Thursday, February 21, 2013

On US Olympic Bids

The Boston Globe has a column today about US Olympic bids, touting smaller cities chances at bidding for the summer games, including Boston. While Boston could probably hold a summer Olympics (hey, Atlanta did to, well, not quite universal acclaim), it might be a bit of overkill. The city doesn't need the new baseball stadium (well, it does, but Fenway will live forever) that Atlanta did to justify building an Olympic stadium, the transit system would be strained between venues. While some sports, like rowing and sailing would have terrific natural venues, others, namely high profile events like swimming and track and field, would require major stadium investments the city does not need to make. (The timing would have been right around 2000 to build a stadium the Patriots could have then used, but they have a perfectly good field in Foxboro.)

Plus, the 2024 Olympics are probably not going to go to the US anyway. The bids for 2020 are down to Istanbul, Tokyo and Madrid. Rumor has it that the IOC may look more towards Africa and Asia beyond then, particularly if Tokyo or Madrid wins in 2020. And while it is true that the US will not have hosted a summer games in 28 years, they hosted in 1984 as well (so that makes two in 40 years) and a city would probably have to come in with a strong bid to have a chance. (Chicago and New York flailed for 2012 and 2016.)

The winter games, on the other hand, might make more sense to bid. First of all, there are many fewer cities which can host a winter games. South America, Australia and Africa are out. In recent years, the IOC has moved away from awarding the games to tiny alpine towns as the games—and lucrative spectators—have grown. While the next two Olympics are in smaller cities, they are nowhere near the towns of a few thousand which hosted the games in 1992 and 1994. (Pyeongchang is quite small, but the indoor events in 2018 are taking place in the larger city of Gangneung.) In addition, the trend in recent years has been to have valley-mountain Olympics, where indoor-based venues are held in one location (generally in a city) and outdoor events held at a location further afield.

The Winter Olympics generally rotate between Europe, Asia and North America. The North Americans would be up for the games again in 2022, but a bid appears unlikely, and a European city (Munich was second in 2018 and would be a strong contender, as would Oslo and others) will likely see the games. In 2016 it will have been 16 years since a North American Winter Olympiad, and 24 since the games were held in the US.

So a US city would be a strong contender with a good enough bid. Unlike the summer Olympics, which can be held pretty much anywhere, there are a few course requirements which dictate where the winter games can be held (in addition to the need for snow). The first is the Downhill ski event, which requires a vertical drop of at least 800 meters (2600 feet). A not-high-or-steep-enough hill has been a thorn in the side of Quebec City's hopes for the games (even though it would otherwise make a great host); Montreal would have to look south across the border for enough elevation and multinational bids are not well-received by the IOC. The second issue is that there is an altitude limit of 1800 meters (5800 feet) as the maximum height for cross country ski courses, so while they don't need to start much lower (they only need 25 meters of climb) this becomes an issue for many western venues which only see snow up high. (In 2002, Soldier Hollow just barely squeaked in under the height limit.)

There are also other considerations. A city which would not need to build much new infrastructure (both for indoor arenas and for transportation) would certainly be ahead of a city that did. In addition, it should be assumed that housing for athletes would be built anew and then converted by the city to suit its needs (most of the cities here could use new housing stock). Finally, a city with some winter sports pedigree would be more likely to host the games than one which just happened to be near a ski slope.

Here are some potential cities, and issues which arise with each. I've highlighted each category in either Green (good), Yellow (would need some improvements), Orange (could be a major issue) or Red (would preclude the games, such as the ski slope height in Quebec). I'll assume that, for every location, a Nordic venue would require full snow making.

Boston:

  • Alpine: Several locations within 2-3 hours have adequate elevation, but may require new construction, potentially in an ecologically sensitive area.
  • Nordic: Several potential locations near the city.
  • Indoor Arenas: Existing arenas could be used with minor modifications.
  • Urban Infrastructure: Existing infrastructure could handle in-city traffic, modifications may be required to outlying events.
  • Other: Strong local winter sports history, especially hockey. 
New York:

  • Alpine: While there is a potential location in the Catskills, it is an ecologically sensitive area and there would likely be dramatic opposition to construction there. This might preclude New York as a candidate. (Large-enough downhill venues in New York or Vermont are several hours away and would require major infrastructure investments to be nearby, although a joint Placid/NYC bid might be doable.)
  • Nordic: Several potential not too far from the city.
  • Indoor Arenas: Existing arenas could be used with minor modifications.
  • Urban Infrastructure: Existing infrastructure could handle in-city traffic, modifications may be required to outlying events.
  • Other: Strong local winter sports history, especially hockey.
Albany:

  • Alpine: Whiteface is about 2 hours from the city and could be used.
  • Nordic: Several potential locations near the city.
  • Indoor Arenas: New infrastructure would likely be required to handle events. Some events could be held in New York City arenas, but this would create a long distance between outlying areas.
  • Urban Infrastructure: Existing infrastructure would need to be significantly upgraded.
  • Other: A small city without much major winter sports pedigree.
Minneapolis:

  • Alpine: The highest elevation in the state is 2300 feet. The lowest is 600. In the state. (This would kill bids from other Midwestern cities as well).
  • Nordic: Several potential locations in the city.
  • Indoor Arenas: Existing arenas could be used with minor modifications.
  • Urban Infrastructure: Existing infrastructure could handle in-city traffic, modifications may be required to outlying events.
  • Other: Strong local winter sports history, especially hockey and Nordic skiing. 


Denver:

  • Alpine: Many locations nearby.
  • Nordic: Areas below 1800m receive very sporadic snow and would require new construction and massive snow making / snow hauling efforts. However, such an area, unless it was easily accessible to the urban core, would not be utilized after the games as there is natural snow skiing nearby.
  • Indoor Arenas: Existing arenas could be used with minor modifications.
  • Urban Infrastructure: Existing infrastructure could handle in-city traffic, modifications may be required to outlying events.
  • Other: Strong local winter sports history, especially hockey and Alpine skiing. However, Denver bid for and then turned down the 1976 games, which is still a cause of bitterness with the IOC. They would need a very strong bid to overcome this. (Colorado's politics have changed dramatically, however, in the past 40 years.)
Salt Lake City:

  • Alpine: Many locations nearby
  • Nordic: Soldier Hollow.
  • Indoor Arenas: Existing arenas could be used with minor modifications.
  • Urban Infrastructure: Existing infrastructure could handle in-city traffic, some modifications may be required to outlying events.
  • Other: The city hosted the games in 2002, and the USOC would probably want to run another city's bid if it were up to snuff. 
Reno:

  • Alpine: Many locations in the Tahoe area.
  • Nordic: All developed Nordic areas are well above 5800 feet (the level of lake Tahoe is 6200). A new area would have to be built at a lower elevation where snow would be more sporadic and require snow making, and would not be used after the games because there is good natural snow nearby.
  • Indoor Arenas: New infrastructure would be required.
  • Urban Infrastructure: New infrastructure would be required.
  • Other: While the Lake Tahoe area has a strong winter sports pedigree, Reno itself does not. 
Seattle:

  • Alpine: Many locations nearby
  • Nordic: Several mountain locations
  • Indoor Arenas: Most existing arenas could be used with minor modifications, but a new ice arena might be necessary.
  • Urban Infrastructure: Existing infrastructure could handle in-city traffic, modifications may be required to outlying events.
  • Other: While the mountainous areas near Seattle have a strong winter sports history, Seattle itself does not—for instance, it is the only large city on this list without a professional hockey team.
Looking at this list, Minneapolis would be out lacking mountains and New York likely would as well. Reno and Albany are both rather small, and each has a venue issue (Reno with no low-enough Nordic venue, Albany with a far-away Alpine hill). That leaves Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Boston. Denver and Salt Lake both have historic issues. Salt Lake hosted recently and the US would probably want to run another city. Denver would make a fine host (with the exception of finding a suitable Nordic venue) but 2026 would be the 50th anniversary of their snub (the only time a city has turned down the games) and the IOC holds grudges almost to the degree that they take bribes.

So that leaves Seattle and Boston. Seattle would make a fine host, although it doesn't have a strong winter sports history to the extent that some other cities do (for instance, it has no major pro or college hockey team) and thus might need a major new ice venue. So that leaves Boston.

Boston, I think, would do well with the winter games. With several college venues, the city would have no problem hosting the indoor sports; there are several arenas that could host curling and speed skating (with the added bonus of curling fans in Canada being a not-too-long car trip away). Preliminary hockey rounds could be held in cities across New England (Providence, Hartford, Worcester, Burlington, Manchester, Portland) bring the Olympics to nearby cities and freeing up venue space in town for skating events. Like any new Olympic city, Boston would have to build a sliding center to accommodate the sliding events, and ski jumps for jumping. Oh, and a speed skating event. That brings us to the Nordic and Alpine venues.

There is a website promoting the 2026 games (which has a Facebook page, too—with more likes than the summer page—and an article about it) and it hits on some of the same issues I do here. It promotes Fenway as an Olympic stadium (that would be fun; it did host the Winter Classic a few years back) but it sort of glosses over the Alpine and Nordic events. It mentions locations in New Hampshire and Vermont and—that's about it. In other words, no, please don't put the Nordic events at Bretton Woods.

Here are some things I think.

For Nordic, elevation is not an issue, except that there needs to be enough height differential for a homologated course. The main issue would be the ability to make and keep snow, and any venue in or south of Boston would be iffy (and climate change could render this whole operation moot). However, to the north and west, it would probably be fine. There needs to be room for 10 kilometers of trail, two stadia (for Nordic and Biathlon) and decent access for spectators. An added bonus would be a location which allowed for continued use after the games. Here are some options:
  • Mary Cummings Park in Burlington is owned by the City of Boston and underutilized. It would have space for stadiums and the requisite elevation differential. It is far enough inland that it is probably cold enough to make snow, there is a major water storage facility which could provide water and pressure. It is not on an existing rail line, but could be connected to transit by buses (in fact, the 350 bus already passes the venue hourly). Politically, it's owned by the City of Boston but barely used for anything, so it might be easy to redevelop for active recreation. Along with Prospect (below), it is probably the closest feasible venue to Boston.
  • Just as close, and also somewhat underutilized and owned by the City of Waltham, Prospect Park could have a heck of a cross country course. There has been a move in recent years to steeper hills, and a course which climbed the old ski hills a couple times would really test the skiers. Transit is a bit of an issue (the 70A passes nearby, and the southern end of the park is only a mile from downtown Waltham) although a light rail or commuter rail spur could be built along the old Mass Central to serve the southern end of the park. (This could actually be built as a loop branching off of the current Fitchburg Line just west 128 and looping back through North Waltham; three miles of existing right of way would not be terribly expensive.) A temporary stadium could be built in the parking lots of some of the nearby office parks to the west of the park, which would also have spectator parking. The park already has several manmade structures (water tanks, radio towers and the like) but would need to have trails built, although it could enhance the current eroded trails, especially along the old ski hill. Snowmaking might be an issue, but it's no warmer, really, than Mary Cummings.
  • Great Brook Farm State Park has a ski concession and the requisite elevation (barely). Snow making temperatures would not be an issue, but water capacity might. Transportation capacity is limited, although buses from rail lines nearby would be feasible, albeit on narrow roads. In addition, building trails in the park might be an ecological issue in the rural town. 
  • Wachusett Mountain would be a fine location for a Nordic venue. Elevation is available to the northwest of the mountain or east (south of Wachusett Lake) or northeast of Route 140. It would also have room for a sliding facility and jumping area. It is further from Boston, but if combined with snowboarding and some smaller-hill ski events it could justify a four-mile rail spur to serve the complex. Such a spur could be utilized in the future to serve this facility. This would probably be the best option.
  • The Wapack Range has the requisite snow and elevation for Nordic venues, although it would be constrained by infrastructure with steep, narrow roads. Windblown was talked about as a Nordic venue a few years ago, and Mount Watatic in Massachusetts might be suitable a well, but Wachusett seems like a better bet.
  • The Merrimack Valley in New Hampshire would have several potential venues near potential rail transit and current highways.
  • Brattleboro has an existing ski jump which could be used for jumping events. It's only an hour drive from Wachusett (albeit on Route 2) and the state and feds are putting a lot of money in to upgrading the rail line from Springfield to Vermont, which is within a mile of the ski jump.
  • Further north in New Hampshire, several current ski areas could host events, but obviously are further and have more access issues.
Here's how the Wachusett area could be set up to host jumping, sliding, Nordic and smaller downhill and snowboard events:


View Wachusett in a larger map

For Alpine the main issue is finding somewhere with 800 meters of elevation. I'd suggest holding snowboarding events at Wachusett, and building a sliding, Nordic and potentially jumping area nearby to justify infrastructure improvements (including a rail spur from the Fitchburg commuter line, which could support one-hour rail serve to Downtown Boston). For downhill events, there are several options, but most are further from Boston:
  • There are a couple of resorts in New England with enough elevation to hold an Olympic-level downhill event (or which would need very minor modifications to meet the criteria). They are, however, rather far from Boston. Killington has more than enough elevation, and its main issue is that it is 25 miles from the nearest Interstate (although compared to the Sea-to-Sky highway in 2010, this is a minor issue). More importantly, Killington's downhill is not well suited for the event. In Vermont, Sugarbush would also qualify, but it is a more-than-three hour drive from Boston. In Maine, Sugarloaf would be a fine venue, but it is four hours from Boston. No mountain in New Hampshire comes close to the required vertical.
  • There are a few areas which have the requisite elevation for a purpose-built downhill slope but wouldn't be usable for a variety of reasons. Several of these can be tossed out immediately, such as Tuckerman Ravine (which is USFS very-protected land, has frequent visibility issues, avalanches and will not have a lift constructed, ever), Mount Moosilauke (ecological impediments, Dartmouth owns the whole thing) and Camel's Hump (ecological). Although in Sapporo they did build a downhill course in a national park, and then let it revegetate after the games.
This leaves areas with 2600 foot downhills, good road connections and nearby downhill areas to serve other events. The first two that stick out for me are near Loon Mountain, the north side of the Winooski River in Vermont and Ascutney:
  • Loon is probably the best option. It is a two-hour, all-interstate drive from Boston (and if rail service were extended to Concord, New Hampshire, it would preclude the need to dramatically limit traffic on the gridlocked southern portion of I-93; the venue itself would be accessible by rail, although it might be a good excuse to extend carpool lanes and use them for bus service during the games) and the current mountain could easily support every event except the downhill. One option would be to build a new trail from the top Scar Ridge just east of Loon to the Kancamagus highway below. This would have a major visual impact, however, and would barely make it to the requisite height requirement. It would, however, require only one new lift from the current summit of Loon. The second Loon option would be to look across the valley. It would require a new trail to be built on the southern flank of Mount Liberty, but this construction would not impinge on the current Osseo hiking trail, and would rise only to about 3800 feet. It would require a stadium below, but this could be built somewhere in the vicinity of the condo developments along the Kancamagus. The hill would have southern exposure, and require snowmaking to guarantee snow. With both there options, the main issue would be ecology and forest service bureaucracy—they both extend in to the fragile subalpine zone and any trees cut would take years to regenerate even if the trail was only used for the one event. 
  • Another option is along the Winooski River in Vermont. Just south of Bolton Valley, there is just enough elevation to run from about 3000 feet to the Winooski River below. It would require a short lift from the Bolton, and would have minimal impact since the construction would be limited to mostly northern hardwood forest areas (rather than subalpine timber, and not forest service land). It is only about three hours from Boston, and all on the interstate, and is on a current passenger rail route as well. It too has southern exposure, however, which would be a consideration for snowmaking. 
  • A third option is Mount Ascutney in Vermont. Ascutney had a ski area in operation until quite recently, but this would not likely suffice for a downhill run. It had a vertical drop of just 1800 feet, and while it could be extended to the top of the mountain, that would only add about 500 feet. The Northwest side of the mountain, where it is located, bottoms out at 800 feet, and with a summit elevation of 3100, it would be hard to squeeze in 800m (2624 feet). The east side, however, holds some promise. The mountain drops off quickly in to the Connecticut River, which is below 400 feet, just enough vertical drop to qualify (and likely the lowest elevation base for an Alpine run in Olympics history). A ski run could be built along the current road and power line which reach the top of the mountain, which would minimize ecological impact. The trail could be built mostly on the northern side of an east-running ridge, so snow retention would not be a major issue. The base of the run would end at Interstate 91, so access would be less of an issue. It's not a straight shot from Boston but all on highways. There is a nearby rail station in Claremont and the rail line runs across the river, but it would be a push to have service from Boston (the direct rail connection via Concord was abandoned years ago; service could be run via Worcester, Amherst and Brattleboro). 
Obviously this is just a tiny piece of the puzzle—a Boston Olympiad would have many other hurdles to overcome. But as far as bidding for the summer games versus the winter, I think the winter makes much more sense. Most of the in-city venues would be in place; the only requirements would be a speed skating facility (under $100m in recent games, and convertible to a variety of other uses). Conte Forum, Agganis Arena, Conte Forum and Matthews Arena could be used for events like curling and short track, while the TD Garden hosts marquee events like ice hockey and figure skating. (The DCU and Dunkin Donuts centers in Worcester and Providence could also host larger events; they have higher capacities than the venues in town.) The Olympics are fraught with cost overruns and whether it's a good idea, financially, to host is up for discussion. But Boston would have to build no new venues in the city (in 2014 and 2018, nearly all venues will be newly-built) and wouldn't have to cut entirely new alpine ski trails (also the case in 2014 and 2018). Thus, the city could, with minimal investment (certainly less than the $50 billion being spent in Sochi), put on a formidable games, and might be the best contender in the US to host.

Putting pencil to paper, and looking at what other recent venues in Western Hemisphere (Salt Lake and Vancouver) have spent, here's a quick ballpark:

Arena events:
Vancouver: Rogers Arena, capacity 18,000 and others (capacity 6,000 to 14,000)
Salt Lake City: Maverik Center, capacity 10,000
Boston: TD Garden (final games), DCU Center and Dunkin Donuts Center (preliminary games)
Comments: Being a hockey hotbed (moreso than, say, Salt Lake) hockey would likely be well-attended. There would be no issue filling up venues in Worcester and Providence, which are right near rail stations with easy service to Boston. The Garden could be used for skating for most of the games, and then hockey for the final games. Smaller events (curling, short track, ice dancing) could be held at Conte, Matthews and Agganis, and potentially at the Tsongas Arena in Lowell.

Freestyle Skiing / Snowboarding:
Vancouver: Cypress Mountain
Salt Lake City: Deer Valley
Boston: Wachusett
Comments: I assume that Wachusett's 1000 feet of vertical is enough for these events. They'd probably take over the mountain for two weeks, but I'm sure Wachusett would like the free publicity and infrastructure improvements. Cost to retrofit the mountain: $10m.

Alpine Skiing: See above. If you could hold the downhill somewhere like Sugarbush, you could probably get away with minor additional costs. If you wind up building a new downhill run, it may well run $50m.

Nordic Skiing: The cost to build Soldier Hollow was $22m (about $30m adjusted for inflation). The venue in Whistler included ski jumps and cost $120m.

Jumping: If you build it in Brattleboro, maybe $10m to upgrade the facilities there to Olympic standards. If you have to build it from scratch somewhere like Wachusett, it's probably another $50m. In Utah, the jumping venue was paired with the sliding venue and cost $75m in the late 1990s, so about $90m today.

Sliding: The Whistler Sliding Centre cost $105m to build. If a Wachusett-area venue could share infrastructure with nearby events, it might cost somewhat less.

Oval: The skating oval in Salt Lake cost $30m, but in Vancouver cost more than $150m. These are the biggest arenas for the winter games, and they're pretty useless for anything else. It is highly doubtful that the Reggie Lewis Center or even the BCEC could be retrofitted, so you'd have to build this somewhere it could be converted to a better use, or somewhere out of the way enough where you'd want a bunch of indoor sports fields. Figure $100m, minimum.

So for the arenas, you get:

  • Freestyle/Snowboarding: $10m
  • Alpine: $10m-100m
  • Nordic/Jumping/Sliding: $100m-200m, depending on whether you use Brattleboro and how you combine the venues.
  • Oval: $100m-150m
  • Olympic stadium: I think we can all agree on Fenway, figure $30m-40m for that.
So, give-or-take, you have a range of $250m to $500m for the venues. That's peanuts, compared to Sochi.

But then you have the other expenses. You have to build a village (I'd volunteer the Beacon Park area for this), figure $1b for that (although it can then all become housing, so it might be a wash). My pet project would be grade separating the Grand Junction to allow rapid-transit service from Allston to Kendall to North Station. Figure $1b there, but that dramatically improves mobility and capacity for the T. If you had events in Providence, Worcester and Lowell, it would be a great excuse to electrify and upgrade those commuter rail lines, which would be $2b, but would dramatically improve service on those lines as well.

So that's $4b of infrastructure. Add in 10% contingency, and it costs you $5b. Oro 10% of Sochi, and you're not left with a bunch of hotels no one will ever use again.

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