On Friday in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the Winter Olympics will officially kick off in a frenzy of K-pop and designer costumes, with a glitzy opening ceremony held in a roofless and potentially frigid $100 million stadium that will be used precisely four times before it is knocked down. It is the latest iteration of the kind of financial and cultural excess we’ve come to expect from a contemporary sporting spectacle populated largely with professional athletes instead of amateurs; it is also, perhaps not surprisingly, a notion born in America, at a remote ski resort in the Sierra Nevada mountains that managed to host the first truly ostentatious Olympics. Those Winter Games were held in 1960, in Squaw Valley, California, and, not coincidentally, their template of opulence sprang from a naked marketing ploy.
The story of Squaw Valley—and, one might say, the story of every over-the-top Olympic moment since then—begins with a silver-tongued entrepreneur named Alexander Cushing. In 1954, a few short years after he had abandoned his law career to take over an oft-impassable ski slope in Squaw Valley that was routinely bombarded by the elements, Cushing came across a brief newspaper article about nearby Reno’s bid to secure the 1960 Winter Olympics. Cushing was wealthy and well-connected, and he immediately began calling in favors: to the sports editor of the San Francisco Examiner, which published a prominent story claiming that Cushing’s resort would also make a concerted push for the Games; and then to a state senator, Harold “Bizz” Johnson, who used the Examiner article to convince the governor of California, Goodwin Knight, to help secure $1 million in taxpayer money for Squaw Valley’s bid.