Winter sports have an undeniable tourism draw for Alaska, but a recent effort in Anchorage could increase that economic impact several times over.
In June, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan announced that he was forming an exploratory committee to consider a possible bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics.
The 26-member committee includes Alaska Olympians Kikkan Randall, James Southam and Holly Brooks, as well as others involved in winter sports and several members of the business community.
Right now, winter tourism is largely about skiing, with other recreation taking a lesser role, although Anchorage also sees a good chunk of visitors coming for the annual Carrs/Safeway Great Alaska Shootout basketball tournament hosted by University of Alaska Anchorage at Sullivan Arena.
Overall, Visit Anchorage President and CEO Julie Saupe estimated that about 30 percent of Anchorage’s visitors come from October through April, and a successful Winter Olympics bid would clearly boost those numbers.
Past national sporting events, like the 2010 U.S. cross country skiing championships, have provided a nice bump in winter spending, Saupe said.
Anchorage could look to 2010 host Vancouver as role model for how to maximize the impact of the winter games, she said.
“It’s exciting to think that potential might exist for us as well,” Saupe said.
Anchorage’s last winter Olympics bid actually resulted in increased tourism, even though the games were held elsewhere, according to former mayor Rick Mystrom, who helped organize those efforts.
After the late 1980s economic downturn, tourism was the first sector to rebound, which was attributed to the Olympic bid, he said.
In the 1980s, the city pursued them several times, never quite clinching the games. Ultimately, Anchorage made three unsuccessful bids in the first round.
For the 1992 and 1994 winter games, the city won the American bid, but lost to Albertville, France, and Lillehammer, Norway, respectively, when it made its pitch to the International Olympic Committee.
The losses were, in part, political — for the 1994 games, Anchorage lost the international nod due to Cold War frictions during the second round of voting.
For the 2002 Winter Olympics bid, Anchorage lost domestically to Salt Lake City by one vote on the United States Olympic Committee in 1995. Later, Anchorage learned that Salt Lake City officials had bribed their way to victory.
Mystrom, then member of the Anchorage Assembly, was at the center of the bids. He met the mayor of Sapporo, Japan, who told him how that city benefited from the games.
Mystrom said the mayor told him “before the Olympics, winter was something we had to endure. Now, we celebrate it.”
He wanted the same for Anchorage, and proposed the city bid.
Community support built quickly. People volunteered their time, donated money to the effort, and even voted largely in favor of a bid during public votes.
“It was a very exciting time,” Mystrom said.
Despite the losses, Mystrom said Anchorage was fairly well qualified. Anchorage is well positioned to host, given that it is equidistant from northern Europe and northern Asia, and in a prime spot for live television.
“Anchorage has the best time in the world for the television market,” Mystrom said.
If an event final is held at 4 p.m. in Alaska, it’s 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. across America.
Live broadcasts are the big revenue generator for the Olympics, Mystrom said. That, radio rights, tickets and merchandise sales are how the games make money.
To bid, the city did not have to build infrastructure for the games in advance.
“You have to prove that you have the ability to host a big event,” Mystrom said.
So in the 1980s, Anchorage hosted international cross country skiing, biathalon and hockey events.
The plan was to build bobsleigh and luge courses in Eagle River, a main stadium at Alaska Pacific University, and host biathalon and nordic skiing at Kincaid Park.
Reviewing the infrastructure
Much of the past work will remain useful. Anchorage’s location, both for travel and for broadcast, remains an asset.
Many on the committee agree that hosting the winter games could have a significant, and positive, impact on the city for many years.
But before Anchorage pursues the host role, the committee must determine if the undertaking would benefit the city.
The committee’s task is to figure out whether or not a bid is practical, and how Anchorage’s pitch will be different now than it was then, said Jon Bittner, vice president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., and a member of the committee.
The committee will look at the existing and needed infrastructure, detail the potential economic impacts and try to figure out what other cities have learned in their bids, Bittner said.
Based on how other host cities have fared, it’s certain that there would be a noticeable impact to tourism.
By most metrics, the city is better poised to host the games.
In the 1980s, Anchorage had 3,500 hotel rooms.
Now, there are about 8,600, Saupe said.
There is a better road to Girdwood, and the Alyeska ski resort there is more developed, Mystrom said.
Anchorage also has hosted several major ski competitions since its Olympic bids.
U.S. Ski Team Nordic Program Manager Joey Caterinichio, a member of Sullivan’s committee, has skied in, coached and organized major U.S. ski events, including organizing the 2008 Junior Olympics that were held in Anchorage.
She agreed that Anchorage already has excellent ski sites at Kincaid and Alyeska.
“I think Alaska has the infrastructure to host the Olympics,” Caterinichio wrote in an email. “Our current facilities could work for some events and we will need to build new infrastructure to meet the standards in some areas. We have the locations though. So just the buildings and or event tracks, jumps, etc.”
For other sports, much more work will be needed.
The Winter Olympics includes 15 sports: alpine skiing, biathlon, bobsleigh, cross country skiing, curling, figure skating, freestyle skiing, hockey, luge, nordic combined, short track speed skating, skeleton, ski jumping, snowboard, and speed skating.
The Sullivan Arena has Olympic ice and could likely host preliminary hockey and skating events, although more spectator seating would likely be needed for finals, Mystrom said. And a speed skating oval could be built at Cuddy Family Park.
Generally, Mystrom said that the USOC and the IOC don’t want to hold the Olympics in a city that already has all the facilities. The bodies would rather have new facilities built just for the Olympics.
In fact, cities are rarely asked to host twice.
The committee also is considering what would happen to infrastructure built for the winter games. Bittner said he doesn’t want the municipality to be responsible for extensive costs.
Mystrom said the infrastructure was a concern in the earlier bids, so the proposed budget included a fund to be used for facilities that wouldn’t pay for themselves.
The city also would be well positioned to host future events, he said.
“We could be a speed skating center for the world,” Mystrom said. “We could be a ski jump center. We can do all those things.”
“I think we are on the map already but the Olympics and the facilities will definitely help Anchorage continue to host large events,” Caterinichio wrote.
Molly Dischner is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.