Denver 2022 Winter Games: An insider’s guide to the Olympic debacle

Vancouver: A cautionary tale (Williams)
Vancouver: A cautionary tale (Williams)

Canada, which will eventually spend more than $6 billion for the recent Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, was the victim of a global golden fleece job.

Besides the cost to taxpayers nationwide (nearly $430 million for each of a record 14 gold medals), the Canadians came away with very little to show for their massive investment at the worst possible of economic times. And Russia, formerly flush with oil funds, is headed down an even more disastrous road for Sochi in 2014.

denver 2022, really?

Russia will reportedly outspend the Canadians this year alone, pumping $7.6 billion into infrastructure for the next Winter Games in 2010 and more than $33 billion overall by 2014. Based on the weak Russian performance in Vancouver (just three golds), that would come to $11 billion per gold medal, a steep price to pay for the pride and patriotic passion of the Russian people in 2014, although one assumes much of that money will be spread liberally among corrupt politicians and members of the Russian mafia.

In fact, most of it should be spent on security, given Sochi’s proximity to Georgia, which Russia recently invaded, and Chechnya, which has been the scene of vicious separatist fighting for nearly two decades and the source of countless gruesome terrorist attacks.

The Canadians spent more than $1 billion on security, which mostly seemed to pay for every cop in Canada to come sit by the side of the Sea to Sky Highway between Vancouver and Whistler and enforce a ridiculous ban on private vehicles, pulling over occasional speeders and letting them off in exchange for souvenir Olympic pins.

In Sestriere, Italy, in 2006, when I worked for the Olympic News Service at the alpine skiing venues, every time I went to work I passed through airport-style “mag-and-bag” screening (a requirement of all spectators as well).

In Whistler, every 10th person was screened. I had my backpack scanned exactly three times in more than a month, meaning I could have brought virtually any form of contraband into the venue.

The Olympic flame; the Canadian mounties (Williams)
The Olympic flame; the Canadian mounties (Williams)

I realize it’s extremely difficult to prevent people like Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Atlanta Centennial Olympic Park terrorist, from leaving a backpack full of explosives somewhere, but careful screening of spectators and employees entering a venue can at least minimize risk to athletes and fans.

How, you may ask, does any of this impact Coloradans, and why would a regular reporter for the Colorado Independent covering energy and environmental news particularly care?

By virtue of living in Vail and covering a couple of World Cup ski races a year for the last 15 years (mostly for the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News), I am a so-called “expert” on alpine ski racing and therefore have earned a front-row seat to the last two winter Olympic Games, interviewing athletes and providing stats, bios and other research to journalists. I worked as an Olympic News Service writer in 2006 for the Torino Organizing Committee (TOROC) and this year for the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC).

It’s an interesting gig that comes with a Games-time gag order but also provides an unfiltered look at the dark underbelly of the Olympic movement – the massive bureaucracy, the incredible waste, and the unrelenting politics that lead to asinine decisions such as locating the freestyle events in a mud-hole like Cypress Mountain.

I never imagined myself singing the praises of Italian efficiency – because the 2006 Winter Games were an organizational disaster that somehow implausibly came together at the last minute – but the Italians made the Canadians look like rank amateurs.

By examining some of these issues in a multi-part, first-person series of essays for the Colorado Independent, I am virtually guaranteeing I won’t be invited back. But given my feeling about how the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi will unfold, it’s safe to say I’d prefer a sharp stick in the eye to working for the Russians and covering what I think will be a disaster by the Black Sea.

And forget about London in 2012. The Atlanta Games soured me completely on the Summer Olympics, not to mention that already expensive London will witness Olympic markup sticker shock that will put all past Games to shame. Just as a point of reference, consider that I paid 20 euros for a beer in Italy in 2006.

Denver missed its chance to host the 2018 Winter Olympics when the United States Olympic Committee instead focused (quite unsuccessfully) on a Chicago 2016 Summer Olympics bid. Just three cities are in the running for 2018 – Annecy, France; Munich, Germany; and Pyeongchang, South Korea – leaving Denver to mull over a 2022 bid.

So the point of this exercise, really, is to help elevate the debate about whether Denver should submit a bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics – something I’ve seen a great deal of hue and cry for since Vancouver. If Colorado is going to bid for the Games, I’d like to explore what form that bid should take.

Denver has the distinction (some would say dubious) of being the only city in the modern Olympic era to reject the Games once awarded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Then state lawmaker Dick Lamm made his political career by arguing the Olympics would lead to unbridled development and rampant taxes. He forced a referendum in which Colorado voters stunningly gave back the Olympics award. Lamm later became governor.

At the time I was an 11-year-old Air Force brat learning to ski in Bavaria when nearby Innsbruck, Austria – which had just hosted the Games in 1964 – was awarded the 1976 Denver Winter Olympics.

If you buy that the IOC fossils will forgive and forget by 2022, I still maintain they need us more than we need them. “Duty-to-die Dick,” as Lamm infamously became known (for other reasons), nailed some aspects of the Games – although development came to Colorado anyway – and made a larger point that can’t be ignored 34 years later.

The massive taxpayer expense of hosting the Winter Olympics means any host nation, state or city should come away with a package of infrastructure goodies so enticing that it makes hosting the Games a truly worthwhile endeavor with long-term benefits.

Next up: Is a 2022 Denver and Colorado Winter Olympic bid the only way the state will ever see a passenger rail system to the ski resorts? If so, what should that circuit look like?

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