Denver’s dashed Olympic dream leaves ski towns high and dry

(Photo/International Olympic Committee)
(Photo/International Olympic Committee)
Colorado’s vote not to host the Olympic Games in 1976 is coming back to haunt the state, observers say.

The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) in Colorado Springs announced last week that it has no intention of pursuing Denver’s hoped-for 2018 Winter Olympic bid because the organization is only concentrating on Chicago’s 2016 Summer Olympic bid.

Our sole focus is on supporting Chicago and its bid for the 2016 Games,” USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel told the Rocky Mountain News on Jan. 7. “We have given absolutely no consideration to any other bid.”

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) will pick the 2016 host on Oct. 2, two weeks before the deadline for receiving applications for the 2018 Winter Olympics, and the Windy City may now be a front runner among the four finalists because of the Barack Obama factor and his Illinois ties.

Denver was in the mix with Salt Lake City, Utah, and Reno, Nev., for 2018. Now it will have to wait until at least 2022.

That’s disappointing news for Colorado’s international sports organizing community and some ski-town politicians who thought the 2018 Games could bring infrastructure improvements such as an Interstate 70 expansion and maybe even a mountain mass-transit rail system.

“I look at how Salt Lake got their interstate highway system rebuilt in anticipation for the Salt Lake City Olympics (in 2002), and I think having a new, state-of-the-art, world-class transit system to the mountains would be essential for a really successful bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics,” former Vail Resorts president and current Vail Town Councilman Andy Daly told Colorado Independent (CI) in June.

Colorado voters overwhelmingly rejected the 1976 Winter Games over fears about lack of funding and environmental impacts by a nearly 60-40 margin.

The miles and miles of condos and strip malls predicted by Olympics opponent and former Gov. Dick Lamm invaded the mountains anyway since 1976, and some Olympics proponents felt the IOC’s statute of limitations was up on the controversial vote that made Denver the only city to ever be awarded the Games and then reject them. Others disagree.

“My guess is Denver shot themselves in the foot in 1976,” two-time Olympic ski-racing medalist Phil Mahre told The Colorado Independent. “To win the bid and then bail probably has left a bad taste in the IOC’s mouth. Does Denver really want to go down that alley again?”

Apparently so. Robert Cohen, chairman of the Metro Denver Sports Commission board of directors, told the Rocky last week he’s still optimistic about future Denver bids.

“In the short term, it’s discouraging. But our mission has been long term,” Cohen said. “This is like running a marathon. Every mile doesn’t go the way you planned it. But I think we’re doing all we need to do. I’m excited by what we’ve done. I’m more encouraged than discouraged.”

Daly said that any Denver bid should come with the blessing of the governor at the time. Otherwise, it will be 1976 all over again.

“We had Gov. Lamm, ‘Duty to Die Dick,’ in the office at that time (in the ’70s), and I think we would be well served to understand the position of our governor before we even finalized an attempt to go forward with the Olympics,” Daly said.

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.