University of Oxford researchers in 2016 came to the conclusion that any city or region hosting the Olympics is highly likely to get a raw deal.
The Olympics, the researchers found, on average have higher cost overruns — 156 percent — than any other kind of major project, and hosting governments have almost always been required to foot the bill for those overruns with taxpayer money. It’s a big reason that cities are increasingly disinterested in these multi-billion-dollar endeavors, in spite of the considerable prestige and marketing value.
“For a city and nation to decide to stage the Olympic Games,” the Oxford study concluded, “is to decide to take on one of the most costly and financially most risky type of mega-project that exists, something that many cities and nations have learned to their peril.”
The city of Denver and the state of Colorado are contenders against only Salt Lake City to host the 2030 Winter Olympics and Paralympics. Unsurprisingly, there’s already a formidable movement in opposition to the idea, and activists here are coordinating with counterparts around the world who have either successfully thwarted the Olympics in their cities or are trying to do so.
“What I’d encourage Coloradans to do is to treat this as a public policy issue and not as a competition. Don’t fall into the trap of competing against Salt Lake City,” advised Chris Dempsey, co-founder of No Boston Olympics. “You have to soberly weigh the pros and cons, and cities that have done that overwhelmingly decide it’s not in their interest to take on an Olympic bid.”
He’s right: Eight of the last nine cities that voted on whether to host the Olympics opposed the idea, and the only one that didn’t — Oslo, in 2013 — later withdrew its bid as political support dropped when more details and costs for the project became clear. The International Olympic Committee has not successfully won a referendum since Vancouver’s, in 2003, and the IOC now consistently struggles to attract more than two or three bidders for its biennial Games.
It’s possible that Denverites and/or Coloradans will be voting on the 2030 games in the next few years. This state famously turned down the Olympics once before, voting in 1972 against hosting the 1976 Games. Then-Gov. Dick Lamm led the charge against the Olympics, largely behind an argument the Games would hurt the state’s environment and economy.
Potential environmental and social impacts of hosting the Winter Games — a 30-day event that starts with the 17-day Olympics and is followed by the Paralympics — will no doubt be in focus should the 2030 games and their projected 700,000-900,000 visitors come to Colorado. In its June 2018 report, the Denver and Colorado Olympic and Paralympic Exploratory Committee indicated the games’ impacts on the state’s air quality and traffic would not be problematic, though already there are plenty of skeptics on those fronts.
The idea of hosting the games is, to many people in many cities around the world, a non-starter because of those impacts and because of what is widely viewed as a shaky funding model that’s applied to all but one Olympics.
Members of the exploratory committee driving the current Denver/Colorado bid, however, think things could be different — and fairer to residents — for 2030, in several key ways. They project a relatively low budget and extremely low relative risk of overruns. Most significantly, they say they’ve developed a funding mechanism that relies on corporate support and insurance and eliminates any potential taxpayer burden for overruns while also guaranteeing the IOC the security it seeks.
It’s an opportunity for Denver to leave the Games a great legacy: “a new way to protect the stakeholders from the risks that are associated with the event,” said Jim Burton, a partner with a global accounting firm and a member of the finance subcommittee for the Denver and Colorado Olympic and Paralympic Exploratory Committee.
The committee’s 39 members include Denver Mayor Michael Hancock; outgoing Gov. John Hickenlooper; several local politicians, developers, business executives; and local sports legends Jeremy Bloom, Chauncey Billups and Peyton Manning.
In a lengthy report, the committee came up with 118 reforms “that reimagine how the Olympic Games are delivered” and recommended Denver and Colorado pursue the 2030 Games. The committee also recommended the final decision be put to voters.
In discussing the IOC’s dismal global track record of recent votes on the Olympics, Ramonna Robinson, a spokeswoman for the exploratory committee, said past failures are immaterial to the future the committee has envisioned.
“You can talk about eight or nine things that happened in the past,” she said. “But what we’re talking about is a new way.”
“Can you show me that?”
The entire operating budget for the 2030 Games would be about $1.86 billion, the committee reported. The IOC has indicated it’s prepared to contribute nearly $1 billion to the 2026 Games — which still don’t have an announced host city — and, to be conservative, the Denver/Colorado committee is banking on about $550 million from the IOC for 2030. That still leaves well over $1 billion in needed funding, which Burton said would come largely from the combination of sponsorship money and ticket revenue.
For a variety of reasons, Burton said, a Denver/Colorado Games in 2030 would be at significantly lower risk of cost overruns than the previous Olympics, every one of which since 1960 had overruns. That is primarily because the committee isn’t proposing any new venues or infrastructure projects to accommodate the Games. The stadiums and mountain resorts are already built, hotel space is not a concern and there’s no need for any new road or transit projects for the Olympics, Burton said.
“When you’re not building any new buildings or new infrastructure, your risk of overruns goes down,” he added.
If there are any overruns, the committee has proposed, they’d be covered not by the kind of governmental guarantee that cities around the world evidently dread, but rather by a combination of corporation contributions, insurance policies, pre-budgeted contingency money and bonds that would, all told, run somewhere between $250 million and $1.4 billion. None of the actual people or corporations behind this overrun plan have been identified yet.
Denver’s Christine O’Connor is a leader of the campaign for a 2019 ballot measure on the Games, called Let Denver Vote. The measure, which has Dick Lamm’s backing, would allow continued pursuit of the 2030 Winter Games only if they are privately funded and approved by Colorado voters. O’Connor’s not sold on the committee’s promises.
“They have a very sophisticated argument about why it could be different this time,” she said. “But I think we can’t tiptoe around the elephant in the room, which is that somebody has to guarantee that they’ll cover the cost overruns,” O’Connor said. “I’ve tried to get the details since last January. I don’t think the IOC is going to accept private insurance in lieu of a fiscal guarantee by a body like Denver or Colorado, which can actually raise money from taxpayers. They can say ’til they’re blue in the face that they’re going to do it privately, but can you show me that?”
Questions of whether Colorado should host the 2030 Olympics, and whether it can or should do so with taxpayer money, came up constantly during the state’s latest gubernatorial race. The winner, Boulder Congressman Jared Polis, has long said he’s a “skeptic” because of how costly the Olympics have been for other host cities. This could put him at odds with Hancock, his fellow Democrat, who declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this story.
“I worry that, looking at the experience that other communities have had … it could expose taxpayers to additional debt,” Polis said. “I’m willing to keep an open mind, but I’d start from a place of skepticism.”
Polis said this week that he has neither reviewed the committee’s recommendations nor spoken about the Olympics recently with either Hancock or Hickenlooper, the committee’s honorary co-chairs. He did say that he supports a citizen referendum.
“I think it’s completely appropriate that they present it to the people of Colorado,” he said. “If Coloradans choose to proceed, I’d be willing to do my part.”
Asked what he anticipates his part would be, he said, “I would assume I’d have to wine and dine people.”
A promise of community benefit
That’s another big reason some fight so hard against their cities hosting the Olympics: Even in an unprecedented scenario in which taxpayers aren’t on the hook for any amount of money directly related to funding the Olympics, opponents often argue it’s a waste of time and resources to have local officials spend years in meetings and at banquets in advance of a single 30-day event.
“The mayor, city council, the politicians, they’re going to spend years of their time on this bid. What else could they be doing with that time?” said Jonny Coleman, an organizer with NOlympics in Los Angeles. “That could probably be spent doing literally anything else that’s more productive, like public housing or all sorts of other reforms.”
Of course, Colorado taxpayers have already been on the hook for the 2030 exploration at some level, given that they pay the salaries of the politicians involved in the project.
Local anti-Olympics activists also say that the idea of a no-build Olympics in Denver and Colorado is highly misleading.
“Billions have already been spent on the infrastructure for the Olympics,” argued Denver mayoral candidate Lisa Calderon, “under the guise of the I-70 (highway widening), (Denver’s National Western) Stock Show venues and DIA upgrades.”
Officials have pitched each of those massive projects as necessary for reasons unrelated to the Olympics push. Again, O’Connor of Let Denver Vote doesn’t buy it.
“They don’t say it was all done for the Olympics, but the Olympics have always been in the forefront of their mind,” she said. “And they’ve already spent quite a bit during this exploratory process because many of their own staff were on the exploratory committee.”
Countered the committee’s financial pro, Burton: “Regardless of whether we have the Olympic Games or not, we need to continue to improve Denver and Colorado. I-70 needs to get addressed whether or not the Games come. The current expansion at DIA is occurring because it’s appropriate for our region. It has nothing to do with the Olympic Games.”
He added, “If securing an Olympic Games allows us another vehicle or another option to solve some of the challenges we have as a community, that would be a good outcome.”
Regarding the common criticism about local leaders spending time on the Olympics that could be put to anything else, Matthew Rojas, a spokesman for the Salt Lake City mayor’s office, said that time is in fact an investment, rather than a distraction. Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Games and, Rojas said, found the run-up and the Games themselves to be significant economic drivers.
“These things bring in a lot of additional revenue far beyond the the 30 days,” he said. “It’s a commercial for your city. It’s showing all that you have to offer, and we feel like we’ve seen a lot of benefits since 2002.”
This is a similar argument to the one cities across the country, Denver included, made in justifying the months of energy they put into bidding on Amazon’s HQ2. The Metro Denver Economic Development Center highlighted the fact that the failed exploration — Amazon picked New York City and Arlington, Va., earlier this month — netted thousands of articles in national publications about the business environment in Denver and Colorado.
The same day the HQ2 pick was announced, the field for the 2030 Olympics was also whittled down from three to two, when the Reno-Tahoe Winter Games Coalition announced it was declining a 2030 bid invitation from the U.S. Olympic Committee, citing concerns about economic feasibility.
“I think the committee, the first thing they’d say is that they love Denver and Colorado,” said Robinson, the committee spokeswoman. “And so they wouldn’t propose something they believe were not good for the community.”