Olympic Museum in Colorado Springs hires Smithsonian executive as CEO

Christopher Liedel, 57, who was president of the nonprofit Smithsonian Enterprises, will start as CEO on May 15, the Olympic Museum's board of directors announced Tuesday.

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum, heralded by The New York Times and Architectural Digest, was supposed to open its doors to Colorado Springs this month. However due to coronavirus concerns, the grand opening and VIP events scheduled for May 28-31 were postponed and the museum’s public opening, set for May 21-22, was likely to be delayed.

When the $88 million, 60,000-square foot, state-of-the-art facility on the southwest side of downtown does open, CEO Christopher Liedel wants it to be a “place for celebration.”

Previously Liedel served for nearly six years as president of Smithsonian Enterprises. He officially stepped into the Olympic and Paralympic museum role on May 15, 2018. He spoke to The Gazette about his experience, elements of the museum and a shifting but promising future.*

Will there be special events to coincide with the opening?

What we’re doing right now - and I guess the whole community is doing it - as we prepare to open, we’re going to be working with the community leadership in terms of both the county and the city office to look at the appropriate date to open, and look at when’s the appropriate time to celebrate. We had plans to do a bigger opening. It’s going to be really dictated by social distancing and safety concerns.

Are you still planning to open in May as of right now?

We basically have put that on hold. We are waiting to see. We don’t really have a definitive time that we will open. Again, it’s going to be predicated by a lot of the conditions. We were fortunate, unlike a lot of our other community businesses and organizations, to have not ramped up yet for opening.

We want to be a place of celebration for the community when it comes out of this current situation.

You were the president of Smithsonian Enterprises, and before that, at the National Geographic for 16 years. How did your experiences there inform the ones with this new museum?

Having the experience of National Geographic and Smithsonian has really culminated in a great balance of the world-renowned photographers and writers of National Geographic and the scientists at the Smithsonian. (It’s similar), in a way, to our athletes in that they’re among the world’s best. Understanding how to look at those individuals and know that the museum isn’t about the what and the where, but it’s really about the how and the why. It’s taking that story from what you may be able to find on your own to really giving you a more in-depth experience. We really tried to make that come alive in the content.

If you knew nothing about this museum and walked in for the first time - what would you gravitate toward, or be most interested in?

The museum was designed to sort of let you tell us what your interests are. Our RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology allows you to customize that experience. If your interest is swimming, track and field and hockey, those would then be put into your RFID information and as you walk through the museum, the content that you find interesting would be populated.

... Our goal was that regardless of who you were, if you had a relative who was an Olympic or Paralympic athlete, there’d be at least a place where you could go to see their story, learn about them and find out where they’re from.

We have over 12,000 athletes identified on an individual basis. So if your Uncle Joe was a water polo player in the 1960s, you’d be able to find him in the museum. … I want every kid that comes in to be able to see that there was an athlete that didn’t grow up too far away from them.

What interests me the most? We have a couple of iconic exhibits. One of them is the torches and then the other is our complete collection of Olympic medals, as well as one of the most complete collections of Paralympic medals.

Can you describe the acquisition of the Olympic torches? Will they ever be lit again?

They will not be lit again, more out of honoring the tradition. … The torch relay started in 1936. It was really part of the German Third Reich wanting to sort of show the Aryan race sort of elevated. Have it start in ancient Olympia and run the path to Berlin. But it became a gesture of goodwill from every Games after that.

The torches are very unique in the sense that each game has them, so we have the Paralympics too. It was a collection that was put together by the Gordy Crawford family and it’s part of the Crawford Family U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Archives. It was part of his personal collection that he donated. … He was also the benefactor who donated the medals.

We help oversee a group in town called the Young Champions Ambassadors. It was started when we became sister city to ancient Olympia as part of Olympic City USA. And we had two representatives of this group go over for the lighting of the Tokyo torch back in the middle of March. They literally were part of the first group that runs from the torch lighting out, and within like 24 hours they shut down the relay. So I have those two torches as well that are available that were actually lit and used. We’ll be one of the few that has lit torches as part of the museum. They won’t be lit now.

What was your reaction to the Tokyo Games being canceled?

I was very disappointed for those athletes that have had to deal with the delay. … For these athletes to have hope deferred, it was saddening to know that so many have dedicated to the museum.

In an odd way, we do benefit from the delay. We put so much effort into building the quality of this content to make it the most up-to-date, the best in the world, and the most current. (Now) we don’t have a Games coming two months later that we have to rush and update aspects to the museum again. We’ll have a year from opening that we’re the most up-do-date and current museum and we’ll be able to thoughtfully design out and plan to add new content. We’ll get to see for six months to a year what people are liking about the museum and how to augment that with the new content from Tokyo.

How important is it to bring athletes featured in the museum back to museum?

Athletes have been involved with this museum since its inception and the original design by the architects, all the way through designing galleries to go through. We do content review with them. We do extensive design elements to make sure that the authenticity and accuracy is there. So we’ve been very fortunate to do a lot. … Our goal is to have a large group of athletes working with us and for us and we plan to make sure that (athletes are) members here, that they can come and enjoy and be there. We definitely want to have a way to have them come and visit.

One of the things we’re even looking to do with our guest services is to have athletes be tour guides through the museum. We are trying to coordinate a number of those who may be hopefuls or are recently in between Games. It’s their museum, we’re just the stewards of it. It’s our job, but it’s their legacy.

*Edited for length and clarity

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