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Bill Jennings: Contemplating a local Winter Olympics

The 2018 Winter Olympics begin today in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Pyeongchang is a small mountain town in one of the most remote areas of the country. When the outrageously expensive honor of hosting an Olympic Games was awarded to the community, it launched a marketing campaign with the tagline “Happy 700.”

The 700 part refers to the town’s elevation – 700 meters (2,297 feet). According to Pyeongchang tourism authorities, 700 meters is the sweet spot where human biorhythms happily hum along. In reference to this claim, journalists at The Washington Post searched for a U.S. location biorhythmically similar to Pyeongchang with the potential to host a Winter Olympics.

Excluding pseudoscience as a confounding factor, WaPo researchers considered population and topography in addition to elevation. Deficiencies in some or all of these disqualified more than 900 candidates. A clear winner emerged: Coeur d’Alene.

Could a future Winter Olympics land in our own backyard? Why not? The bidding process is currently in play for the 2026 games. But Coeur d’Alene would have little chance for success against the obvious contenders. Former Olympic hosts Salt Lake City and Lake Placid, New York, have already anted up. But the 2030 Winter Olympics could still be up for grabs.

The exorbitant cost of throwing an Olympic party tends to bankrupt entire nations. The other existing North American sites – Squaw Valley (1960), Calgary (1988) and Vancouver (2010) – probably know better from experience. But having a massive Olympic infrastructure in place is the best thing going for Salt Lake City and Lake Placid.

The available infrastructure around the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area today would not be considered Olympic caliber. It’s not likely that voters would endorse digging a hole deep enough to hold several billion dollars either. But change is unpredictable.

Pyeongchang launched its third attempt to host the Olympics in 2007. In 11 years, propelled by $13 billion and counting from the Korean government, it morphed from poor, unknown backwater to become the center of the world’s stage for two weeks. Spokane/Coeur d’Alene has about the same amount of time to get busy for 2030. So let’s indulge in a little fantasy.

Spokane has a very nice ice arena that has successfully hosted many championship figure skating events. That’s a good start. Just a few billion dollars cast hither and yon could provide facilities for speed skating, ski jumping, luge and bobsled. But you can’t have a Winter Olympics without mountains of a certain stature.

We’ve got plenty of mountains around. You may think that our modest peaks pale in comparison to the majestic alpine massifs found at Olympic sites such as Salt Lake City and Innsbruck, Austria. But the 2018 Olympic men’s downhill starts at a mere 4,495 feet – the base-area elevation of most local ski hills.

However, the key to a successful Olympic downhill venue is vertical drop. The International Ski Federation (FIS) requires a minimum vertical drop of 800 meters (2,625 feet). Pyeongchang has wrung 825 meters (2,707 feet) out of its downhill course. Conveniently located Silver Mountain and Schweitzer have total vertical drops that approach the FIS minimum.

Silver Mountain has a 2,200-foot vertical drop, but it’s too kinky for an Olympic downhill. To fulfill that vertical promise, a race would start down Silver Belt from the top of chair two, drop left into Rendezvous, cross the cat track at the bottom of chair three and continue down Lower Centennial.

Schweitzer has 2,400 feet of vertical. It’s a destination resort with size and scenery that could make it a player. But to meet the FIS minimum, a theoretical downhill course would somehow have to drop from the top of the Lakeview triple chair to a point 225 feet below the bottom of the bunny hill.

The closest local hill with a continuous fall line with the potential to address the requirements of an Olympic downhill is Granite Peak at Red Mountain, with a 2,800-foot vertical drop. But that’s in Canada – so forget about it.

Alas, humankind can perform some amazing feats, such as transforming an impoverished South Korean outpost into a celebrated international sporting venue. Yet we still can’t move mountains. The Inland Northwest won’t be hosting a Winter Olympic Games in the foreseeable future. And our biorhythms will probably be better off without them.


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