Bringing the Winter Olympics to the USA While Improving Youth Sports
By Luke Bodensteiner
Editor’s Note: Because Luke Bodensteiner’s ties to the Midwest are so well known, as are his successes in collegiate competition as well as making the Olympic Games—twice—I will add the following: That in 2017, we had a phone conversation in which he told me there were these two athletes I should watch out for in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games: Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins. Also, having talked with Luke on three stories for Silent Sports Magazine, I learned quickly that he seeks to ensure integrity in sports, and is one of the most genuine, nicest people you could possibly meet. Also: The paywall is GONE! Please feel free to marathon amble about the website for more great stories, up to date «Race Calendars»!!!, Club information, Places to Stay, Trail Conditions, and more!)
The Silent Sports culture of Wisconsin and the Midwest was formative to who I am and has been something I continue to make a part of my daily life today. At 11 years old, I watched my father compete in the American Birkebeiner, and cross country skiing and all of its associated activities have been part of my life ever since.
Skiing took me to the U.S. Ski Team and eventually to the University of Utah. After a competitive career, I had the great fortune of being asked to lead the U.S. Ski Team’s cross country program. Under the ski team’s most transformative leader ever, Bill Marolt, I had the amazing opportunity to lead the entire U.S. Ski & Snowboard Team through three Olympic Games. During that time, we had unimaginable success, doubling our Olympic medal count and setting the world record for the most medals ever won by a national ski and snowboard team in an Olympic Games. Close to my heart—Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall, who won America’s first cross country Olympic Gold, men or women, and our junior cross country team emerged as one of the best in the world.
The culture of elite sports worldwide has continued to evolve. Where once teams had a single-minded drive to win, the focus now has shifted more and more to the quality of the athletes’ experiences throughout their journey. That evolution has mirrored the major change in youth sports that’s been taking place prior to the shift in elite sports. Whereas youth sports had largely moved to adopt versions of the principles used in elite sports, that evolution has created many negative downstream effects. The professionalization of youth sport has driven costs up and kids out. It’s led to early specialization, which has come with increased overuse injury, burnout, and dropout. And it’s created a reliance on specialty coaching at the expense of free-play and self-exploration.
The 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Salt Lake City were transformative to our Team USA athletes at the time, and continue to play a significant role to elite athletes worldwide as well as for youth sports participants in Utah. The 2002 Games were one of the most successful in history, generating a one-hundred-million-dollar profit. Those profits helped to establish the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation, which continues to operate the 2002 legacy facilities and their programs today. These programs range from international elite athlete training, to youth winter sports programs, to national and international competitions. Also, public programs allow people to experience the excitement of the Olympics and Paralympics.
Based on the success of the 2002 Games, Utah has decided to pursue a second Games, likely sometime in the 2030s. Utah has been selected by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to be its next bid site. With the 2028 Summer Olympics scheduled for Los Angeles, the Utah bid is currently focused on 2030 or 2034. With its 2002 venues still operating and hosting high levels of elite athlete training, and a steady cadence of international events including World Cups and World Championships, Utah offers the opportunity to host a low-cost, sustainable Games, which would buck the trend of Games that currently run in the tens of billions of dollars to organize.
Utah’s bid effort also affords Utah the opportunity to buck the current trend of youth sport professionalization. Having served as a member of the Board of Trustees for the 2002 Games, and as longtime Chairman of the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation (and a founder of the Soldier Hollow Legacy Foundation before that), I’ve been involved extensively in Utah’s Olympic efforts for the past 20-plus years. As the Utah community has developed the effort to bid for a future Games, we’ve identified the stories that tie to our legacy to the rationale of returning for another Games. Along with Utah’s thriving venues, events, and world-class athlete training, the experience of our youth through winter sports has emerged as being fully aligned with the motivations of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee.
Upon my retirement from the position of Chief of Sport for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team, I was hired to lead the efforts to re-imagine the experience in winter Olympics and Paralympic sports for youth in our community as Chief of Sport Development for the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation. In a dual role, I also serve as the General Manager of Soldier Hollow, the 2002 venue for cross country skiing and biathlon, a role that suits my background and interest. We aim to use this as a “greenhouse” to experiment with many of the recommendations we will make.
Early in this process—dubbed Sport 2030, we established a steering committee to help us envision what we want the youth experience in winter sports in our community to look like ten years from now. To frame the process, we posed these questions: In 2030, with the possibility of the eyes of the world on our community as the host or a future host of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, what is the story we want told about our community, through the experience of our youth? Also, Imagine we’ve just had incredible success in the Olympics and Paralympics in 2030—what are you most proud of as a sports leader in this community?
These questions led us to initiate a study to identify just what our current programs are achieving and analyzed how our programs measured against many of the factors that are currently being criticized in youth sports nationwide. We found that our outcomes largely mirror the national statistics—substantially more boys participating than girls, heavy rates of dropout from 11 to 12 years old, racial and economic diversity that doesn’t reflect that of our local communities, a lack of universal coach education, and more single-sport specialization than multi-sport participation. Using this information, transformative goals were proposed, with the aim of vastly improving those outcomes versus the national trends over the next ten years.
Thanks in part to Utah’s Olympic and Paralympic heritage, its communities are rich with people who have extensive experience in Olympic and Paralympic sports, winter sports, and youth sports. To identify the best practices worldwide that our youth sports programs can implement into their specific situations in pursuit of our goals, we assembled expert groups to make recommendations on each of the long-term goals. In total, forty-five people with rich involvement in Winter Olympic-Paralympic and youth sports have been engaged in making these recommendations.
Hundreds of viable recommendations have been made, which range from cost reduction to cultural inclusion to creating more flexibility to better serve the needs of the participants and potential participants. The over-arching mantra across these recommendations is not to solve problems by spending more money, but rather by doing things differently. As these goals and recommendations are rolled out across our Olympic and Paralympic communities this spring and summer, programs will be challenged to identify the initiatives that they can put into their plans immediately, and those that they can build toward as we progressively meet our long-term goals.
Our aim is that these recommendations will have an immediate impact on our own programs, and subsequently other youth sports programs in our community when we have proof-of-concepts to share. Through our position as America’s next Olympic and Paralympic bid site, we also hope to share our findings and initiatives with other communities nationwide, including other Olympic and Paralympic training sites, National Governing Bodies for sports, and other like-minded youth-serving sports organizations. The Loppet Foundation in Minneapolis is an example of a youth sport organization focused on achieving many of the same things that we are, and we’ve committed to sharing notes with each other about what we’re doing, what’s worked, and what’s failed.
Ultimately, should we have the privilege of hosting another Olympic and Paralympic Games in the future, our hope is that the experience of our youth in winter sports is held up as an example for the world. That we can do our part to help kids get the most of their opportunities in sport globally.