For decades, Colorado Springs has been a city defined by its prominent institutions. Home to the United States Air Force Academy, the city has seen the proliferation and gradual downsizing of massive industries, including dozens of prominent defense contractors and some of the country’s largest high-tech manufacturers. But the city also has another identity altogether.
With a mild climate, mountainous terrain, and high altitude, Colorado Springs prides itself as an ideal training ground. Home to the Pikes Peak Marathon, a grueling trial run with nearly 8,000 feet of vertical climb, Colorado Springs is a place that rewards the hardy and the tough—which is perhaps why it’s become a headquarters to those seeking Olympic glory.
Known as Olympic City, USA, Colorado Springs is home to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Training Center, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, and 24 national federations for individual Olympic sports. The result is a city flourishing with sports therapists, fitness companies, and athletic administrators. And each year, approximately 15,000 Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls will make the pilgrimage to Colorado to condition, hone their skills, and grow stronger.
For tourists drawn to Colorado Springs for its world-class hiking and natural beauty, an Olympic attraction is an easy sell. More than 140,000 visitors already flock to the Olympic Training Center each year, touring the extensive complex that can host up to 500 top-tier athletes and coaches at any given time.
And so, Colorado Springs was also the natural fit to host a dedicated attraction that honors the efforts and accomplishments of Team USA: the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum (USOPM).
Opened in July 2020, the complex was designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who also helmed the extensive, $450 million renovation of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Compared to MoMA, USOPM is a far humbler affair at $91 million and 60,000 square feet. However, its influence could be just as monumental.
Made up of two structures and an adjoining amphitheater-like plaza, the USOPM complex sits on the edge of Colorado Springs, ready to attract Olympic enthusiasts and architectural tourists alike.
The main building’s elegant, origami-like shape is intended to evoke both nearby Pikes Peak and an athlete in motion. Clad in 9,000 entirely-unique reflective aluminum panels, the building feels simultaneously rounded and angular, the taut drape of the facade forming a kind of architectural spandex over four petal-like volumes. The building stretches upward like a runner in starting position, an abstract but recognizably athletic form. From above, the structure is modeled after a spinning discus-thrower.
However, the most remarkable thing about the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum is its pioneering devotion to universal accessibility. Every effort has been made to accommodate visitors of all capabilities, ensuring total ADA compliance and developing the museum’s content in ways that reach all visitors.
Exhibit cases take multiple viewing heights into account, ensuring those in wheelchairs get the full benefit of the displays. And guests are issued RFID-embedded lanyards that enable tailored engagement with interactive exhibits, prompting captions, descriptive audio, or translation where preferred.
Crucially, though, the museum’s visitors take its journey together—no matter their abilities. Whereas many museums push accessibility features to the margins with afterthought ramps or hidden elevators, the USOPM has planned a common path open to all. Visitors share an elevator ride to the top floor and then descend continuously along a gradual, gentle ramp over its three stories and twelve galleries.
Due to the pandemic, the immediate future of the Olympics is uncertain, with the planned 2020 Tokyo Games pushed to 2021. Questions surround travel, attendance, and how the games themselves can adjust and accommodate the challenges we currently face.
Until we’re able to gather en masse again, the spirit of the Games, along with its icons: torches, medals, and uniforms, are on full display in Colorado Springs, where masked visitors can make their socially distanced way through the museum. In a perhaps-fitting twist, visitors’ RFID lanyards also make things safer in the time of Coronavirus. They enable the museum to monitor guest movement and prevent over-crowding—proof that thoughtful design isn’t merely a matter of altruism or generosity. It’s also our best way forward.