at an altitude of 6,500 feet, which was felt to be too high. The downhill course was thought to be dull, so the Americans built artificial bumps into the terrain. Frenchman Jean Vuarnet became the first skier to win a medal on metal skis instead of wooden ones.
US comes to compete
The undisputed stars for the U.S. Ski Team were the “Silver Queens,” Penny Pitou and Betsy Snite. Pitou finished one-10th of a second behind gold medalist Yvonne Ruegg in the giant slalom, despite a severe cold that hampered her breathing. In the downhill, Pitou placed second again, and Snite won a silver medal in the slalom and narrowly missed a bronze in the giant slalom.
The United States placed third in the medal count, with three gold, four silver and three bronze. The gold medals went to David Jenkins in the men’s singles figure skating, Carol Heiss in the women’s singles figure skating and the U.S. men’s ice hockey team. The fourth silver medal went to Bill Disney in the men’s 500-meter speed skate event. In the women’s singles figure skating, Barbara Roles was awarded a bronze, as were Nancy and Ronald Ludington for the pair’s figure skating. Jeanne Ashworth earned the final bronze medal in the women’s 500-meter speed skate event.
Chuck Ferries, who earned a place on the 1960 Olympic Ski Team, has a long list of skiing achievements. He was born in Michigan, but left school to ski and work in Aspen. After attending the University of Denver and winning the national collegiate ski championships, he dropped out of college and went back to Aspen, where he worked in a restaurant and on the Aspen Ski Patrol. Ferries amazed the Europeans when he won slalom races against the world’s best in Austria and Italy, and in 1963, he went to a national Alpine training camp in Vail. Bob Beattie has called Ferries the “most unknown great ski racer in U.S. history,” and he is considered a contemporary of Jimmy Heuga, Billy Kidd and Buddy Werner.
Although he retired from skiing at age 24, Ferries became a representative for Head Skis, coached the women in the 1968 Olympics and helped K2 develop their first racing skis. While president of Scott USA, Ferries also brought recognition to Colorado and the ski industry. He was inducted into the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2008.
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