How Colorado Springs Became The Heart Of The U.S. Olympic Movement

In the 1970s, a fierce power struggle over the future of amateur sports landed the U.S. Olympic Committee in a Cold War-era tactical room in southern Colorado. With the London Olympics around the way, we delve into the strange story behind the city cultivating America’s top athletes.

In the summer of 1978, the United States Olympic Committee moved its headquarters from New York City to Colorado Springs, after winning a protracted battle over who would control amateur sports in America and the country’s Olympic prospects. The small staff settled into a two-story brick building on the empty Ent Air Force Base in town.

Olympic House, as it would come to be known, had been the office of the commanding general of the North American Air Defense Command. NORAD’s job, at the time, was to monitor the skies over North America for intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads, although by the 1970s it had moved underground to nearby Cheyenne Mountain. Next door to the USOC’s new headquarters, the governing bodies of several amateur sports organizations moved into a fifth-floor office that still had on its walls targeted maps of the Soviet Union.

“This was the epicenter for the U.S. strategic response and monitoring of Cold War issues,” recalls Mike Moran, who moved to town at the same time as the Olympic Committee to become its chief spokesman, a job he held for the next 25 years. “It’s now the center of the American Olympic movement.”

Click the image to see our slideshow of the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center.

The tradeoff turned out to be a pretty good deal for Colorado Springs, a city now internationally synonymous with amateur sports (not that you don’t want your city to be internationally synonymous with intercontinental ballistic missiles). No one saw it coming in 1978, with the U.S. Olympic Committee limping from controversy and the worldwide Olympic movement hardly the billion-dollar enterprise it is today (as London prepares to host this summer’s games, the price tag to put on one of these biennial jamborees has ballooned to $15 billion).

Back in Colorado Springs, all of this translates into about $215 million a year in economic impact, according to a USOC study commissioned in 2010. That year, the Olympic Committee and its related organizations and businesses employed more than 2,100 people here. The tally included 22 national sports governing bodies now located in Colorado Springs, as well, but not several dozen other amateur sports groups in the area. Other outfits, from the Mountain West Conference to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, are now headquartered in Colorado Springs, too. Each year, about 13,000 athletes and sports staff travel to the city's Olympic Training Center, and a good 125,000 of the rest of us come, too, just to get a peek at what they’re doing.

And to think, all of this could have developed 1,000 miles away--in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

In the 1970s, the USOC was embroiled in a power grab with the NCAA and the Amateur Athletic Union over who would govern the status of amateur athletes in America and lead them into international competition. The three feuded over jurisdiction. Athletes caught in the middle never got the chance to compete in the Olympics. The 1976 Summer Games in Montreal proved a particular embarrassment for the USOC, which logistically failed to get several American track and field athletes to the starting line.

In response, Congress passed the Olympic and Amateur Sports Act to settle the issue. “That piece of legislation in 1978 completely redid the map of amateur sports,” Moran says. The USOC was given a monopoly over all things Olympic-related, and it was charged with doing a better job of funding and preparing American athletes. The law also required the USOC to establish a permanent Olympic training center, something the small organization located on Park Avenue could hardly do in New York City.

Only two cities seriously bid to host the new training complex and headquarters: Colorado Springs and Baton Rouge. This seems laughable in retrospect. “It was a different time,” Moran says--both for the Olympics themselves and the municipal horse race of luring economic development. Colorado Springs, already by then a center for figure skating, offered use of the former 34-acre air force base for rent at $1 a year (the whole property was eventually deeded to the USOC in the 1990s). And the El Pomar Foundation, a powerful philanthropy group rooted in Colorado Springs since the 1930s, offered to cut the USOC $1 million to close the deal.

Click the image to see our slideshow of the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center.

Ent Air Force Base wasn’t a typical airfield, an otherwise empty tarmac on which the USOC could begin to build its new home from scratch. The base was located just 17 blocks east of downtown, with a warren of subterranean tunnels connecting its many rundown buildings above ground. It took years for the USOC to tear down these facilities and construct its own. A state-of-the-art aquatics center, visitor center, athlete housing, and sports medicine facility weren’t opened until 1997. And the last of the original Ent buildings wasn’t razed until last year. The last to go was, fittingly, Olympic House, the first building the USOC occupied in 1978.

The organization has now moved its headquarters into downtown Colorado Springs, as part of a $53 million public/private agreement that guarantees that the USOC will stay here for at least another three decades.

As for the city itself, “it matured with the growth of the USOC and the dramatic growth of the Olympic Games,” Moran says. “For a long time, it was hard for people locally to understand the Olympic Committee.” People didn’t get the difference between the training center (the brick-and-mortar facility that prepares athletes) and the Olympic Committee (the governing body of Olympic sports for the entire country). “But over time,” Moran says, “as historic decisions--like the decision to boycott the Moscow Olympics--were made here, people began to realize what the USOC was.”

And the city’s entire amateur sports economy, he says, has since grown up on its coattails.

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[Image: Flickr user Mark Shaiken]

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