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With Colorado’s chances of landing the Olympics fading, the state is proposing a radical change: co-hosting

State's exploratory committee plan would split hosting duties, use private financing and not add unwanted permanent structures, but strong resistance remains around Colorado

The 35,000-seat PyeongChang Olympic Stadium was used for the opening and closing ceremonies for South Korea's 2018 Winter Olympics. The stadium - reportedly built for $109 million - was used five times before it was demolished. (Jason Blevins, Colorado Sun)
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With Winter Olympics host cities falling like snowflakes, Colorado’s bid to stage the 2030 Winter Olympics hinges on national and international Olympic organizers embracing a new hosting model that would split events between different states, including a scenario that has Colorado and Utah co-hosting the 2030 Winter Games.

For Colorado to win support from the U.S. Olympic Committee and beat out Utah, the only other North American city still vying to host the 2030 Winter Games, boosters are hoping U.S. and international Olympic organizers see a need for a radical shift in how cities fund and stage the 17-day event — so radical that they would support the games being held in venues hundreds of miles from Utah where all the events are planned within a short trip of Salt Lake City.

“We personally believe the Olympic movement is at a tipping point where the time is right for this kind of dialogue and discussion,” said Rob Cohen, the chairman of the 36-member Denver and Colorado Olympic and Paralympic Exploratory Committee. The committee in June issued a 231-page report on how Colorado could host a Winter Olympics.

The Colorado committee’s pitch for the Winter Olympics relies heavily on other states stepping in to host sliding events — like luge, bobsled and skeleton. Building a pricey sliding track would blow up the Colorado plan to throw a privately funded Olympics with no permanent venues. To play host, Colorado would need to partner with communities hundreds of miles away that already have sled tracks, such as Park City, Utah, and Lake Placid, New York, or even locations in Canada.

The Olympic Park Track in Park City — site of the 2002 Winter Olympics — is an amenity that anchors Utah’s plan to host the 2030 games. And while Colorado has 13 of the needed 16 venues to host, Utah has all 16. That’s why Utah is widely considered the leading contender to win U.S. Olympic Committee support when the committee gathers Dec. 13 to make its host-city decision.

“It’s really ours to lose,” Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski told members of her state’s Olympic exploratory committee in October.  

The cross country skiing events at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang were held at the Alpensia Cross Country Skiing Centre, a venue that was part of the Winter Games’ ski jumping, biathlon, bobsled, skeleton and luge complex called the Alpensia Olympic Park. (Jason Blevins, Colorado Sun)

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach on Saturday, in an interview with Around The Rings, said he will not award both the 2026 and 2030 games in the same announcement, as he did in 2017 when he awarded the 2024 and 2028 Summer Games. Bach said several locations are vying for the 2030 games and he wanted to “give all of them a fair chance.”

Cohen’s Olympic tipping point comes as potential cities bail from hosting contention. This spring, there were seven communities in the running to host the 2026 Winter Games, but now there are just two, with Italy proposing an Olympics spread across two cities and Stockholm planning to use a sliding complex in a neighboring country.

In the past three years, a surge of communities have pulled out of contention. Most recently, Olympic boosters in Nevada’s Reno and California’s Lake Tahoe region cut themselves, and voters in Calgary rejected a proposal for an Olympic repeat. Three years ago opponents defeated an effort to bring the Summer Olympics to Boston. Recent efforts to bring the Winter Olympics to Turkey, Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Austria and Poland have foundered.

By 2022, there will have been three consecutive Winter Olympics in Asia: Sochi in 2014; South Korea in 2018; and Beijing in 2022. The autocratic governments in Russia and China didn’t blink at dropping billions for the Olympics. Russia spent somewhere close to $51 billion on the Sochi Winter Olympics. China is razing entire mountains to create new ski resorts and building high-speed rail lines for its 2022 hosting, promising to bust its budget just as it did when it spent $40 billion to host the 2008 Summer Games.

In response to Russia’s exorbitant spending — building essentially a Vail Valley in a mere half-decade, with multiple ski resorts and villages holding more than 19,000 rooms — the International Olympic Committee forged Agenda 2020 and the New Norm, a series of reforms prodding host cities to control costs by downsizing venues, changing transportation options and using existing facilities and infrastructure.

“We see this as a chance to completely change how we look at how the games are hosted and run,” Cohen said. “We relooked at everything. What we have been calling ‘the Colorado way’ would allow us to do it without building permanent venues, keeping it privately financed and without taxpayer guarantees, and with a community engagement process that is as inclusive and broad as we can be.”

The committee’s bid outlines plans to raise $566 million from corporate sponsors and what Cohen called a “sophisticated risk management program” of insurance policies to keep taxpayer money out of the equation. Without any new facilities, the Olympic Village could be anchored in existing hotels. If the community showed support, affordable housing units would be constructed in Denver and the mountains and used to house athletes during the 17-day Olympics, Cohen said.

“Our motto all along has been we should build no permanent infrastructure unless it’s permanent infrastructure that our community wants whether we were hosting the games or not,” Cohen said.

Organizers in California’s Lake Tahoe area also fretted their lack of Olympic jumping and sliding venues. Andy Wirth, a former executive at Steamboat ski area, was the chief at Squaw Valley – Alpine Meadows ski area and chairman of the Lake Tahoe Winter Games Exploratory Committee when he met with leaders of the national and international bobsled and skeleton federations. Wirth asked the governing bodies if they would use a new facility, should Tahoe raise the money to build one.

“The head of the international federation, his direct response was ‘We don’t need any more venues,’” Wirth said. “So regardless of who is paying for it, it clearly does not make sense to build one of these venues.”

The Alpensia Sliding Centre in Daegwallyeong, South Korea was one of several new venues built for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. The venue reportedly cost more than $114 million to build and requires more than $5 million a year to maintain. (Jason Blevins, Colorado Sun)

So Olympic boosters around Lake Tahoe and Reno — who already planned to enlist Sacramento and even Las Vegas as event hosts — began to more closely study a bid that would, like Colorado’s plan, use another state’s bobsled, skeleton and luge facility. Stockholm, Sweden’s 2026 Winter Olympic bid includes a sliding venue in neighboring Latvia. But in the case of Sweden and Latvia, the two are not working as rivals with competing plans for hosting the games.

“Behind the scenes, everyone was talking about sharing with Utah. And the consistent refrain in response to that was ‘Why would Utah do that when they have full capabilities to stage the Olympics not only well, but incredibly well?’” Wirth said. “They have taken terrific care of their venues. They established foundations and endowments to not only care for their venues as they mature but keep them utilized by athletes and Utah residents. Give them credit … there is no question in my mind that the Winter Olympics should return to Utah.”

The Colorado exploratory committee is holding what it thinks could be a winning hand, with a promise of higher revenues for Olympic organizers. The plan calls for using both Mile High Stadium and Coors Field for opening and closing ceremonies, possibly connected by a parade between the venues. That would boost ticket sales for what would be a 40,000-person event to somewhere closer to 125,000. The committee expects the games to harvest $504 million in ticket sales with venue capacity exceeding sites in Utah, generating more revenue for the IOC, USOC and the national governing bodies.

“There are very good reasons to look at our bid and closely evaluate it,” Cohen said. “In Colorado, the infrastructure we have around the 13 venues is significant and creates greater revenue opportunities than maybe existing venues in other locations.”

The committee’s Olympic budget includes the cost of chartered transportation “running back and forth between certain cities and locations,” Cohen said, noting that many Olympics have involved moving spectators, athletes, media and staff hundreds of miles between venues.  

South Korea’s Phoenix Park ski resort anchored the slopestyle and snowboard parallel giant slalom contests. It was one of the largest venues at the 2018 Winter Games. (Jason Blevins, Colorado Sun)

Cohen said his committee has met with the IOC and USOC and shared every element of their plan. USOC members toured Utah and Denver last month.

“At every step of the process, we have been told this plan is in line with Agenda 2020 and the New Norm and to keep moving,” Cohen said.

Dick Lamm was a state legislator in 1972 when he famously led a movement that spurred voters to reject funding for the 1976 Winter Olympics. That’s the only time a host city has rejected the Olympics after they had been awarded. But it was a sign of a future when asking voters to decide on the Olympics rarely goes well for the Olympics.

Today, Lamm — who served as Colorado’s governor from 1975 to 1987 — is again backing an effort to ask residents to vote on a Colorado Olympic Games. Lamm said while he admires the committee’s imaginative efforts, and lauds Cohen as a civic leader “who passionately believes the Olympics will be good for Colorado,” he wants voters to make the final call.

“I do think the IOC and the USOC, they are snakebit for Denver and rightfully so. They should be cautious. But if the committee can persuade the Colorado public that this is a good idea, I think most everyone would swing behind it,” Lamm said. “But I do think, this proposal, if it’s not desperation than, well, I guess it is a desperation measure because they see this institution disappearing before their eyes. But I can’t imagine why they would want to come to Denver when they have Salt Lake.”

Cohen said the exploratory committee would not be doing its job if it wasn’t exploring how Colorado could revive a struggling Olympic movement. He thinks Colorado can show the world a financially stable, environmentally sustainable and cooperative way to stage an Olympics that could stem the attrition of cities eager to stage the games.

“There are aspects of our model that not only will benefit us, but will benefit every host. We think that instead of a constricting number of host cities that might be interested, that the pendulum could swing the other way,” Cohen said. “We are the very front edge of this kind of conversation. And it’s not easy to be on the front end of a wave change for something as big and important as the Olympics.”


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