The US Olympic and Paralympic Museum was originally supposed to open back in May, about a month before the Olympic and Paralympic Trials and three months (give or take) before the Tokyo Games. For reasons we needn’t rehash, the opening got delayed and the Games got postponed.
We’re still a year out from the (now) 2021 Olympics and Paralympics, but the wait ends tomorrow vis-a-vis the museum, which is located in Colorado Springs, CO. It’s finally opening to the public, and we can report that the facility lives up to the hype. With a $91 million price tag, an eye-grabbing design by the award-winning NYC architectural firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and whiz-bang exhibitry from the museum gurus at Gallagher and Associates, the facility has already been generating national headlines for several years. They’ll finally cut the ribbon on the place at start welcoming visitors Thursday morning.
We attended Tuesday’s media preview and got shown around by Paralympic marksman Mike Tagliapietra. We came away with a handful of first impressions and a passel of photos, some of which are in the carousel at the bottom of the post. When you’re done reading / looking, head over to the museum’s website to order tickets for your visit.
1. Paralympic stories get equal billing with Olympic stories.
We entered the lobby staring up at a four-story-high electronic image of Paralympic skier Oksana Masters, a bilateral above-knee amputee. (Note the person in the bottom right corner of the photo for a sense of the scale.) When we moved into Gallery 1, one of the first exhibits in our path was headlined: “Paralympic and Olympic Movements Go Side By Side.”
All 12 of the museum’s galleries live up to that promise. Paralympic artifacts, voices, and stories routinely take center stage rather than being tossed in as afterthoughts. You’ll learn about the minutiae of high-performance prosthetic technology, trace the evolution of racing wheelchairs and monoskis, and get the backstory of how the Paralympics joined the Olympics as a quadrennial showcase for global sports. We’ve written before about Paralympians’ struggles to gain equal footing with their Olympic teammates, but that’s not a problem at the USOP Museum. Paralympic athletes share the top tier on the podium.
“They’ve done a good job in the equitable representation of Paralympics versus Olympics,” says John Register, a below-knee amputee who swam in the 1996 Paralympics and won a silver in the Paralympic long jump four years later in Sydney. The prosthetic leg and shoe that propelled Register to that medal are on exhibit in the museum (scroll down).
2. The material transcends sports.
The Olympic / Paralympic movement has always been about more than competition. From the beginning, it was conceived as something larger—a vehicle for all the world’s people to unite around universal values and celebrate our shared humanity. The museum hits those themes hard, without shying away from examples in which the Games and their participants have fallen short of the ideal. Doping, terrorism, racial politics, and gender politics all get due attention. And by placing Paralympians on the same plane as Olympic superstars, the museum makes a powerful statement about inclusion and adaptation.
“The reason I donated my prosthetic leg from Sydney is because of what the Paralympics represent,” John Register explains. “I want people to reflect as they come through here about the people they may know in their own lives who have disabilities. Often people will have beliefs about what we can or cannot do, and that’s based on what they believe they could or could not do if they were in our situation.” Register thinks the museum will change attitudes and encourage visitors to embrace what he calls a “new normal” regarding disability.
3. If you like the Games’ pageantry, you won’t be disappointed.
Tagliapietra’s favorite part of the museum is Gallery 6, a multimedia experience that simulates the athletes’ perspective during the Opening Ceremonies. “It’s incredible how well they captured it,” he says. “The lights, the sounds, the colors. I’ve never experienced anything like it.” Tagliapietra shared an anecdote about the Rio Paralympics in 2016, where Brazilians in the crowd chanted “USA, USA” as he and his teammates emerged from the tunnel and entered the stadium. “Once you’ve been there, you never forget it,” he says.
There’s plenty of additional pomp in the arrays of medals, Olympic torches, banners, and other regalia scattered throughout. The concluding 10-minute video and montage of medal ceremonies are calculated to produce chills. And the museum’s capacious layout, gorgeous lighting, and resplendent hues do justice to the spectacle (and occasional grandeur) that characterize the Olympics and Paralympics.
4. It’s a whole-person experience—heart, mind, and body.
Museums long ago discarded the textbook model of visitor engagement—fill their heads with facts—in favor of more subjective approaches that push emotional buttons. Such exhibits are far more effective and resonant than old-school displays, but they have a much higher degree of difficulty. The Olympic and Paralympic Museum executes the maneuvers with élan and sticks the landing, creating experiences that stay with you after you leave.
That’s especially true of the immersive, interactive exhibits that invite visitors, both able-bodied and adaptive, to experience both Paralympic and Olympic sports. You’ll get the chance to line up shots on the archery range, carve turns on a downhill racecourse, and run head-to-head against world-class sprinters. We took a crack at defending the net in goalball while blindfolded, using only our ears to detect the speed and direction of the incoming shot. The results weren’t great—two blocks, eight goals—but we gained a visceral appreciation for the incredible challenge of the sport, and the skill of the athletes who play it at an elite level. We knew almost nothing about goalball before yesterday, but now we’ll be making a point of watching some games from Tokyo next year.
On many other counts, we departed full of curiosity and hungry for more information. We don’t live far away, so we’ll be visiting again—and that’s about the highest compliment we can give to any museum. We’re persnickety judges, so we don’t hand out 10s as a matter of principle. But the USOP Museum earns a score way up in the high 9s—a deserving medalist.
Click through to Page 2 for some more pixs from the visit: