No Thanks: Why Denver Turned Down the 1976 Olympics

Successfully snagging hosting duties for the Olympic Games is one of the toughest things a city can do. Chicago spent nearly $50 million on a bid for the 2016 Summer Games, and even that eight-figure budget couldn't grab the rings. Of course, that $50 million pales in comparison to the cost of actually hosting the Games, which run into the billions for construction and operating expenses.

Still, even though the Olympics are expensive and have a debatable long-term effect on a city's economy, many places are dying to get them. After all, what could be cooler than spending two weeks as the center of the world's attention? But if you lived in Denver in the 1970s, your answer would have been "all kinds of things."

In May 1970 the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1976 Winter Olympics to Denver, which edged out Sion, Switzerland, Tampere, Finland, and Vancouver. Denver's politicians and media rejoiced; getting the Games was a major coup for them. Colorado had been trying to nab the Winter Olympics for nearly 20 years.

The Opposition

Denverites and their fellow Coloradoans, on the other hand, were less than thrilled. They quickly realized that hosting the Olympics is a really, really pricey venture and that the cash to cover infrastructure costs would likely be coming from their paychecks. On top of that, the environmentally conscious populace worried about the impact of bringing thousands of people into proposed Olympic venues that stretched over 150 miles from Denver to Steamboat.

nixon-olympicsBy 1972, a charismatic young politician named Dick Lamm had begun publicly opposing the Denver Games, and he soon became the torchbearer for the no-Olympics-in-Denver movement. This strong opposition put Denver's hosting committee in a delicate situation. The IOC had long asserted that it wouldn't hold the games in Denver unless public money was available to help foot the bill, so unless the people of Colorado would change their minds, the Olympics were going elsewhere.

It sounds like an almost trivial amount of money now, but Denver ultimately ended up losing the Games over $5 million. In November 1972, the state's voters weighed in on whether they would authorize a $5 million bond issue to help finance the Games. There was only one problem with this $5 million estimate: it was probably far too low. Even then, hosting the Olympics was wildly expensive, and previous host cities had ended up shelling out several times more money than they thought would be necessary to run the games.

What happened? The voters didn't just shoot down the bond issue; they overwhelmingly rejected it by a nearly 60-40 margin. A week after the vote, Denver officially relinquished its status as host city.

innsbruck
Now it was the IOC that found itself in a sticky situation. It needed a new venue for the 1976 Games, and it only had a little over three years to pick a city and get its infrastructure up to speed. The IOC offered Whistler the first crack at the Games, but the Canadians graciously declined. Salt Lake City offered up its hosting services, but the IOC wasn't going to fall for Americans' tricks twice in a row. Eventually, Innsbruck, Austria, stepped in as host. Innsbruck had hosted the 1964 Games, so it could handle the fast turnaround.

Second Thoughts?

Don't think Denverites hate the Olympics, though. The city actually expressed interest in making a bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. The U.S. Olympic Committee turned the city down, though, so it could focus on Chicago's failed bid for the 2016 Games. Many local politicians and athletes blamed the city bailing on the 1976 Games for the USOC's lack of enthusiasm for a 2018 bid.

This story originally appeared in 2010.

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