The athletes are at their peak, the Olympic caldron is aflame, and the world is watching. The Summer Olympics ignite the champion in all of us—and this year’s games in London, England, are no exception. The opening and closing ceremonies are a major highlight for viewers across the globe (did you know the 2008 opening ceremonies in Beijing were watched by more than two billion people?!), and British filmmaker Danny Boyle produced a games-opener that kicked off this year’s events in suitably spectacular fashion.
You might be surprised to learn that Walt Disney and The Walt Disney Company have enjoyed a special relationship with the Olympic Games for years. In 1959, Walt was asked to chair the Pageantry Committee for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California. Joined by several notables including his son-in-law/film producer Ron Miller, television personality Art Linkletter, and then-Disney vice president Card Walker, Walt created opening and closing ceremonies that broke the mold—and set the gold standard for Olympic Games to come.
Braven Dyer, a Los Angeles Times reporter, wrote at the time, “The opening ceremony was the most remarkable thing I ever saw. No matter how much credit you give Walt Disney and his organization, it isn’t really enough.” In total, the opening and closing ceremonies involved some 5,000 performers from several Western states!
It stands to reason that a production spearheaded by Walt and his team would make an impression—but Walt’s reach during the 1960 Winter Games didn’t stop at the ceremonies. Walt entertained athletes with the first film festival during an Olympics… and Art Linkletter brought in live performers for the first time in Olympics history. The legendary Danny Kaye even traveled to Squaw Valley to make an appearance.
Walt even had a hand in decorating the Olympic Village; on Walt’s advice, Disney animator John Hench (whom Walt put in charge of décor for the games) traveled to New Hampshire and Quebec, Canada, to research snow sculptures. The result: an amazing 32 sculptures, 30 of which stood 16 feet tall and lined the Avenue of the Athletes. The other two stood a whopping 24 feet tall and were placed on either side of the “Tower of Nations,” the centerpiece of the medal presentation area. Each of these sculptures depicted men and women competing in various Winter Olympics sports, including skiing and figure skating. And speaking of John Hench, he designed the 1960 Winter Olympics torch—amending the designs from several previous Olympic Games in order to make the hand-off between torchbearers easier.
There’s some Squaw Valley Winter Olympics history that can be seen by visitors to The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. In front of the commissary reside two flagpoles that were used in the medal presentation area to hoist the flags of participating countries. Each flagpole—there were 30 total—was adorned with a plaque from Walt, thanking a sponsor for their contributions to the games. (Having a company sponsor a flagpole, at a cost of $500 to $600 each, was akin to present-day Olympic sponsorship by large corporations.) Currently, the commissary flagpoles display an American flag and the Disney Company flag.
The Disney Company’s affiliation with the Olympics didn’t stop in 1960. Soon after Los Angeles won the bid to host the 1984 Summer Olympics, Card Walker—who by then was Disney’s chairman of the board—was asked to serve on the executive committee of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. He was instrumental in giving Walt Disney Studios the chance to design the official mascot for the 1984 games; Sam the Eagle was designed by Bob Moore, an animator and director of special projects. According to a Daily News article from that year, several animators offered suggestions and ideas, but it was Bob’s eagle design that won over Olympic officials. Bob saw Sam as “a mascot for children,” and purposefully drew him with a rounded-off beak to appear “cuddlier.” Additionally, Walt Disney Productions once again drew up preliminary plans for the opening and closing ceremonies.
Over the years, the company has not only supported the games behind the scenes, but has also welcomed athletes to Disney parks and resorts around the world. And who knows? Some of your favorite 2012 athletes might celebrate a medal win with a trip to visit Mickey and friends! It’ll be yet another reminder of Disney’s role in creating the spectacle of the Olympic Games as we know them today.
By D23′s Courtney Potter