An effort to bring the 2018 Winter Olympics to the region may bring home the gold (again)
In the cosmos of the Olympics, Nancy Cushing thinks the stars are aligning in favor of the Reno-Tahoe area’s bid for the 2018 Winter Games. As the chairman and CEO of Squaw Valley USA—to which her late husband, Alex, brought the 1960 Winter Games—she’s in a pretty good position to prognosticate.
Cushing notes that 2009 will mark 60 years since Squaw opened as the region’s first ski resort. It’s also the year during which the U.S. Olympic Committee will decide which American city to recommend to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The following year, 2010, Squaw will celebrate the 50th anniversary of hosting the games as members of the IOC make their choice for 2018.
Don’t forget that some very powerful politicians—the Olympic selection process is all about power and politics—hail from Nevada and California: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former bodybuilder and movie star who’s still an avid skier. Karma may not even be necessary if you have those three in your corner.
While Alex Cushing pretty much single-handedly secured the games five decades ago and hosted the whole shebang at Squaw, times have certainly changed. The Reno-Tahoe Winter Games Coalition is chaired by Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki and has the support of a number of big players, both in the public and private sectors. And, unlike 1960, the 2018 games would take place throughout the region.
“We’d be looking at multiple resorts in both California and Nevada,” Krolicki says. “This would be a full-court press.” He says he’d like to see a world-class indoor skating arena built in the Reno-Sparks area to complement the outdoor venues in the mountains.
“We’ll need several sheets of ice,” he explains. “The area yearns for world-class ice. We’re all somewhat chagrined that we currently don’t have any.”
In addition to an ice rink, there are other needs. Ski jumps. Training facilities. Luge and bobsled runs. Organizers say they’d need at least $300 million to build all of this.
Krolicki thinks it can be done through private contributions, mainly from big corporate sponsors. “My vision is not to encumber the taxpayer in this process at all,” he says. “Park City gave us a great model.”
Krolicki is referring to the 2002 Winter Olympics hosted by the Salt Lake City region, which reached into the deep pockets of companies, such as Coca Cola, McDonald’s and Visa to fund the necessary construction. Those games turned a profit, $72 million of which went to an endowment to maintain the Olympic facilities.
The awarding of the 2002 Games to Utah also fast-tracked a number of planned government projects, from a new light-rail line to highway upgrades “to the tune of about a billion dollars,” according to Krolicki.
Here, there’s talk of increased passenger rail service in the Reno to Sacramento corridor and even a high-speed, year-round ferry service on Lake Tahoe. “It’s my hope to have a Games that will produce some physical legacy that we’ll be able to enjoy in our region for decades,” Krolicki says.
Back to the future
Back in 1960, cars ran on leaded gas, and factory smokestacks belched toxic smoke into the sky. Few people, if any, were talking about the environmental impact of the Olympics. Now, there are big concerns about the footprint, concerns that are being taken very seriously. The lieutenant governor says the Games would be “carbon neutral.”
“The things that we would be able to produce, including rail service and ferry service … would long outlive the games,” Krolicki says.
Nancy Cushing goes even further.
“It won’t just be environmentally neutral,” she says. “It seems to me it’ll be a plus, environmentally. The public transportation infrastructure—we need more of that here in the mountains. We don’t want to have a lot of cars and pollution.”
Can huge new mass transit projects and countless sports facilities really be built without taxing the little guy?
“I suppose the devil is in the details,” says Tom Cargill, an economist at the University of Nevada, Reno. He calls Krolicki’s vision to fund the Games without taxpayer dollars “a bold statement,” but he quickly adds, “If Park City did, in fact, achieve that, it’s quite possible— if the commercial interests see the benefit and fork over the money.”
Cargill says that, without question, hosting another Olympics would provide a huge economic boost to the entire region, as did the games at Squaw.
“The 1960 Games had a tremendous impact on the community,” he explains, citing the fact that the building of Interstate 80 was fast-tracked after the awarding of the Games. “With a new freeway, you made Reno-Sparks accessible to travelers the year ’round. That had a dramatic effect.”[page]
Those Games were the first to be televised, and brought the competitions into living rooms around the world. “It put this place on the map,” says Squaw’s Nancy Cushing. “The Olympics spun a huge interest in people coming here.”
Cushing last month accepted Krolicki’s invitation to join the board of directors of the Reno-Tahoe Winter Games Coalition. She and her husband, Alex, who died last year, had refused to participate in earlier bids, efforts which she describes as “half-hearted.”
This time around, “they’re focusing more outward, which is a better philosophy,” she says. “With that philosophy, in my opinion, [the bid effort] will go further.”
Two other American cities—Denver and Salt Lake City—are also in the running to host the games 10 years from now.
Many think that it’s too soon for Utah to get a second bite at the apple, given they hosted the Games in 2002. “There’s a rhythm and a timing to these things,” Krolicki says. “And I would, with all due respect to those folks, submit that that [Utah] game was too recent for them to be the most competitive bid.”
That leaves the Colorado pitch, which observers say is well-organized and includes some internationally known and highly regarded resorts. Even Squaw’s general manager, Ernst Hager, thinks the Reno-Tahoe bid faces an “uphill battle” against Denver.
Reno-Tahoe “will have a tough go” against Colorado, according to Hager, who has been a ski coach for Team USA at four previous Olympics. “Beaver Creek is on the World Cup schedule each year for alpine racing, and Aspen is always there for the X Games,” he says. “Colorado certainly has, I think, the image of being ‘Ski Country, USA.'”
But don’t start schussing eastward just yet. There’s some history which might veer Denver’s bid off-course—and head-on into a big tree.
In 1972, the voters of Colorado thumbed their collective noses—or maybe more appropriately, flipped their collective “birds"—at the International Olympic Committee, which had awarded the 1976 Winter Games to Denver. In a statewide referendum, the good people of the Centennial State overwhelmingly voted to reject the Olympics, fearing what it would cost them as taxpayers.
“The question was not to oppose the games,” recalled Tom Nussbaum, a leader of Citizens for Colorado’s Future, in a 2001 interview. “The question was, ‘Where was the money going to come from to pay for the cost of the games and then pay for the debt that may be left over?'”
Fast forward to 2007. The question of “who pays” is now on the lips of some Nevadans as word spreads of the 2018 Reno-Tahoe bid.
“Thou shalt not finance it on the backs of the taxpayers,” warns Andrew Barbano, a veteran Reno journalist. He has led the opposition to public funding for a Reno-Tahoe Olympics since a bid in the late 1980s.
“My biggest objection was they wanted to finance the Olympic bid and the construction of the Olympic project with the same damn thing they always do around the state of Nevada—raise the sales tax, which is the most brutal and regressive tax you can impose on people,” he says. “My name’s been married to questioning the Olympics ever since.”
Barbano questions whether the Coalition can truly pull off the Games without feeding at the public trough.
“I’m sure somebody will think of raising the sales tax again. They always try to burden the public with something like this.”
Barbano calls it “corporate welfare” and cites Northern Nevada’s rich history of infusing tax dollars into sports-related venues—from the National Bowling Stadium to the Sparks Marina. He adds that it’s happening again with the raising of the tax on car rentals to finance a new baseball stadium in downtown Reno.
“I’d be very surprised if they can do [the Olympics] with 100 percent private money,” Barbano says. “I just don’t think it’s going to be there.”
Economist Tom Cargill says it’s true that, in the past, many publicly funded sports facilities have become “an albatross” on local government. But an Olympics, he says, is different.
“You could even make a public policy case for general taxpayer support of this,” Cargill continues. “But, it would be better to do it on a private, commercial basis. … It has tremendous economic potential.”
Indeed, officials at the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce are still basking in the afterglow of their Winter Games nearly six years later. They say the Games’ economic impact totaled nearly $5 billion and that tourism since 2002 has risen by 12 percent.
The U.S. Olympic Committee—which is in Colorado Springs, just 70 miles south of Denver—will receive formal presentations from the bidding cities next year, probably around Labor Day, according to Krolicki. The International Olympic Committee’s decision will come the following year, in 2010. Then, Krolicki notes, the Coalition—if successful—would have “another eight years prior to actually hosting the games” to get the money and the facilities in place.
“I really think we’ve got a very solid chance with all of this, and we’re going to work our hearts out to make this happen,” he says. Then, he brings up the one thing that could silence not only Reno-Tahoe’s bid, but Salt Lake’s and Denver’s, as well.
“The one event that would put an end to this entire pursuit—that’s the choice for the 2016 Summer Games. Should Chicago—which is the U.S. bid city for the ‘16 Summer Games—be the chosen venue, then I don’t believe the U.S. Olympic Committee will even submit a winter site for the ‘18 games,” Krolicki speculates. “The likelihood of the U.S. holding back-to-back games like that is de minimus.”
De minimus? That’s Latin for “squat.”