Olympic Destiny: the Story Behind Whistler ’68

by Sarah Drewery, Whistler Museum.

The Sochi Winter Olympic Games have begun and the 2010 Games hosted by Vancouver and Whistler are now officially part of history. The Olympic dream runs very deeply in Whistler, however. So deeply that it was the driving force behind the ski resort’s creation in the 1960s.

In February of 1960 Squaw Valley, California hosted the Olympics and Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) chairman Sidney Dawes was there. In a press conference Dawes suggested that the Vancouver region should be studied to determine its potential as a future Winter Games site.

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Poster for Vancouver’s bid for the 1968 Olympic Games. Courtesy Whistler Museum.

This idea piqued the interest of a number of Vancouver businessmen and Glenn McPherson, who owned Okanagan Helicopters, offered Dawes a free helicopter ride to scout the area. This was a time when helicopter service was extremely expensive and Dawes jumped at the opportunity.

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Glenn McPherson in his later years. Photo courtesy Whistler Museum.
Glenn McPherson in his later years. Photo courtesy Whistler Museum.

In her biography of McPherson, Kay Alsop outlines what happened next:

“Dawes arrived in Vancouver on Tuesday, March 3rd, 1960…The next day he climbed aboard one of the two helicopters [McPherson] had provided and they flew to Diamond Head, the mountain at Squamish. There the Brandvold brothers, Otar and his brother Emile, had built a beautiful log chalet in the late ‘40’s and were cherishing the hope that it might be the site of a future Olympics…The day that Dawes stepped from the helicopter he did a quick survey of the area, asked a lot of questions about snow depth and snowfall – and then quietly but firmly shattered the dreams of the Brandvold brothers by announcing, sadly, that Diamond Head was not suitable as an Olympic site. Otar Brandvold then showed that he was a man as big as his mountains! Hiding his own disappointment, he told Mr. Dawes that there was another mountain, about 20 miles north of there, called London Mountain [the original name for Whistler Mountain]. He urged Mr. Dawes to take a look at it.”

Dawes liked what he saw and a few days later the crew returned, this time with Olympic ski racer Bob Richardson in tow. Richardson skied down and pronounced it “fantastic, with its 5,000 vertical foot drop.”

The newly formed Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (commonly known as GODA) went on to hire German-American ski champion, coach, and ski-resort designer Willy Schaeffler to assess the feasibility of creating a ski-hill.

Franz Wilhelmsen, President of Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. and Consultant Willy Schaeffler ready for ascent on Whistler Mountain, spring 1961. Photo courtesy Whistler Museum.
Franz Wilhelmsen, President of Garibaldi Lifts (left) and consultant Willy Schaeffler ready for ascent on Whistler Mountain, spring 1961. Photo courtesy Whistler Museum.

Schaeffler was impressed; in his report he claimed “we must realize we are speaking here of a major European-type ski area.” At this time, when North American skiing lagged far behind that of Europe, such an ambition was almost laughable. However, looking back now, Schaeffler’s vision certainly played out.

The bid for the 1968 Games never succeeded. The COC chose Banff as Canada’s nomination and they eventually lost to Grenoble, France.

However, the seeds were planted and the ski area was built regardless. The dream of an Olympic Winter Games in Whistler never went away, resurfacing five times before meeting success. In 2010 when it finally hosted the Winter Olympic Games, Whistler was truly fulfilling its destiny.

Franz Wilhelmsen pointing to the newly developed Whistler Mountain. Photo courtesy Whistler Museum.
Franz Wilhelmsen pointing to the newly developed Whistler Mountain. Photo courtesy Whistler Museum.

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