Salt Lake City ready, willing and able to host 2026 Winter Olympics but obstacles remain

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file) Olympic medalists Derek Parra, silver, Jochem Uytdehaage, gold, and Jens Boden, bronze, wave to the crowd during flower ceremony for the men's 5,000 meter speedskating race during the 2002 Olympic Games at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns.

For the past several years, Austin Schofield has run a small grassroots social media push he started as a BYU marketing student to promote the return of the Olympic Games to Salt Lake City.

He may have to tweak the name of his “SLC 2030” campaign slightly.

The Associated Press on Tuesday reported that officials in Utah and Colorado have begun discussing the possibility of bidding to host the 2026 Winter Olympics. Citing five anonymous sources — “people familiar with the internal discussions in both cities” — the AP reported that the two groups had engaged in preliminary conversations regarding bids. The report came a day before the International Olympic Committee was set to formally award the 2024 and 2028 summer games to Paris and Los Angeles, respectively.

“I would love to see the Games back here,” Schofield said.

The AP called the bid a “longshot”. But for Fraser Bullock, a key player in Salt Lake’s 2002 Games, Utah remains an obvious choice for the International Olympic Committee.

“Whether it’s 2026, 2030, or beyond, in my mind Salt Lake remains the best place in the world to host a Winter Games,” Bullock said.

Since hosting the Olympics 15 years ago, officials in Utah have expressed their interest in bringing the games back to the state.

“We stand ready, willing and able when the time is right for the U.S. to host a Winter Olympics,” Colin Hinton, president of Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation, said earlier this year. “That hasn’t changed. From my perspective, there’s things I can control and things I can’t control. The mantra my board and I have been doing is to try and be the world’s premier Winter Olympic and athlete training and event destination. One day, if we do all that well, logic would say that a Games should come back here.”

There are plenty of obstacles to overcome in any potential bid. For starters, a country hasn’t hosted back-to-back Games since 1936.

“If you have two North American bids going on at the same time in the sponsorship world and negotiating certain things, it certainly would take some effort to figure out how to mitigate that so everyone is happy,” said Utah Sports Commission president Jeff Robbins. “But I think you never would’ve seen Pyeongchang, Tokyo and Beijing back-to-back-to-back ever historically. We know that the mold’s been broken. Is the mold going to be JELL-O going forward?”

The IOC already has departed from its standard practices once this year — selecting host cities for two upcoming Summer Games in 2024 and 2028. And there may be an appetite for change after receiving a dearth of bids for the 2022 Winter Olympics.

“It would be a challenge for any country to have back-to-back Games. It’s highly unusual,” Bullock said. “… But there’s some receptivity now to awarding back-to-back Games.”

Austria, Switzerland and Canada are among the nations that have expressed early interest in potential bids for 2026. A referendum vote in Innsbruck, Austria, is set for Oct. 15 to decide whether to proceed with the bid. The IOC will announce the 2026 host city in 2019.

Salt Lake’s selling points, meanwhile, are well known. Robbins was in China a week ago meeting with public officials from two cities that will have venues used in the 2022 Games, and said other potential Olympic city officials have reached out to him over the years when considering their own bids.

“We feel like we’ve really put ourselves in a position — if an opportunity or window came — to bid again,” Robbins said.

Unlike some other recent hosts, the mountain events would be in close proximity to the downtown area.

“Are we positioned? Do we have the infrastructure? The answer to the question is yeah, we do, so it’s not a surprise we always come up in the conversation, just because there are very, very few places anywhere — if any — that have the infrastructures that are willing and able to host. I think it depends on our public officials and kind of what the appetite for the community would be to host it,” Robbins said. “We believe we certainly could.”

Those could be issues in a potential bid for Denver, which has Olympics history of its own. In 1970, the city was awarded the 1976 Winter Games, but two years later a public referendum was defeated and Denver had to withdraw, with Innsbruck, Austria stepping in to host on short notice.

“We would welcome an invitation to discuss, in depth, what it would take for Denver to become a Winter Olympic host city,” Matthew Payne, executive director of the Denver Sports Commission, told The Associated Press.

In Utah all the major venues from the 2002 Games are still in use, though Bullock said they would need some work to be ready for another Olympics.

“They do need some maintenance,” he said. “When we built them, it was for about a 20-year life. We’re now coming up on that. There will be some capital required to keep them at a world-class level.”

Bullock said the attention for now should be on Los Angeles’ Games in 2028. But after Wednesday’s announcement, work will begin on finding a host for 2026.

“The sooner the Winter Olympics can come back to the U.S.,” Max Cobb, the president of U.S. Biathlon, told The Associated Press, ”the better.”