Long before expected on the Friday afternoon of Aug. 5, you could tell something unusual was about to happen in Colorado Springs.
Around the edges of downtown, cars were parking in every available spot on streets such as Vermijo, Weber, Cucharras and Sahwatch. Closer to the city’s central core, families and groups of all sizes filled the sidewalks — despite unseasonably cool temperatures and an ominous weather forecast.
By 5 p.m., probably 25,000 or more had found their way to Tejon Street, which had been closed off for several blocks to become the magnet for the special event called the Rio Olympic Downtown Celebration.
Right there in front of the U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters, coinciding with the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, much-decorated Olympic wrestler Bruce Baumgartner (he won gold medals in 1984 at Los Angeles and 1992 at Barcelona, plus silver in 1988 at Seoul and bronze in 1996 at Atlanta) lit our own version of an Olympic flame.
No other American city could pull off such a moment for an impressive display of community pride. When you bill yourself as Olympic City USA, this is how you prove it, time after time.
Baumgartner, himself a member of the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, provided a perfect example of what Colorado Springs should do more in years to come. Especially after the Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame becomes reality, it should be a top priority to bring in former Olympic stars and bathe them in cheers and adoration once again.
It also should be increasingly obvious to civic and business leaders that we have something going here with these downtown events. In recent years, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb’s annual pre-race Fan Fest in late June has developed into a monstrous success, and the Olympic celebrations draw the same kind of crowd even when they’re not directly tied to the “real” Summer Games.
Lest we forget, the USA Pro Challenge cycling event created remarkable experiences and memories in 2011, 2012 and 2014. And though the Pro Challenge has succumbed, the idea of a major cycling competition (or a large citizens race for everyday bicyclists) obviously works in Colorado Springs.
We also have the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Rodeo Parade and Street Breakfast, all of which bring throngs of people downtown each year.
This suggests we might have room for one or two more major downtown events, possibly linked to the beginning and/or end of summer. One might be our own version of an outdoor sports extravaganza, wrapped around cycling and hiking.
It’s also becoming more evident that Colorado Springs doesn’t need an extensively planned occasion such as the Olympic Celebration to bring people downtown. That was obvious on the Saturday night of Aug. 6, just 24 hours after the Olympic gathering.
Despite having no specific event or attraction as a lure, downtown was jammed on Saturday night, as has been the case all summer. Throughout the central business district, countless groups, couples and families roamed the sidewalks and created waiting lists at every available restaurant. In many cases, families of tourists staying at the Antlers or the Mining Exchange simply were checking out the downtown scene, feeling totally safe and carefree.
The message from all this is simple: Unlike many cities our size and larger, Colorado Springs’ downtown is a happening place these days. And there’s no reason why we shouldn’t continue building on that.