As the striking architecture of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum changes the downtown skyline, we spoke with CEO Christopher Liedel about what to expect from the coming visitor experience at the state-of-the-art museum, set to open spring 2020. Here are excerpted insights from our conversation on planned exhibits, interactive technology, the museum’s role in the local cultural community—and new revelations about honoring Hall of Fame athletes and those affected by the 1980 boycott.
Springs: The Olympic & Paralympic Museum is definitely taking shape. How is the progress on construction?
Christopher Liedel: We’re probably around 85% complete with the physical construction. It’s a spectacular, iconic building, which I think will have a long positive impact on the community. For me being here about a year, I’ve gotten to see nothing but progress as it relates to coming out of the ground and all the facets.
It’s been a very interesting construction project. We are basically just finishing up the exterior as you’ve seen. It’s a really unique set of diamond panels. There are roughly 10,000 of those that are creating this nice, wonderful exterior skin, designed after the fabric of an athlete in a jersey or a bodysuit that basically is flexing the muscles. So we like the texture of the way the building looks and the aesthetic it gives in a way that can catch the light. You really see bronze, silver and gold come alive during the different parts of the day with the way that the exterior reflects the light of the sun throughout the building. It’s a beautiful exterior.
There have been a few adaptations to the designs since you came on board? What are those?
There have been a couple of spectacular improvements to the museum. The first one is an expansion of the original footprint for the cafe, which had been originally thought to be more of a coffee shop— just a really nice, simple casual experience that we’re broadening to include a wellness and education center that will help us focus not only on providing great food for visitors, but we want to tie into some of the thematic areas of the museum in terms of how to help individuals really focus on nutrition and wellness. How to also look at some of the culinary arts. As we visit new Olympic cities, we’re going to feature within the museum cuisine from those regions, just to give people a sense of more depth of understanding. So if you could imagine having Tokyo, Beijing and Paris as the next three host cities, we can do some fun things around cuisines.
We want to bring in guest chefs that feature their cuisine to allow the community to have a wonderful after-hours dining experience that will be different and unique. I think it’ll be a lot of fun for the community.
So tell us a little bit about some of the exhibitions.
The interior is going to be really unique. We have an atrium that will have a close to 38-foot high, 4K AV wall that will basically bring to life some of our favorite Olympic moments and Paralympic moments on display as you walk in. So you’ll have this wonderful, great visual impact as soon as you enter the museum that comes to life with favorite athletes of this era blended nicely with historic figures from the past.
It sounds like you’re immersed in the Olympic Movement as soon as you walk in.
Right. Also one of the fun things about the museum is taking advantage of modern digital technology that lets us customize your experience as you come through. That customization can take the form of selecting different types of sports or areas of interests. So if you’re interested in the 1920 Games, you’ll be able to select and see athletes and performances from those times. If you have a special sport you like, whether it’s swimming or water polo or skiing, you’ll be able to set those preferences. And as you move through the museum, we have about 100 different points that will trigger content to be delivered to you based on your interests and likes.
It sounds like museum 2.0.
We think of it as a narrative arc museum, which is a little bit different. It’s a nicely-designed guest experience that lets you have input in terms of what you want to see, but we will help create a guided experience. In the past, museums left the visitor experience up to the visitor. We’ll help create a guided experience but still let you be able to have your input upfront. And as you move through the museum, you’re getting to experience those things you love best, but also getting to share some of what we think are iconic moments or even milestone moments from periods in time.
There will be other aspects that we can do. Probably the most interesting and most rewarding part of the museum is that it’s completely inclusive in our design structure and accessibility. So we’ve gone beyond simple ADA compliance to ensure that an able-bodied or disabled individual travel the same path through the museum. Everybody comes into the same front doors. They all ride the same elevator to get to the top floor. And then it spirals down to the main floor again.
And we made sure we addressed the impairment barriers that face visitors, whether it’s physical impairment, sensory impairment, cognitive impairment and what I like to call perspective impairment. … So if you have autism, [for example], and you need low impact, we’re able to adjust the experience so that it doesn’t overstimulate. Every exhibit has accommodations for [the deaf and blind].Somebody doesn’t walk into a gallery and all of a sudden it switches over to start showing American sign language or increases the volume of the speakers. We’re able to deal with that all in a very subtle and casual way that creates no awkward moments for a visitor.
We had some Paralympic athletes come through as we were doing our mock-up and testing of some of the exhibits in the museum. And one of the great comments that we got from them was they just felt part of the crowd.
Tell us about the representation of the Paralympic movement in the exhibits.
We’ll feature both the origins of the modern Olympic Games, which is interesting that when you look at American history, this is really a sort of American history museum of our involvement in the Olympic movement. Our participation in the modern Olympic Games has covered more than 50% of our life as a nation since 1776. And if you look at the Paralympics being around since 1960, and even before that in the form of Stoke Mandeville Games, it’s been about a quarter of our life as a country. So it’s a rich heritage; most people don’t realize it’s been that long already for the games.
Our goal is to be around 60% of the content on the Olympics and 40% around the Paralympics. We’ll have a nice gender split, pretty much equal in terms of male and female athletes. And we will really focus on the diversity of the athlete population. We feel we’ve covered it well to have very robust, different levels of perspectives so that we can make sure that it’s accommodating. We’ve had athletes from all sides who have been involved in the design, and some of them have really challenged us to go even further, which has been helpful.
At the beginning [of the museum content], we also deal with social progress. We deal with the inclusion of minorities, inclusion of women; we deal with issues of safe sport and [doping and] things along those lines. We’ll take that National Geographic sensibility on how to say something accurately but thoughtfully, knowing that we have various age groups going through. It won’t be sensationalized; it will be age-appropriate but still accurate in the way that we tell the story. It’s a great responsibility for the team. And that’s why the team that was assembled and some of the people that I’ve asked to help us are some that I think have done an effective job with that over their careers.
What are some of the interactive features that relate to athlete training and competition?
One of the neat things with the RFID is you have a digital locker that’s ascribed to you so that when you go home after your experience, you can download those elements of the museum that meant a lot to you. And you’ll see what you visited while you were there, and if you participate in some of the interactive features, to see your score in the leaderboard and how you did that day. We have a 30-meter track. Whether or not you’re a wheelchair user, you’ll be able to select an electronic opponent in terms of the Olympian or Paralympian who was a wheelchair racer or blade runner or able-bodied female or male that you can run or roll against to see how well you did. …
Another popular thing will be skeleton. It is designed so whether you’re a wheelchair user or able-bodied, whether you’re 6 or 85, you can walk up, lean in and experience what it’s like to go down a skeleton run on a bobsled track. It’ll be a bit of virtual reality, but you control the sled in terms of your own muscle movements. You could crash in it, or set the course record for the day.
And then we’ll introduce other sports. One of them will feature reaction time in a sport called goalball, which is a Paralympic sport played by blind athletes or [visually-impaired] athletes who have their eyes covered. It’s a little bit of a cross between soccer and rugby in terms of protecting a goal. You’re in a stadium, but it’s silent because the ball has different tones of bells in it to let you gauge the distance from you. You block and react to protect yourself from the ball. So [visitors] will get to experience what it’s like to react and defend a goal in that sport.
What has been included as a result of athlete input?
One of the things that came out early and has remained strong is that outside of standing on the podium, the athletes’ next-favorite experience—or most-favorite for some—is participating in the opening ceremony and the Parade of Nations. So we will have a 360-degree immersive experience that allows you to walk down the stadium tunnel and come out as part of Team USA into the opening ceremonies. If we can give goose bumps to the athletes that have done it, and they say this brings back great memories, that’s our goal.
I also had some millennials come through to help identify some of the selfie moments throughout the museum. And one of the suggestions we really liked is having a virtual halfpipe as you walk into the Winter Games with some of our more famous snowboarders doing tricks over your head.
What are some other favorite pieces of memorabilia that people will be able to see?
I call it our T. rex. If you’re a natural history museum, you always want the T. rex. Ours is the scoreboard from the 1980 Miracle on Ice [hockey] game between the USA and the Soviet team.
Will it be set on the final score?
It will be set at 4-3. And you raise a very interesting point. Do we put 00:03 on the scoreboard with the last three seconds when Al Michaels calls his famous, “Do you believe in miracles?” Do you put 00:00 as the official final score, or do you put 10 minutes when the goal that put us up 4-3 was scored? We may make it programmable to do all three just to let people vote.
Are there any surprises you can tell us about?
One of the great things I think the [U.S. Olympic & Paralympic] board and the team have agreed to do is—when you look at athletes and the sacrifice they and their families make to allow them to achieve their dream, we have a team, the 1980 summer team, that had to stay home as part of a boycott and never got to participate. They made almost the ultimate sports sacrifice in being prepared but not being able to step onto the field of competition. We’re going to have the members of that team permanently enshrined in the Summer Games area.
What I struggle with for them is the fact that—they just feel unfulfilled, and they struggle with it. Some of those athletes were on the ’76 team and the ’84 team that got selected. But those whose moment was 1980 who didn’t get to compete, it still has been tough. We want to create a special moment that when they walk in, it’s almost as powerful unveiled to them.
Also [pending board approval] the whole lobby area will center on the Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame and our recognition of those athletes. Some of my favorite athletes in the Hall of Fame—there’s one named Alice Coachman. In the 1948 high jump, she was the first African American woman [from any country] to win a gold medal in track and field. She’d been national champion for 10 years before that in the U.S., but because of World War II, she never got to compete. The games were not held in ’40 or ’44, but she most likely would have been a three-time champion. She was one of the most dominating athletes and competed for Tuskegee Institute. And just a phenomenal story.
How do you view the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum fitting into the greater Colorado Springs community?
While this is the Olympic & Paralympic Museum, it is a community museum and we see it as, How do we help fit into the cultural landscape of the community? Like the infrastructure change they’re doing down on Vermijo Street to make that pedestrian walkway, as well as having more of a wonderful landscape. I almost view it as the southern cultural corridor between the Pioneers Museum and us on the east and the west. And having the Pikes Peak Center, that whole area could be transformative as a community space.
Our goal is also to be part of raising up the whole cultural environment here and [finding ways to] collaborate with some of the other museum directors. I’ve had the good fortune of spending some time with others around town, whether it’s the Space Foundation or the Ent Center for the Performing Arts or the Fine Arts Center, which is just fantastic. Even the National Museum of World War II Aviation—I was out there last weekend, and I was sharing with them a way I’d like to do a little feature. In 1936, we had a number of Olympic divers who then became dive bombers for the war.
So we are these points of tangent that we can shed light on some of the other great cultural places within town. I don’t want people to come here and just visit the [Olympic & Paralympic] museum for four hours and then leave. I’d like them to come here and spend two or three days and enjoy the city, enjoy the evening and see some of these other places. So we’ll try to keep track of what the other museums are doing and exhibits and how we can showcase them and be a part of a bigger cultural footprint.