For Olympic athletes, earning a spot on the podium, winning any medal — gold, silver or bronze — is a dream come true.

If you want to host the Olympics, however, you have to come in first.

The U.S. Olympic Committee wants to bring the Winter Games back to the United States, as early as 2026. Salt Lake City, Denver, and Reno/Tahoe have emerged as the top choices for an American bid. Only one can get the gold.

Officials in Salt Lake City are confident that Utah, where the world-class venues built for the 2002 games are still in use, is the obvious choice if the USOC decides to put forth a bid city next year.

“I think it would be extremely challenging for either of those cities,” Fraser Bullock, chairman of Salt Lake’s Olympic exploratory committee, said last month at the group’s first meeting. “We’re going to have to be enormously efficient just to make it work here. For anybody else to make it work, it would be a lot. … The numbers don’t work. They just don’t work.”

(Steve Griffin | Tribune File Photo) Antelope Island rises above the Salt Lake City skyline as a weekend storm system brought snow to the Wasatch Front Monday, March 19, 2012.

But officials in Colorado and Nevada believe they have strong cases and a chance to win over the USOC before the March deadline for selecting a city.

Denver

Forty years ago, Denver balked at a chance to host the games. Now there is some support, including reported interest from Gov. John Hickenlooper, to try to lure the Olympics to Colorado.

“We are pleased the U.S. Olympic Committee has opened the discussion on what it would take for Denver to become an Olympic host city,” Matthew Payne, Executive Director of the Denver Sports Commission, said in a statement. “We believe Denver is well positioned with an impressive resume of world-class events and venues, and we are doing our diligence as we await further information from the USOC on the process and criteria for bidding U.S. cities.”

Denver, the largest of the three cities on the USOC’s list, has the hotel rooms to accommodate the crush of Olympic athletes and tourists, and a new light rail system connecting its airport and downtown.

In terms of venues, it is easy enough to imagine an opening ceremony at Sports Authority Field, the home of the Denver Broncos, or a gold-medal hockey match at the Pepsi Center, where the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche play. The region also has its share of world-class ski resorts to the east. But the proximity of those venues (Vail, for example, is a two-hour drive from the airport) and the need for costly road projects to widen Interstate 70 could ultimately prove too costly in a potential bid. The city would also need to build a venue for bobsled and other sliding sports.

Reno-Tahoe

Before ascending up the local political ladder and eventually becoming the Mayor of Reno, Nev., Hillary Schieve was a professional figure skater and regularly drove from her hometown in Reno to the ice rink at Squaw Valley Resort at Lake Tahoe, the host of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games.

The Olympic legacy runs deep with Reno’s mayor.

Schieve said the “buzz and excitement” on the ground level in the Sierra-Nevadas is growing as of late, adding preparation for this potential moment has been decades in the making.

Pedestrians walk beneath the famous Reno arch as traffic passes on Virginia Street in downtown Reno, Nev. on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016. Detectives are reviewing witness accounts and some ``horrifying’’ cellphone video while they consider filing a criminal complaint after a pickup truck plowed into a crowd of people during a Native American rights demonstration in downtown Reno, the police chief said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Scott Sonner).

“We have to be mindful of the intense preparation that goes along with hosting the Olympics and the challenges that it would pose to our infrastructure,” she said. “The good thing is is these are things that have been well thought-out for a long time, because we have been talking about it.”

Ironically, a local organization was created in 2003 on the heels of the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. The original mission of the Reno-Tahoe Olympic Coalition, CEO Jon Killoran explained, was “to promote the Olympic movement throughout the region, and consequently, the state of Nevada.”

Killoran said the coalition, whose board features members from both California and Nevada, has looked to follow a blueprint set out by the USOC detailing what potential host cities should do in preparation. Killoran said the region is in better shape to host a Games in the future compared to if it was potential bid awarded a decade ago. He pointed to recent FIS World Cup events in Lake Tahoe, plus Olympic championship events such as curling featured in Las Vegas, Nev., next April.

“[We’re] doing what planning might be necessary and what inventorying of facilities might be necessary,” Killoran said, “but like I’ve said, that’s ever-changing.”

Schieve mentioned Reno is in the process of building a full-time ice rink. The Reno mayor added the city and community has rebounded mightily from being the highest in foreclosures and unemployment during the recession to now welcoming in big-named companies such as Tesla, Apple and Amazon. The Reno website features a graphic calling it, “The biggest little startup community.”

“Things have really changed here and our infrastructure is changing because of this boom we’re going through,” she said.

Andy Wirth, CEO of Squaw Valley Resort, saw first-hand how the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake and the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver left the host cities in markedly better shape in terms of transit and infrastructure. Wirth expects Sacramento, Calif., to be heavily involved in a potential joint bid with the Reno-Tahoe region as well.

Wirth said three-to-four speed venues for alpine racing have already been identified among Tahoe’s dozen ski resorts and the two Nordic venues near North Lake Tahoe have potential. Events such as Big Air, aerials, moguls and halfpipe could be hosted “very effectively” at any number of the resorts in Tahoe, Wirth said/

“We know, for instance, that Salt Lake and Utah are the platinum standard,” Wirth said, “and we do think we have the interest, the wherewithal to host a Winter Olympics in this region.”

TALE OF THE TAPE

A look at Salt Lake City, Denver and Reno-Tahoe, by the numbers:

DENVER

Hotel rooms • 45,000

Distance to Beaver Creek Ski Resort • 108 miles

Area ski resorts • More than a dozen resorts, including Winter Park, Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek, lie within a two-hour drive from Denver.

Needed venues and projects for bid • Bobsled and luge track; widening of Interstate 70 to resorts

RENO-TAHOE

Downtown hotel rooms • 5,000

Distance to Lake Tahoe • 35 miles

Distance to Sacramento • 131 miles

Lake Tahoe resorts • Squaw Valley, Heavenly, Boreal, Diamond Peak, Alpine Meadows and 10 others

Needed venues and projects for bid • Bobsled, skeleton and luge track, ski jumping hill and indoor skating venue

SALT LAKE CITY

Hotel rooms • 17,000

Distance to Park City • 33 miles

Ski resorts • Deer Valley, Park City Mountain Resort, Snowbasin and Soldier Hollow all hosted events in 2002. Recently, Salt Lake Olympic officials have said they have received interest from some resorts in the Cottonwood canyons about potentially hosting future Olympic events.

Needed venues and projects for bid • Venues need $39 million in upgrades over the next 10 years to be ready to host another Olympic games, according to a recent legislative audit