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Question: I’ve always heard that Anchorage was once considered to host the Winter Olympics but didn’t because of a lack of hotel capacity to accommodate athletes, coaches and staff. Is this true, and if so, how close did it actually get? Is it possible in this lifetime?
There was an era in Anchorage’s history when the city came close, on multiple occasions, to winning a bid to host the Winter Olympics.
I found myself mulling over these same questions on a recent trip to an Anchorage thrift store, where I happened upon a large photograph in a red frame that made me stop and stare. It was an aerial shot of hundreds — maybe thousands — of people gathered on the Delaney Park Strip, standing in a neat formation the shape of the Olympic rings.
How close did Anchorage get to hosting the Olympics? And could our city try again?
Rick Mystrom remembers it well. An advertising executive who served as mayor of Anchorage in the 1990s, he spearheaded a campaign for Alaska’s biggest city to host the biggest sporting event on the planet.
In the mid- to late 1980s, the effort captured the public’s attention, and for a period Mystrom and a group of other Anchorage boosters and businesspeople tried to convince the world that Alaska could host the Olympics.
For the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympic Games, Anchorage won the American bid but lost out in the international phase of competition. Those games were ultimately held in Albertville, France, and Lillehammer, Norway, respectively.
Anchorage was a bit of an underdog, Mystrom remembers. The first big presentation to the U.S. National Olympic Committee happened in Indiana.
“We got there, and Salt Lake City had eight slide projectors and a bunch of guys with logo shirts on,” Mystrom said. “We had a long-haired guy looking for an adapter for our two slides.”
But Anchorage had the “magic of Alaska” going for it, Mystrom said: the mystique of the Last Frontier and global name recognition.
Anchorage also had some practical benefits, like being one of the most strategic spots on the planet for live, prime-time television (a 4 p.m. final in Alaska could be broadcast at 8 p.m. primetime in the eastern U.S.) and a convenient location at an air travel crossroads, he said. Anchorage also had undeveloped land primed for potential development, abundant hotel rooms, cold weather and some existing facilities.
The pitch envisioned a main stadium on the land of what is now Alaska Pacific University, with Olympic-sized skating rinks throughout the city and a cross-country ski venue at Kincaid Park, Mystrom said. A ski jump was planned for Eagle River. There was no Hotel Alyeska in Girdwood at the time, but a large hotel there was seen as key to the plan, Mystrom said.
The artifacts of years of Olympic dreams are packed into boxes in an archival collection at the University of Alaska Anchorage/Alaska Pacific University Consortium Library: There’s a hand-bedazzled sweatshirt with Anchorage’s Olympic logo on it — half flame, half snowflake. An Anchorage Olympics kuspuk with a wolf ruff. Renderings of never-built ski jumps and an open-air pavilion on the Park Strip where the opening ceremonies might have been, with snowy Chugach Mountains in the background.
Part of the selling point for Anchorage was how invested and excited residents were about the idea of hosting the Olympics. The bids used no public money, Mystrom said.
In a third Olympic effort, Anchorage lost in the national level of competition to Salt Lake City, which went on to win the international bid to host the 2002 Winter Games.
Mystrom remembers telling Tom Brokaw in a television interview “they beat us fair and square,” he said. “But the fact is, they didn’t beat us fair and square.”
Salt Lake City officials were accused of offering bribes and gifts to Olympics selection officials. Ultimately, two Salt Lake City delegation officials were criminally charged but later acquitted, members of the IOC were disciplined and ethics rules changed.
After that, Anchorage’s Olympic dream hibernated until 2013, when then-Mayor Dan Sullivan explored putting a bid together for the 2026 Winter Olympics. Sullivan reasoned that Anchorage had come close in the 1980s and the city had only become a “stronger, bigger, more capable city” since then.
“All the elements just seem to fit,” Sullivan told the Associated Press at the time. Sullivan didn’t respond to questions for this story.
A committee met monthly at City Hall to discuss the prospect. But the effort never really got off the ground, said Matt Larkin, president of Dittman Research, a polling and public opinion research firm and one of the 2013 committee members.
“It lost momentum,” he said.
Past opinion research showed that Alaskans, by and large, supported an Olympic bid but had questions about costs, Larkin said.
Could Anchorage host the Olympics sometime in the future? The city is still blessed with snow, trails, rinks, hotel rooms, air travel connectivity — all the basic ingredients.
But the games have changed, Mystrom said. Hosting has become prohibitively expensive, with cities building massive infrastructure that often serves limited use past the Olympics.
The Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia cost a reported $51 billion.
“Putin just poured billions of dollars into putting up the facilities,” he said. “That kind of took most democracies out of it.”
The last Winter Olympics, held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, was a relative bargain at $13 billion. That Olympics included a $109 million stadium used for opening ceremonies that was later demolished.
Most people seem to think it’s unlikely that Anchorage would launch another bid. But it’s not out of the question, Mystrom thinks.
“It would be hard,” he said. “But it was hard then!”
Trying for the Olympics had a way making people celebrate the best things about Anchorage, Mystrom said. In the current moment of ugly partisan divides in local government and the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, we could use a little of that, he said.
Right now, “there’s not that kind of good feeling about the city ... you hope to have,” he said. “And so, it may not be the Olympics, but we need something to really bring people together.”