At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum, all athletes are equal

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At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum, all athletes are equal
The new U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs, Colo., Sept. 25, 2020. The museum is based on the idea that a wheelchair basketball player trains just as hard as any other basketball player. Elliot Ross/The New York Times.

by Ray Mark Rinaldi

COLORADO SPRINGS (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The new U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado, does not distinguish between winners or losers; the athletes who earned medals and enduring public adoration at the Games receive the same recognition as those who went home empty-handed.

The museum is more interested in honoring the determination it takes just to make the team, that quality the Olympic ice skater Peggy Fleming sums up simply as “having the guts and the mental strength” to compete on behalf of your country when the whole world is watching.

“It’s so big, and you’re so distracted, and you’re there to get the job done,” she said. “It’s a very different nerve level. And that’s true for every athlete.”

So, the rhinestone-studded, chartreuse skating dress Fleming’s mother made for her gold-winning moment in Grenoble, France, in 1968 sits in a glass case at the museum right next to the bobsled suit Steven Holcomb wore to Vancouver in 2010, and just a few artifacts away from the hockey glove Pat Sapp used to block pucks in 2002 in Salt Lake. The acclaimed and the sometimes-forgotten get equal billing.

And so, that same logic follows, do the Paralympians. While most Americans — and television networks and cereal companies — pay far greater attention to the Olympics than the Paralympics, this museum fully integrates them under the assumption that a wheelchair basketball player trains just as hard as any other basketball player. The only categories separating the spotlights on individual sports are summer and winter.

“What I love about the museum is that it does not just celebrate the high achievement of athletes, but it also looks at the journey,” said Paralympian John Register, who competed in swimming in 1996 and returned for track and field in 2000, earning a silver medal in the long jump. His prosthetic leg and running shoe are on display.

What this museum is selling, according to Christopher Liedel, the museum’s chief executive, is motivation.

“I want every kid to come in here and say, ‘I can be my own best person,’ whether it’s in sports or in something else, by looking at these examples of athletes who worked hard,” he said.

The museum, which opened July 30, frames its stories of triumph over adversity in dramatic terms, starting with its location on the edge of downtown with Pikes Peak soaring into the sky behind it. The building design aims high as well and was developed by architect Benjamin Gilmartin, a partner at Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the New York design studio known for its work on the High Line on the West Side of Manhattan and the Broad museum in Los Angeles.

Gilmartin was inspired by the scenery and the subject matter, he said, and wanted to create a building with world-class aspirations of its own. The 60,000-square-foot museum’s main structure, which features tapered walls and a folded roof, appears to be in constant motion, pushing itself up off the ground and then “pinwheeling and twisting and ascending in its expression,” as the architect describes it, “almost reeling up to take flight.”

Early design concepts compared the building’s layout to the movement of a discus thrower, starting low to the ground and gaining momentum through circular revolutions before releasing energy into the air.

Adding to the structure’s dynamism is its exterior cladding, which consists of 9,000 panels of reflective, anodized aluminum installed in a diamond pattern. Each sheet is angled about 1 inch above the sheet next to it, creating small shadow lines that change constantly with the daylight.

“We think of it as being a skin over the bones of the space inside, or a garment that’s skintight, like an Olympic uniform, and something that’s highly engineered,” Gilmartin said.

The museum’s other notable attribute is its high level of accessibility. The architects borrowed inspiration from the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which invites visitors to take an elevator to the top floor and then descend along ramps as they explore galleries. There are no steps up or down, and the goal is to eliminate any differences in the museum experience among people with varying physical abilities.

That idea drives every element in the museum. It combines static displays of things like Olympic torches and medals going back to the first modern games in 1896 with high-tech, interactive opportunities to learn about everything from advances in sneaker technology to the evolution of prosthetic limbs to the ways Olympic officials are able to test and catch athletes who dope.

Upon entering, each visitor is given a badge attached to a lanyard and then guided to a nearby kiosk to register any special needs, such as enlarged type, audio versions of text or reduced sensory triggers. As visitors proceed through the museum and arrive at exhibits, sensors recognize their badges and customize displays automatically. There is no need to adjust things along the way.

Accommodations are the norm. Ramps are low-grade and extra wide to fit two wheelchairs at the same time. Sign language interpreters appear in the corner of videos. Cane guards double as benches in the building’s spacious atrium. In one gallery, where visitors can try out different sports using modified equipment, archers can tell if they are aiming at the target’s center by listening to the speed between audible beeps. Those attempting the luge know if they hit the walls on their run by feeling a subtle vibration in their sleds.

The museum’s exhibition designer, Gallagher & Associates, based in Washington, D.C., used athletes across the board as consultants, and many were conveniently on-hand. Colorado Springs is home to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, the steward of the American team, as well as the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center, where athletes ready themselves to compete. The nonprofit museum operates separately from those organizations, which have licensed it to use “Olympic” in its name.

By and large, the $91 million project is a local effort, supported by the Colorado Springs business community, which hopes the museum will be a catalyst for tourism and bring excitement to a formerly industrial part of the city that is ripe for redevelopment.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro positioned a circular plaza in front of the building, creating an amphitheater, which uses the museum’s front steps as seating and where live sports and other events will be staged.

Looming in the background of it all is Pikes Peak, which Fleming, who lives in the area, believed brought the real and symbolic ideas the museum embodied full circle. It reminds her of Mount Olympus, where the Games, and their ideals of rewarding the greatest of human effort, got their start.

“The Olympic dream has always been about going up a big hill to achieve what you want,” she said. “And so this is a perfect place for this.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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