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Post-Sochi Cost-Cutting Sparks Interest for Potential U.S. Winter Olympic Bids

Will the Winter Olympics return to Salt Lake City?

Will the Winter Olympics return to Salt Lake City? Aron Hsiao / Shutterstock.com

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Denver and Salt Lake City are interested in hosting future games. But Boston’s candidacy to host the 2024 Summer Games is a wild card.

BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said this week the IOC’s new agenda urging lower costs for host cities has spurred more interest in bidding on the Winter Olympics, but he wouldn’t discuss the implications for future U.S. bids.

“After the approval of the Olympic Agenda 2020 [in December] we have seen a good interest in many areas of the world, and we are in contact with some of these countries, but it is too early to tell whether in the end this will materialize,” Bach said at a press conference Tuesday during the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships.

The new agenda was adopted after several 2022 bidders were scared off by the staggering $51 billion Russia spent hosting the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, much of it reportedly for infrastructure. The agenda is a strategic roadmap of 40 recommendations “for more flexibility in the bid process, a stronger emphasis on legacy, lower costs and improved sustainability.”

Asked how the new agenda might impact future U.S. Winter Olympic bids in interested cities such as Denver, Bach said the focus now is on the 2018 and 2022 Winter Olympic programs.

“It’s too early,” Bach said. “I will see the Boston bid leaders [Tuesday] afternoon in Colorado. I think my welcome would be a little bit cold if I speak now about a U.S. [winter] bid for 2026.”

Boston was selected last month by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) in a bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics, which have not been held in the U.S. since Atlanta in 1996.

Salt Lake City was the last U.S. host of the Winter Olympics in 2002, and is interested again.

The Salt Lake City Winter Olympics cost about $2 billion to host in 2002, and the metro area benefited hugely from highway and mass transit improvements—a legacy proponents say gives the city a leg up in pursuing future games under the new bidding agenda.

In Colorado, an Olympic bid is seen by some state and local officials as a possible catalyst for high-speed rail or other transportation infrastructure improvement along the sometimes gridlocked Interstate 70 corridor connecting Denver to mountain resorts up to 150 miles to the west.

Denver's newly renovated and expanded Union Station. Arina P Habich / Shutterstock.com

“Denver is excited to hear that the Olympics could possibly be coming back to the states, what with Boston named the USOC’s candidate for the 2024 Summer Olympics,” said Amber Miller, press secretary for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.

“There are many considerations that take place when bidding on the Olympics—winter or summer,” Miller added. “That said, yes, Denver remains interested in future opportunities to bid for the Winter Olympics.”

Denver is the only city ever officially awarded the Olympics by the IOC only to have voters reject public funding in 1972 and send the games to Innsbruck, Austria, in 1976.

Boston voters might throw a wrench in the USOC’s plans for the 2024 Summer Olympics, with at least two different opposition groups weighing possible referendums on the 2024 summer bid.

But in Colorado, even Richard Lamm, the former governor who led the anti-Olympic movement in the 1970s, says a massively scaled-back Olympic bid, post Sochi excess, could be viable and serve as the impetus for engineering solutions to correct the I-70 bottleneck.

In Salt Lake City and its nearby mountains, many of the venues in Utah are still used for training and competition. It also has a natural advantage because of proximity and accessibility. Denver International Airport is also about 130 miles away from the alpine skiing venues at Beaver Creek, compared to 38 miles between Salt Lake City International Airport and Park City.

“Salt Lake, all they need to do it take the wrapper off and turn it on and they’re ready to go,” said United States Ski and Snowboard Association President and CEO Tiger Shaw, a Park City resident. He added, however, that the two hours between Denver and Vail is “nothing for an Olympics.”

Other cities such as Reno, Nevada, and Lake Placid, New York, are also interested in hosting future Winter Olympics. Squaw Valley, California, (1960), and Lake Placid (1932, 1980) are the only American cities other than Salt Lake to have hosted the Winter Games.

But with the 2018 Winter Olympics already awarded to Pyeongchang, South Korea, and the 2022 Winter Olympics down to either Almaty, Kazakhstan, or Beijing, China, the next opportunity for the U.S. to host the Winter Games isn’t until 2026—or even later.

“If Boston wins ’24, then I think the best the U.S. has a chance for winter would be ’30, not ’26,” Shaw said. “We’d love it, but I don’t think the world would really allow back-to-back North American, U.S. Olympics.”

The 2024 summer host will be selected by the IOC in 2017. If Boston loses out in a strong field of contenders that includes Rome, either Berlin or Hamburg, Germany, and possibly Paris and several other cities, then it’s unclear if the USOC would submit a bid for the ’26 Winter Games.

“As of this time, the USOC has only officially announced Boston as a candidate for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games,” USOC spokesman Matt Kelly said in an email. “There has been no official communication regarding the 2026 Winter Olympic Games or any subsequent games thereafter.”

Shaw says a Boston loss would make a subsequent U.S. winter bid a virtual lock.

“The competitor to Boston in ’24 is going to be a European city, so in the unfortunate event that Boston doesn’t win, the winner is likely to be a European city for summer, so that almost makes the next winter Olympics in North America a no-brainer,” Shaw said.

But after losing out resoundingly in bids for the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics (New York City and Chicago, respectively), the USOC might take another rejection by the IOC badly. “The last thing we want is to bid and lose," USOC CEO Scott Blackmun told The Associated Press.

Last year politicians in Oslo, Norway, rejected a 2022 winter bid, as did voters in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Munich, Germany, before Oslo pulled out. Bids for 2022 were also pulled by Stockholm, Sweden; Krakow, Poland; and Lviv, Ukraine, leaving only Almaty and Beijing.

The winner between those two non-traditional winter-sports venues will be selected by the IOC on July 31 in Kuala Lumpur, and there will be no emergency bids accepted for 2022.

“The IOC will not reopen the 2022 bidding process; we have two candidate cities which are Beijing and Almaty,” IOC spokeswoman Rachel Rominger confirmed in an email.

Under the new Olympic Agenda 2020, implemented in time for the Almaty and Beijing bids, Shaw says there’s a great deal more flexibility, including the possibility of splitting bids (and costs) between multiple cities and even states.

“Colorado certainly has an option, especially when you start talking about splitting venues across states [with Utah], and even Lake Placid and Quebec are talking about joining together in an international bid,” Shaw said. “I love it; it’s fascinating. It gives us a lot of options, and it’s time the Winter Olympics come back to the U.S.”

David O. Williams is a journalist based in Eagle, Colorado.

(Top image by Aron Hsiao / Shutterstock.com)