A Seattle Olympics?

Downhill racer at 2010 Winter Olympiad in Vancouver, BC Credit: jonwick04/Flickr

Seattle's interest in being a world-class city springs eternal, and in the wake of the 50th anniversary of Seattle’s Century 21 World's Fair some civic boosters have wondered if Seattle can regain the mojo of the Mad Men era. While another world's fair is off the table for the foreseeable future — no U.S. city can host one at this time because the US withdrew from the Bureau of International Expositions — the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi, Russia are a reminder that we've never hosted an Olympics.

That dream is not entirely dead. Last year, Seattle was mentioned as a possible host for the 2024 summer games. In March 2013 Mayor Mike McGinn asked the city to look into it. Our Cascadian neighbors to the north, Vancouver and Calgary, have hosted Olympics. Such talk here usually gets shot down fast–the costs are high and only seem to pencil out if the infrastructure and publicity offer a long-term payoff. A big question mark.

There's public and political skepticism too. A year ago, the results of a Seattle Times online poll ran 60-40 against hosting. In 1998, a large majority of the city council refused to support a bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics. With civic support, Olympic bids are speculative and expensive. Without hometown backing, they're stillborn.

But it wasn't always so. Little remembered is that Seattle once did make a play for the Winter Games. The city competed with Lake Placid, Denver and Salt Lake City for the right to be the U.S. host in 1976. The chance to make our case to the United States Olympic Committee came in December 1967 and the city, flush with post-World's Fair moxie, saw a chance to star on the world's stage during America's bicentennial year.

Seattle had targeted sports as its ticket to "big league" city status. The Supersonics were playing their first season, and city boosters were angling for a baseball franchise – trying to steal the Athletics from Kansas City. Plans were also afoot for a major new stadium, and the Seafair hydroplane races were still a big deal.

In terms of luring the Olympics, Seattle's experience with the Century 21 gave the boosters confidence and a template. The city's bid was backed by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Mayor J.D. "Dorm" Braman and Governor Dan Evans, an avid skier and outdoorsman. The local organizing committee included World’s Fair vets Western International Hotels' Eddie Carlson, who'd headed the exposition effort; Louis Larsen, the fair’s former head of special events and afterwards the man in charge of Seattle Center; mayoral aide Ed Devine, who had worked at the World’s Fair and later headed the Pacific Science Center; and Century 21’s publicity expert Jay Rockey.

Seattle’s Olympic bid, Devine told The Seattle Times, was "a new platform for our World's Fair spirit to stand on." That bid emphasized how the little city that pulled off the big fair in '62 could repeat that success with the Winter Olympic Games.

First, Seattle knew how to raise funds from public and private sectors, and get the word out. We'd drawn nearly 10 million people and the global press to our little corner of the country.

Second, while the World's Fair focus had been science, no one – Olympic officials were assured – loved the outdoors and winter sports more than Seattleites. Seattle boasted the "highest ratio of skiers to general population" of any city in North America.

Third, we had the facilities, both natural and manmade. The city was close to Snoqualmie Pass, perfect for alpine skiing, bobsled and luge events (at Alpental), ski jumping (at Hyak) and cross country and the biathlon (at Keechelus). The Seattle Center, left over from the fair, was the perfect venue for skating and hockey events, and an adjacent Olympic Village that could be converted to low-income or university housing after the fair. (Other village options included Yesler Terrace and Mt. Baker ridge above the I-90 tunnels).

Finally, Seattle offered cultural infrastructure, important for the kinds of arts events that tend to accompany an Olympiad.

The 1967 bid is a snapshot of the era's boosterism and the post-fair determination not to lose momentum. Writers of the report outlining Seattle's advantages expected that mass transit would be up and running by 1976 due to an anticipated Forward Thrust vote. To allay concerns that Seattle was too remote, they included a chart of air travel times based on the sure-to-be-flying Super Sonic Transport (SST), a faster-than-sound jet in development at Boeing. Seattle was only three SST hours from Mexico City, six from Munich, and eight from Melbourne. The bid also referred to plans for a mile-long expressway connecting Seattle Center with I-5 and a domed stadium next to the Seattle Center.

As we now know, much of that did not come to pass. Mass transit failed with the voters, and Boeing pulled the plug on its SST, which deepened the "turn-the-lights-out" recession of the early '70s. The expressway was nixed; the Mercer Mess just now being untangled. That domed stadium (the Kingdome) did open in 1976, but in SoDo not South Queen Anne. A recession, voter skepticism about growth, civic squabbling, environmental concerns and shifts in the airline business all created bumps in the road. Still, one wonders if the Olympics bid had been successful might it have provided an impetus for mass transit and other improvements?

Seattle's delegation included Mayor Braman, Chamber president Robert Beaupre, Olav Ulland, champion ski jumper and co-founder of the Osborn and Ulland sports chain, sports booster Torchy Torrance, Rolf Lystad of United Airlines, and Larsen. Gov. Evans was supposed to go along, but had to stay behind at the last minute and sent his aide – and eventual Supreme Court Justice – James Dolliver to round out the team.

The group boarded a 9am flight from Sea-Tac to New York on Saturday, Dec. 16. They made their pitch to the U.S. Olympic Committee at 11:15 the following morning at New York's Roosevelt Hotel. They had a slide show, a bound bid volume, a tight script and 30 minutes to make Seattle’s case.

The Olympic Committee moved quickly. That afternoon, Seattle and Salt Lake were knocked out in the early voting, and Denver beat Lake Placid in the final vote. Larsen remembers that some U.S.O.C members thought Seattle was just too remote, though he adds, "Lillehammer is remote too!" Despite the World's Fair success, Seattle had still not shed its backwater image. Larsen also feels that the absence of Dan Evans made a difference. Colorado's charismatic governor, John A. Love, made a strong impression that Seattle couldn't match. On the other hand, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller couldn’t save the bid for Lake Placid.

Providing further evidence that things don't turn out as planned, Denver eventually won the international competition to host the Winter Olympics in '76, edging out another Northwest rival, Vancouver, B.C. But when the citizens of Denver rebelled over the cost of the Games and voted down the bond issue to fund them, a red-faced Denver was forced to back out. Seattle passed on the second chance this created. Salt Lake volunteered to step in, but the Winter Games wound up in Innsbruck, Austria that year and the U.S. wound up with a black eye for pulling the plug at the last minute.

The cost of hosting an Olympics is high today. The Sochi games are expected to be the most expensive Olympics ever with a CNN-estimated price tag of over $50 billion dollars. The Beijing Summer Olympics were at least $40 billion. Vancouver spent around $7 billion on its Winter Olympics in 2010.

The bidding process alone can carry a jaw-dropping price tag. Chicago spent an estimated $100 million on its failed bid to land the 2016 Summer Olympics. In contrast, the estimated budget for the Seattle Olympics Committee came in at around $10 million.

"Seattle is certainly a city that can host an Olympics at some point," says Ralph Morton of the Seattle Sports Council. "The question long-term is the financial viability, ROI and feasibility." Seattle is currently spending more than $7 billion on mega-projects, including the downtown tunnel, the waterfront makeover and the expansion of Sound Transit and the 520 bridge. In other words, we're spending as if we're preparing to host an Olympics, but without all the fun and hoopla that go along with it.

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