Columns » Between The Lines

Where will the next Olympic House be?


Last week, word filtered out from a quiet but ominous conference call that the United States Olympic Committee was considering offers to move its headquarters from Colorado Springs.

The story made instant headlines, and important details were lost along the way. The largest of those: Many media reports assumed this meant losing the city's entire Olympic presence. In fact, the USOC was talking only about its umbrella administration at Olympic House, the USOC's self-styled capitol.

Not the Olympic Training Center. Not the dozens of individual sports' governing bodies and other related groups that have moved here over the past three decades, injecting nearly 5,000 jobs and more than $300 million annually into the local economy (not even counting special events, such as the State Games of America).

Yes, it's still a serious threat. And yes, it still would be a severe loss for the Springs real and symbolic if the USOC chose to move even just its bureaucrats to Denver (the most believable rumor, despite Mayor John Hickenlooper's denials) or elsewhere.

Several points should be made:

This is not about the Olympic Committee wanting a divorce. In fact, the USOC has given Springs leaders the first chance to come up with a new site for Olympic House. Separate plans are coming for additions and updates here at the OTC, which needs several hundred more dormitory rooms. Donors can help pay for that.

If you took a poll of athletes and officials here, it's a given that a majority (probably a large majority) would vote to keep the national base in Colorado Springs.

Yet, from many off-the-record whispers of the past week, this is not an idle threat. If the city shrugs its shoulders and doesn't act, USOC leaders will find another home for Olympic House, with another city quickly footing the bill for the proposed, and much-needed, 90,000-square-foot headquarters.

Idea: Olympic Park

The city needs fresh, aggressive ideas, and at least one brilliant solution. It could be a new Olympic Park, highly visible and inspirational, with breathtaking architecture and easy access, ideally also becoming (at long last) home to the Olympic Hall of Fame. Perhaps close to downtown, possibly more convenient to other scenic locations, but separate from the current Olympic Complex and training center. This might be the time, for example, to consider redirecting the use of some properties on Garden of the Gods Road west of Interstate 25.

Whatever happens, the concept must be bold and immediate, meaning days and weeks, not months. It means at least one developer stepping forward with a solid commitment and willingness to invest in the future. It means the city and county doing all in their power to help, as rival cities would.

It also means using the Springs' remaining political power inside the Olympic movement, and working on new ways to cultivate local leaders for years ahead.

Luckily for the Springs, it still has El Pomar Foundation and its chairman/CEO, Bill Hybl, carrying the torch. Hybl took that torch from the Tutt family legendary Broadmoor patriarch William Thayer Tutt died in 1989; his nephew Bill Tutt was a USOC vice president from 1985 through 1992 and became the dominant figure of the past two decades. Hybl served as USOC president twice, 1991-92 and again from 1997-2000, steering the organization through many issues, crises and triumphs. He still has the title of USOC president emeritus, and he's very much involved.

But Hybl is 65 now, and this effort to create a new Olympic House as part of a larger project might be one of his final chances to help shape the future of the USOC in the city. As former Olympic athletes continue to be more and more involved, it makes sense for the city to focus on that group, convincing as many as possible to live here beyond their athletic careers. Meshing former Olympians with El Pomar and the Colorado Springs Sports Corp., the city could sculpt another sports-centric power structure for decades to come.

Perfect marriage

One other observation should be made here: Regardless of how much business sense it makes for the USOC to look around now, and find a way to build a modern headquarters without having to pay for it (or drain money from sponsors), perhaps some Olympic leaders should realize how much they owe to Colorado Springs, and how deep that relationship's roots truly are.

In 1976, a contingent of local civic leaders flew to Manitowoc, Wis., and made the first pitch that would change the course of this city's history. There, on the banks of Lake Michigan, the Springs group invited the USOC to move its headquarters from New York to the foot of Pikes Peak. Along with it, Colorado Springs offered a chunk of land to house an Olympic Training Center.

During those times, such an effort was simply a campaign, not a competition. No other city showed interest in embracing the USOC, and the Springs already had unique advantages with The Broadmoor and its attachment to figure skating and hockey, producing powerful political influence and connections throughout the Olympic movement, nationally and globally.

Add to that the scenic surroundings, not to mention the opportunity for a high-altitude training site, and all the pieces fit. The training center opened in summer 1977, and the next winter, Thayer Tutt sealed the marriage by signing a $1 million check to cover the USOC's relocation. On Aug. 1, 1978, the day after the first National Sports Festival ended here, Olympic House opened in an unpretentious brick building on the west end of the former Ent Air Force Base complex. Nobody had any idea the USOC would grow from a $19 million budget in 1976-80 to more than $500 million in 2004-08.

The progress from that modest start could only be described as meteoric. Many Olympic sports joined the USOC in moving headquarters here, filling office space in former barracks and other facilities at the training center, eventually named the U.S. Olympic Complex. Athletes came in large numbers, to live or just for specialized camps, and sports science soon began to take hold.

It all worked and other cities noticed as Olympic successes produced medals, along with millions of sponsorship dollars. Indianapolis has made serious, heavily funded attempts as recently as 2000 to "steal" the USOC family. But loyalties were too deep, and the Springs' political clout too strong. There have been other threats, even from within the movement. In 2003, some Olympic folks suggested moving the USOC back to a huge metropolis, but Hybl and others including then-U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell moved quickly to squelch that discussion.

Through the years Colorado Springs has nurtured the Olympic family in various ways. El Pomar and the sports corporation helped keep the individual sports happy, especially in finding office space as they spread across the city, leaving more room for athletes and training at the main complex.

This isn't just the USOC and a flock of other small offices anymore. It's a huge, yet still close-knit, sports community, which has impacted the city in countless ways.

Olympic House provides the heartbeat for that conglomeration. And the USOC should be concerned about messing with the chemistry that has worked so well for so long. That helps explain why the Springs has been given the first shot.

Once again, for those who didn't digest the first story in proper context: The USOC is not about to abandon Colorado Springs with athletes in tow. Actually, it plans to expand the training center, and the staffs of the USOC and member organizations love living here.

Still, it's vitally important for all of Colorado Springs not just the city government to pull together now like never before. The goal is simple:

Deliver a vision and a strategy that will clearly define us as America's Olympic City for generations to come. Then, turn that vision into reality.

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