Daily Camera file University of Colorado skier Nora Grieg Christensen skis through heavy snow Wednesday during the women’s giant slalom race at the NCAA skiing championships in Steamboat Springs in this 2016 file photo.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Could we? Should we? And just how would the Winter Olympics in Colorado look?
The committee tasked with weighing support for a possible Colorado Olympic bid visited the state’s Olympic breeding ground on Wednesday. Beneath almost 100 athlete-tagged flags draped throughout Steamboat Springs’ fabled Olympian Hall, exploratory committee member Steve McConahey shared a vision with what he called the community’s “thought leaders,” a collection of business owners and representatives from the local government, chamber, ski area and Forest Service.
“We are creating a new paradigm about how you can do the Olympics,” said McConahey, a former Denver Metro Sports Commission chaiman and Vail Valley local who served on a committee that proposed Colorado as a host for the 1998 Winter Games.
While the committee is officially only exploring the possibility of hosting the 2030 — or maybe even the 2026 — Olympics, when McConahey talks, it sounds like a pitch.
If Colorado can host a privately financed Olympics without government subsidies and guarantees, McConahey said, more cities around the world could see a new path toward hosting a Winter Games.
Where Russia spent more than $50 billion to build railways, highways and venues from scratch for the 2014 Games in Sochi, and South Korea spent about $13 billion for its show last month, Colorado could use existing venues and throw a Winter Olympics for around $2 billion, with more than $925 million of that coming from the International Olympic Committee, which is keen to see the Winter Games return to ski-loving North America or Europe.
The rest of the costs could be found in sponsorships, ticket sales and merchandise, creating the first privately funded Olympics.
“We should do this and make sure the world knows we are doing this the Colorado way, not the IOC way,” McConahey said. “I think in today’s world, where we have so much disparity and conflict and arguments, you don’t want to underestimate what something like this could do to stir unity .. and excitement about where we live and what we can do together in our state.”
Colorado’s mountain communities are essential to any Olympic plan.
After six meetings with high country leaders across the state, the committee hasn’t identified the roles ski hills in Summit County, Vail, Avon, Winter Park and Steamboat Springs might play in an Olympics.
But it’s safe to guess.
Vail and Beaver Creek, hosts of the 1999 and 2015 World Alpine Ski Championships could host alpine skiing events. Summit County’s Breckenridge and Copper Mountain could host freeskiing and snowboarding contests. Winter Park would be an ideal Paralympic host with its venerable National Sports Center for the Disabled. Steamboat Springs, with one of the country’s few Nordic jumping venues at the city’s Howelsen Hill ski area, could host Nordic events. (Which might require a waiver from IOC requirements that Nordic events be held below 5,800 feet. And, McConahey noted, maybe Denver could host ski jumping and cross country events and then send the Olympic-caliber jumps to Steamboat Springs after the competition.)
There are so many issues to hammer out. Olympic hosts have a track record of struggling to maintain pricey venues built for a two-week party. Can Colorado really privately fund an Olympics? With Los Angeles hosting the 2028 Summer Games, an American host of the Winter Games in 2026 or 2030 would need to reach some sort of agreement on shared sponsorship support with L.A.
Interstate 70 through the mountains isn’t necessarily ready for a half-million Olympic visitors in February. Housing Olympic athletes is more than a challenge for Colorado resort and urban communities that are gasping for affordable housing. With a surging population and increasing numbers of visitors vexing the state’s large and small communities, Colorado has a growing to-do list. Should the state add the Winter Olympics to that list?
Former governor Dick Lamm, who famously led the fight to torpedo Colorado’s hosting of the 1976 Winter Games, thinks not. He’s fomenting opposition with his NOlympics group, urging voter approval of any bid.
And there’s urgency. The U.S. Olympic Committee could decide to elevate an American host for 2026 or 2030 Winter Games later this month. Utah is the hunt. Reno, Nevada is mulling a bid. Internationally, Sion, Switzerland, Sapporo, Japan and Calgary, Canada, are considering bids.
In Steamboat Springs, there isn’t a swell of opposition. But community leaders didn’t take long to detail challenges that mirror those found in nearly every high country resort town. On Wednesday, they listed the opportunities, the challenges and what legacies might linger after the Olympics.
Like most every mountain town, unemployment is low in Steamboat Springs. There’s an affordable housing crisis. Transportation infrastructure needs an upgrade. If the city gets new ski jumps or cross-country tracks, what will it cost to keep those venues running after the Olympics?
The opportunities for the Yampa River Valley are appealing. Olympics could bring new ski jumps and a better Howelsen Hill training ground for Steamboat Springs’ sporting kids, further fueling the inspiration that has fostered nearly 100 Olympians in Colorado’s Olympic hotbed. The games could showcase that Olympic heritage. (And what could happen to that reputation if the city isn’t a part of the Colorado Winter Games?) The Olympics could be a great platform for luring new visitors to the tourist-dependent region.
“We are very, very different than Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge and other destinations in terms of our agricultural, and Olympic and family heritage. If we are in this, we need to make sure we differentiate ourselves from those destinations so on the backside after the Olympics are done, we can leverage that to get people to come to visit,” said Dan Pirrallo, general manager of the slopeside Sheraton Steamboat Resort hotel.
The mountain communities have different hopes and goals than Denver, but there are similarities, said exploratory committee consultant Reeves Brown.
Public input from both the city and mountains has revolved around how hosting the Olympics could spark needed change. Like a way to get underprivileged urban kids exposed to winter sports. Or a chance to get I-70 improved. Or a step toward easing the housing crunch.
“What we heard most in all these communities was more about how these opportunities and challenges could be a catalyst to address problems that already exist,” said Brown, who is compiling all the public input into a document for the exploratory committee. In Summit County, Brown heard how the locals would want to use the Olympics as a chance to highlight sustainable, environmentally friendly practices. In Winter Park, he heard how the Olympics could showcase the Fraser Valley’s embrace of disabled athletes. In Steamboat, he heard how the Olympics have molded a community.
“Maybe we can use this as a catalyst, is what we’ve heard,” he said. “Using this opportunity to unite a lot of people and emphasize one community. The idea of the Olympics being a unifier, not a divider. That’s an inspirational message we are hearing.”