Politics of skiing: As Colorado eyes Winter Games, world politics, climate change share the podium
Author: David O. Williams - January 1, 2018 - Updated: January 4, 2018
VAIL – Snow sports – and the ultimate competitive form of them, the Olympics – are supposed to be apolitical, right? If NBA superstar Michael Jordan had been a snow skier, he might have said, “Republicans buy skis, too” – if in fact he ever really uttered his infamous line about sneakers.
But the reality is, from the raised, black-power fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City to the Palestinian terror attack against Israeli athletes at the Munich Games in 1972 to the dueling boycotts by the United States and the Soviet Union of the 1980 and ’84 Summer Games after the USSR invaded Afghanistan, politics have played a major role in the modern history of the Olympic movement.
The Olympics is the world stage, and some of Colorado want to be players.
The U.S. Olympic Committee said its interested in bringing the Winter Games to America in 2026 or 2030. Denver is mulling a bid, and so are Salt Lake City and Reno.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Gov. John Hickenlooper have formed a 36-member exploratory committee to assess the state’s appetite. Denver, after all, was awarded the 1976 Winter Olympics, only to see voters in 1972 reject funding. With a tight state budget, a crowded city and a clogged Interstate 70 to and from the mountains, already, the stage’s bright lights might only be a flickering star for Colorado.
“An event of this magnitude requires that communities come together to collaborate,” Hickenlooper said in a statement. “That’s our sweet spot in the Centennial State.”
Tensions before the Games
Consider the background for the next Olympics, the bellicose rocket rattling by the U.S. and North Korea on the Korean Peninsula.
The Pyeongchang Winter Games, which begin Feb. 9 in northeastern South Korea, sit just 50 miles from one of the most tensely militarized borders in the world, the ironically named Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley recently went so far as to suggest the United States might not send a team to Pyeongchang, although she later clarified the U.S. won’t boycott the Games but is keeping a very close eye on the security situation.
That prompted several questions on a recent call with United States Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun.
“We were obviously a little bit surprised, but not at all surprised when at the end of the day there was just some miscommunication rather than anything that was intended to be substantive and send a message,” Blackmun said of Haley’s comments.
So, the Games will go on (for the U.S. team, at least) but what if things escalate before February? And does the Trump administration have the authority to pull the plug on the Games the way President Jimmy Carter did when he boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics?
“We’ll leave that to the constitutional lawyers,” Blackmun said. “We are going to take a team to Pyeongchang unless it’s physically impossible, or legally impossible.”
To calm frayed nerves, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been pushing for a cessation of joint-U.S. war games ahead of the Olympics, and Blackmun said American athletes, media partners and corporate sponsors do not appear overly concerned about an escalation.
“In all candor, I have not gotten a single comment from an athlete or a single comment from a sponsor,” Blackmun said. “Everybody is focused on the fact that we’re going to be bringing a team. We’re going to show up like almost a hundred other nations and are really looking forward to it.”
The Trump Olympics
One of the likely faces of the Games on NBC, U.S. ski-racing superstar Lindsey Vonn of Vail, who is by most measures the best female ski racer in the history of the sport.
She already jumped into the political fray in a recent interview on CNN in which she said she hoped to “represent the people of the United States, not the president.”
She then sought to clarify her remarks about President Trump with an Instagram post. She detailed some of the backlash she’s received, including from people who said God was punishing her with a recent back injury and that they hoped she would break her neck.
“All Olympic athletes represent their nation as a whole, and are not representatives of their government or any specific political figure or party,” Vonn wrote. “None of us work tirelessly for years on end to compete in the Olympics on behalf of Democrats or Republicans. The Olympics are a non-political event …”
U.S. policy both domestically and overseas has long been a target for international critics. Vonn said that’s intensified since the election of Trump.
“I am proud to be an American, and I want our country to continue to be a symbol of hope, compassion, inclusion and world unity.” she said. “My travels around the world have recently made clear that this is no longer how people view the United States.”
Pyeongchang will likely be the last Olympic Games for the 33-year-old Vonn, who will be 37 when Beijing becomes the first city to host both the Summer Olympics (2008) and the Winter Games in 2022.
But she’s repeatedly said she’d love to see the Olympics in her adopted home state of Colorado.
Ski resort operators also are interested in the idea of finally bringing the Games to Colorado. Beaver Creek was developed as a venue for those failed 1976 Denver Winter Olympics.
“We will participate and coordinate with [Denver] on its exploration into potentially pursuing a bid and expect that multiple of our resorts would be considered as venues,” said Chris Jarnot, Vail Resorts executive vice president, Mountain Division.
“Our understanding is that cities in other regions where we have resorts may also consider pursuing bids, and we will participate with them as well.”
Vail Resorts also owns ski areas in Park City, Utah, and the Lake Tahoe area, the other potential bidders against Denver.
Climate activism awaits
Arguably the greatest male ski racer in U.S. history, New Hampshire’s Bode Miller has retired and won’t be racing at Pyeongchang, but he will have an outsized presence as a ski-racing commentator on NBC.
A partner in Bomber Ski, Miller recently told Colorado Politics that climate change — still a largely partisan issue in this country — is transforming the ski business.
“I’ve seen it now a lot. Everyone’s bitching about the last few years,” Miller said of warmer, drier winters that have compressed the ski season. “That’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s going to continue to be an issue.”
Everyone in snow sports, seemingly, is getting onboard the climate-action bandwagon.
The U.S. Ski and Snowboard pledged to reduce the organization’s environmental footprint October. Snowboarding and clothing manufacturer Burton set 2020 goals, and Vail Resorts with its “Epic Promise for a Zero Footprint” in July on top of Aspen Skiing Co.’s major efforts over the past two decades.
Recently, the Climate Action Collaborative for the Eagle County Community met with the new CEO of the local electric coop, Holy Cross Energy, and talked about ways to meet the group’s goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. The group has 17 signatures on letters of intent, including from the town of Vail, Vail Resorts and Holy Cross Energy.
Asked how important such local efforts are given the change in direction on climate issues at the federal level, Vail Town Council member Kim Langmaid, who’s spearheading the Climate Action Collaborative, said, “It’s critical. It’s the only hope we have.”
Also the vice president, director of sustainability and founder of Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon, Langmaid said immediate and dramatic action is imperative for the survival of the ski industry and the preservation of Colorado’s mountain environment.
“There is a much greater urgency now,” Langmaid said. “We know in our region we’ve lost almost a month of freezing days, and so yes, the ski season is shortening, and the science of climate change, we know what’s happening, we know what the reasons are, we’re over it, and at the risk of offending guests, I think it’s the most important thing that ski areas need to do now.”
As far as the Olympics go, Langmaid said the Games need to get much greener, especially if Colorado is serious about bidding.
“It would be awesome to host if it could be a catalyst and it could commit to being a zero-waste event that would leave us better off in terms of the environmental footprint going into the future than we are now,” she said.
Games bring mountain train?
With or without the Olympics, the often-bottlenecked I-70 into the mountains needs to be fixed and vehicle miles must be reduced, she said.
“It is the No. 1 thing that we need to focus on actually, when we think about climate change and reducing our fossil-fuel dependence,” Langmaid said.
But she doubts mass transit into the mountains can be a reality in the mere eight years before 2026.
Trains, however, have been centerpieces and budget-busters of other modern Games.
Pyeonchang got a shiny bullet train up from Seoul, and such things cost big bucks. A state-funded study in 2010 put the cost of a high-speed passenger train from Denver International Airport to the Eagle County Regional Airport near Vail at $16 billion. Russia spent nearly $9 billion on its train between Sochi and the mountain resorts — far more than the total of $6.4 billion spent on the entire 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
By contrast, the train between Vancouver and Whistler was shut down prior to those Games, in favor of a major expansion of the Sea to Sky Highway.
“What if you said, ‘We’re going to have the Games. We’re going to host them at a mountain midway between Denver and Utah, and we’re going to use it as a way to build a train’?” posed Basalt Town Council member Auden Schendler, who’s also vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Co., consulted for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
“It would be a pretty amazing thing to use the Games to catapult economic and environmental development, versus just fire-hosing communities with wasteful development.”
He hasn’t been asked for his expertise to help land the 2026 or 2030 Games, but he has some opinions on climate change and getting cars off the roads between Colorado’s Front Range and mountain resorts.
Schendler’s sentiment pretty closely echoes former Democratic Gov. Dick Lamm, who as a state legislator led the charge against the 1976 Denver Olympics.
Now teaching public policy at the University of Denver, Lamm in 2014 told the Rocky Mountain Post he wouldn’t necessarily object to a future Colorado Olympic bid, but that the Games need to be massively restructured following the $50 billion price tag of Sochi, and should include a fix for I-70.
“We have a bottleneck in Interstate 70 going up to the mountains; it can’t be expanded,” Lamm said. “Just simply the Balkanized nature of the Olympics promised all kinds of logistical problems [in 1976], but we are a much more sophisticated state at this time. It’s an expense problem, but I think we can engineer our way around that bottleneck.”
A state-funded study in 2010 put the cost of a high-speed passenger train from Denver International Airport to the Eagle County Regional Airport near Vail at $16 billion.
Talk about climate
“Even if they had created a train, that’s totally missing the point,” Schendler said. “The point isn’t let’s lessen the impact of the Games by 20 percent and declare victory – and it would be pretty big to do that. No, use the Games as a megaphone to talk about the most important issue of our time. That would be it.”
Schendler thinks the Olympics should be a platform for educating people about climate change.
“The last two Winter Games had terrible snow conditions, and he predicted the same in South Korea.
Schendler said Colorado and its business community is leading on public lands, luring the Outdoor Retailer Show away from Salt Lake City by having more progressive policies for preserving federally-owned public lands.
But he said outdoor retailers have been far more reluctant to jump into the debate over climate change.
“That would be the obvious thing to do in terms of recruiting the Olympics, which is to say, ‘We’re progressive not just on land but on climate,’ and really sell the state that way,” Schendler said.
“Then use the Olympics as a way to not just promote the state’s clean energy work but get the Olympics on board in talking about this issue.”