Sports biz: Don Elliman’s Olympic questions

Don Elliman has a larger-than-life resume, an impressive pedigree in sports business, and connections everywhere. So when he was named co-chair of an Olympics exploratory committee for Denver last December, it sent a signal that this was a serious effort involving serious players.

Elliman, who is executive director of the University of Colorado’s Charles C. Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Biology, was previously chief of Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade. Before that, he ran Kroenke Sports Enterprises, owner of the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche, and in the 1990s, he was president and publisher of Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated magazine. Working with him as committee volunteers are 20 Colorado business and community figures including Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom, attorney Steve Farber and Elliman’s co-chair Anne Warhover, CEO of Colorado Health Foundation.

The committee’s formation has raised the tantalizing specter that, nearly 36 years after Coloradans famously snubbed the International Olympic Committee by turning down a chance to host the 1976 Winter games, there’s at least a possibility the Olympics could happen here in 2020.

But before anybody drafts a Craigslist ad to lease out a condo in Summit County, beware that there’s at least one significant hurdle standing in Elliman’s way.

And that would be Don Elliman.

Although he’s charged with co-managing the exploratory effort, Elliman is wary of getting out of the gates too soon. When we visited with Elliman last month in downtown Denver, he sounded anything but convinced that the 2020 Winter Games are right for Colorado. Or that Colorado is right for them.
It’s not his job to cheerlead for the Olympics, he explained, but to lead an examination of all aspects of the Olympics question, and trying to come up with the right answer to the biggest question of all: Is an all-out pursuit of an Olympic bid the right thing to do for a state that’s pressed by a range of significant challenges in education, the economy and the environment?

Elliman, who attended Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, Atlanta, and Sapporo, Japan, says he loves the splendor and majesty of the games. And he’s seen first-hand the dramatic impact the event had on cities like Lillehammer, whose civic pride and global standing were forever elevated by hosting the 1994 Winter games.

But at least for now, he’s holding out on whether the Olympics make sense for a state he calls home.

“I love Colorado,” says Elliman, who grew up near New York City. “Colorado is my home, and it will be until I no longer need a home.”

The hard work of determining whether to bid at all will be rooted in a fact-finding effort divided among four subcommittees that will explore operations and technical issues, outreach and approvals, finance and fundraising, and the “why/why not” question. If the group does recommend going forward, Elliman said he wants to make sure everyone understands the journey must be worth the effort.

Mounting an Olympics bid is a sprawling task requiring courtship of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which will select which, if any, U.S. city should present a bid to the IOC. And that’s just for starters. Even if Denver is selected by the USOC sometime in 2013 – other contenders include Salt Lake City and Reno/Tahoe, Nev. – the IOC may well select a city outside the U.S.

Knowing that, Elliman’s directive to committee members sounds like something you’d hear from the coach of an underdog bobsled team: Take joy in the trying. “If you lose,” he says, “can you look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I honestly am glad we submitted a bid?'”

As for the 1976 referendum that effectively said “no thanks” to the IOC, Elliman thinks by now it’s largely water (or in this case snow) under the bridge. “This is an entirely different Colorado,” he says. Whether it’s a Colorado that’s a good fit for the Olympics is the question he’s hoping to answer.
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