Lending a hand to a grand plan
Sun News Service
It’s fun to listen to Chelton Leonard peel away the layers of his life. And Leonard has plenty of layers.
With the 2006 Winter Olympics coming up next month in Turin, Italy, it makes sense to look back at how a group of diligent people pulled off what most of the rest of the world really thought they couldn’t do ” stage the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley.
As an assistant sports technical director for those games, Leonard, who now lives in Carson City, spent two years on the project making sure those games were a success.
With Leonard’s extensive skiing background, he obviously spent most of his time in helping to organize the skiing events, but also spent some time in the skating events as well.
Leonard was among a group of local skiers who became “Ski Troopers,” serving in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in World War II. Leonard still serves as the general secretary for the International Federation of Mountain Soldiers.
After World War II, Leonard enrolled at the University of Oregon, but came back home to Reno where he grew up and finished at the University of Nevada. He went on to become Nevada’s ski coach, where he staged the first NCAA Championships in 1954. With that kind of experience, Leonard was called upon to help organize the Squaw Valley Games.
After the games, Leonard became the executive director of the National Ski Association, now the United States Ski Association. He came to Carson City as a result of being recalled to the Army to serve as the deputy state director for Selective Services, which were headquartered here in the state capital. Leonard has lived in Carson City ever since.
Being an official with the draft during the Vietnam War was a tough job, but Leonard kept it in perspective.
“I put my Vietnam tour in Carson City as a lieutenant colonel, which was pretty good instead of being a corporal in the mountain troops,” he said.
Leonard noted the worth of the mountain soldiers as opposed to the mules they used. “We were cheaper than mules,” said Leonard, noting his salary was $50 a month, compared to the $800 a month for the upkeep of the mules.
Leonard first served on Nevada Governor Grant Sawyer’s Olympic advisory committee before taking on his position to help stage the games in 1958. Squaw Valley was in its infancy when it was awarded the games.
“Squaw Valley was barely underway when they were awarded the Olympics,” Leonard said.
As part of staging the skiing events, Leonard’s responsibilities included setting up the courses and recruiting timekeepers and officials. There was an entire building for the IBM computer that recorded the results ” but the technology was obviously archaic as compared to today and the results still had to be verified.
The 1960 Olympics offered alpine skiing events in the slalom, downhill and giant slalom for men and women and nordic skiing events in ski jumping, cross country skiing for men and women, and the biathlon, which was held as an official Olympic sport for the first time in Squaw Valley. There was also speed skating, figure skating and ice hockey.
Those organizing the games received a break when there weren’t the required eight nations to compete in the bobsled and the luge, so those sports weren’t held. “We would have built the runs,” Leonard said. “That saved us all the trouble of setting up luge and bobsled runs.”
The most memorable moment of the 1960 Olympics was arguably the United States’ 4-3 win over the Soviet Union in ice hockey on its way to winning the gold medal. Leonard admits that he doesn’t remember much about the hockey.
“I remember losing all my sleep,” he said. Leonard would watch the hockey games until midnight and then head back to the skiing venue at 7 the next morning.
But many of Leonard’s memories of the games remain fresh ” and he wants to keep them fresh.
“I started writing down my recollections so I don’t forget them,” he said.
One memory was of a German correspondent, who during the games told Leonard in effect that he was impressed.
“We didn’t think you could do it,” said Leonard about what the German told him. “That was his acknowledgement that they were going smoothly.”
Leonard remembers most the mingling of the athletes. “We were able to keep the some of the ideals of the Olympic games,” he said.
He remembers an “emergency” he had to handle when the Italians used all the storage space of a building designed for them and another nation. When Leonard got there, he saw that the Italians had filled almost the entire space with cases of wine.
When Leonard told the Italians the wine would have to be moved, he said the Italians replied,” But what are we going to do with our wine?” “I don’t know, we’ve got to drink it, I guess,” Leonard replied.
Another fond memory came in the 1959 North American Championships in which nations from around the world were invited. Leonard noticed a Japanese cross country skier with a tip of a ski in his waistline.
He then noticed a Soviet Union coach coming by on one ski. The Japanese athlete had broken one of his skis and the Soviet coach loaned him one of his skis.
“I said that’s what it’s all about,” Leonard said. “Some of the Russians were very friendly, very nice people.”
There’s now an effort to bring the 2014 Winter Olympics back to the Reno-Tahoe area and Leonard said he would be willing to lend his assistance wherever needed.
“Oh sure I’d be glad to advise them on whatever,” he said. “I’ve been approached on a few things.”
Leonard did note that the organizational effort would be tremendous. In 1960, the budget was $18 million.
Those who worked on the Olympics would have received a bonus and the games been organized under budget.
“Of course we never got a raise,” Leonard said. “There were no contingency funds left.”
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Students frustrated at the cancellation of sports waved signs and delivered speeches at a Truckee High School protest in an attempt to return to the field this year.