Wild About Anchorage? The Winter Olympics Should Look North to the Future

A ski racer participates in the Tour of Anchorage Nordic ski race on Jan. 21, 2021 at Kincaid Park in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Matt Tunseth)

Hosting the Olympics is a terrible idea, according to pretty much everyone with an opinion on the topic. The Games are prohibitively expensive, fraught with corruption, displace the homeless and saddle future generations with useless, pointless infrastructure.

But what if they didn’t have to be? What if the Olympics could be used as an urban renewal project for one of North America’s most promise-filled cities? What if the Games could serve as a bridge between the outdated building practices of the past and a people-centered future centered around the concept of livability? Rather than an ostentatious show of wealth, what if the Olympics could be a showcase of humble sustainability?

It’s a reach, I know. But hear me out.

Anchorage, Alaska is a global enigma, a near-mythic location that can seem both exotic to outsiders and oddly mundane to first-time visitors. It’s one of the five largest cities north of the 60th parallel and is surprisingly cosmopolitan due to its relative proximity to the U.S. West Coast, Asia and Europe. The city is known for its diverse population, which is only 57 percent White and includes ethnic groups from every curve and cranny of the globe, and more than 100 languages are spoken in the homes of Anchorage schoolchildren.

Alaska’s reputation as an ice-covered frontier is well-earned, but visitors to Anchorage expecting igloos and fur-trappers invariably find themselves shocked by the city’s modern skyline and disappointed by Anchorage’s relentlessly ordinary appearance, which is more reminiscent of the rust belt than some exotic North Pole fairytale.

Anchorage’s problems are quite similar to those you’ll find in any major American city. Visible homelessness and poverty are persistent issues in the city, whose most iconic sports facility — the aging George M. Sullivan Arena — was converted into a homeless shelter at the start of the Covid pandemic and has served in that capacity since. The city’s economy has been struggling since before Covid, and the pandemic hasn’t helped matters in a city that’s experienced an outflow of population since 2016.

The city’s problems stem largely from the systemic issues facing the larger Alaska economy — namely the question of how the state will transition from its past reliance on oil and gas to a system that will be sustainable into the future. Until this existential question is addressed by Alaska’s people and politicians, it’s likely the state and its largest city will remain in a state of stagnation, a treading of water that’s likely to cost massive amounts of money and opportunity for as long as it lasts.

But Anchorage is also a city with unrivaled potential and one of the world’s great outdoor destinations, a place where moose and bears roam city streets, where urban trails are ubiquitous and where snow-capped mountains rise directly from the sea.

While most tourists prefer to visit in the endless light of summer, Anchorage is truly a winter sports paradise that boasts world-class amenities and in recent years has grown into the capital of North American cross country skiing. Many of the United States’s top Nordic skiers are now based in Anchorage, whose massive seaside Kincaid Park ranks as one of the country’s premier cross country ski venues. In Beijing about a dozen athletes with Alaska ties were represented, including eight members of the cross-country ski team.

Anchorage has previously attempted to attract the Olympics, and the city came tantalizingly close to hosting in both 1992 and ’94, when it won the American bid to host the Games but lost out to Albertville, France (’92) and Lillehammer, Norway (‘94).

Olympic spirit in the city has waned in the decades since, with the effort briefly brought to the forefront when former Mayor Dan Sullivan explored the idea in 2013. But that effort didn’t go far, and there has been no organized bid effort since.

(For a comprehensive history of Anchorage’s Olympic dreams, check out this Anchorage Daily News story by Michelle Theriault Boots).

One of the main sticking points for an Olympics in Anchorage would be the weather. Southcentral Alaska is currently buried in snow after an unusually snowy winter, but that’s not always the case. In several recent years, snowfall totals have been abysmal and have forced high-profile winter events like the Iditarod (which holds its traditional start in Anchorage) to move out of town for lack of snow. However, both Kincaid Park and Alyeska Ski Resort in nearby Girdwood have advanced snowmaking equipment that could be deployed during snowless winters, and venues outside of Anchorage in Hatcher Pass and Girdwood are at high enough elevations that they could also be used as backup venues if needed. But these issues are global in an age of climate change, and when compared to Olympic cities at lower latitudes — such as Salt Lake or Vancouver — Anchorage is as good a bet as anywhere to have a snow-filled February.

Olympic-class winter sports venues are also lacking in Anchorage, whose Sullivan Arena is long past its prime. In fact, the entirety of the Midtown Sports Complex is aged and decrepit — which means it’s an excellent time to think about a new direction. The giant swath of land located just south of Downtown is ideally located to serve as a centerpiece sports facility, and an Olympics bid would be the perfect impetus to revitalizing the area.

Other facilities in Anchorage would need improvements and upgrades, but not massively so. Hilltop Ski Area is equipped with a ski jumping area, and the area is large enough that the addition of a sliding track would be theoretically feasible. Existing rinks could be used for indoor sports such as curling and speedskating with relatively limited upgrades, and Kincaid Park is already capable of hosting world-class skiing and biathlon events. While other cities have needed to spend billions on facilities, Anchorage’s existing framework of venues would mean the city would need far less preparation than other cities in order to host a world-class event.

One of Anchorage’s most pressing issues is wintertime liveability. The city’s downtown is notoriously unfriendly to both pedestrians and cyclists, a problem that would have to be solved in order to host the thousands of visitors who would descend on the city during an Olympic Games. Anchorage could use this opportunity to address this issue by building sustainable and usable infrastructure such as pedestrian walkways, dedicated bike lanes and improved public transit — all of which are sorely needed in the neighborhoods surrounding the core of the city.

In addition to a new central stadium, the city would also need to create an athlete’s village suitable for housing hundreds of athletes during the Games. Rather than building something that would be either turned over to the private sector or demolished afterwards, the city could use this as a rare opportunity to build world-class facilities for those who need them most — namely, those who have fallen through the cracks of society.

After the Games are over, I would propose we use the facilities built for the athletes as transitional housing for those in need and the mentally ill. This would not be easy and would likely require a vast amount of cooperation and buy-in from the state as a whole. But a large, centralized community focused on finding mental health and housing solutions for our most vulnerable could prove to be a model for cities across the country.

Improved infrastructure and increased access to affordable housing are two of the most pressing issues facing Anchorage, and both of them could be addressed through an Olympics bid. Neither of these solutions would come easily and the ways in which they’ve been presented in this column are intentionally simplistic and idealized; obviously massive public spending on these types of projects would be expensive and require far more thought than I’ve given them here. But they’re not outside the realm of possibility, and their generalized benefits to all should be enough to warrant serious discussion and consideration.

Homelessness and infrastructure are not the biggest problems facing Anchorage. The city’s largest current issue is in fact one of divisiveness. During the past decade Anchorage has undergone an identity crisis that threatens to further drag its residents into partisan bickering and worse, and the political divide between those on the “left” and “right” has never been more pronounced — one needs only visit the madhouse that is the Anchorage Assembly to see how dysfunctional the city has become during this Age of Animosity.

This is the issue that would perhaps be most impacted by an Olympics bid. For perhaps the first time, political rivals would find themselves on the same side of an issue, working together to find creative ways to help the city win together. What Anchorage needs more than anything else right now is a reason to pull in the same direction, and there’s no effort that would accomplish that goal more than showcasing the city on the world’s largest stage.

Funding such a project would be difficult, especially in a state and city that’s struggling with developing a long-term financial plan. But any such plan that is devised will likely rely heavily on enhancing Anchorage’s status as a tourism and cultural hub for global travelers, and no event is better at bridging gaps between cultures like the Olympics. With Anchorage’s unique status as a global crossroads (the city is located within nine air hours of Honolulu, Tokyo, London, Moscow and Frankfurt), the city could cement its place in the pantheon of the world’s emerging cities of the coming century.

When I was a kid, I remember the excitement and unbridled hope I felt at the idea of the Olympics coming to Alaska. Now that I’m grown and recognize the immense challenges that would come with such an event, I’m less wide-eyed and more pragmatic about the possibility. But I’m just as enthusiastic about the idea — maybe even more so.

An Olympics in Anchorage would be incredibly scary, tremendously risky and perhaps the most audacious new idea since the Iditarod. People said Dorothy Page and Joe Redington were crazy back then for even suggesting the idea of a 1,000-mile sled dog race across Alaska, and maybe they were right — it probably was a crazy idea. But Alaska is better off because of if, and maybe it’s time for another big idea.

Let the Games begin.

This column is the opinion of Matt Tunseth, a freelance writer from Anchorage, Alaska. He has previously worked as an editor and report at several Alaska newspapers, including the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch News, Peninsula Clarion, Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman and Chugiak-Eagle River Star.

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Matt Tunseth is a freelance writer and photographer from Alaska. Write to him at matthew.tunseth@gmail.com

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Matthew Tunseth

Matthew Tunseth

Matt Tunseth is a freelance writer and photographer from Alaska. Write to him at matthew.tunseth@gmail.com

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