Does anybody really want the Olympics? Not so much in Colorado, it seems. We’re even willing to give it to Utah.
Last year an exploratory committee told Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and then-Gov. John Hickenlooper that the capital city should pursue the Games, but with a giant “if” attached.
The caveat to the recommendation rode on voters approving it.
And on June 4, after nearly 50 years of trying, Denver voters put a final nail in the coffin of Colorado hosting the Winter Games.
Déjà vu, all over again. In 1972, the year of Watergate and “Rocky Mountain High,” Colorado voters rejected the 1976 Winter Olympic Games, making Denver the only city to ever win the Games and give them back. Instead, Innsbruck, Austria, stepped in.
This year, Denver’s Initiative 302 said government can’t spend any money on pursuing the Olympics without voter approval.
With Denver voters overwhelmingly passing it, they really said, “Oh, no, you don’t.” The way Denver’s electorate is tracking — more liberal, more socially conscious — they weren’t likely to value the benefits of international marketing and booked hotel rooms over the traffic jams and eco-crushing construction and growth.
Fiscal watchers fretted over the billions in cost and the return on investment. History offers plenty of grim lessons, scaring off many cities from bidding.
Last year, the Council on Foreign Relations rang a warning bell about the increasing cost and inherent risks that follow the Games. They used Rio de Janeiro’s 2016 as an example.
“ … the city still struggles with debt incurred, maintenance costs for abandoned facilities, underequipped public services, and rising crime as candidate cities for future Games withdraw their bids or scale down their plan,” said the international think tank.
Montreal set aside $124 million for the 1976 Summer Olympics, but the actual costs ballooned into billions in debt that took the city decades to pay off. Los Angeles, with its existing stadiums and rich television market in 1984, is the only modern city to turn a profit off the games, the report noted.
In December, the United States Olympic Committee, headquartered in Colorado Springs, said the best place in the U.S. to bid for the 2030 Games is Salt Lake City, not dear old Denver, which all but put the issue to rest.
“We proposed hosting the Games in a new and innovative way, the Colorado Way, but we recognize that now may not be the right time for such a model,” Denver and Colorado Winter Games Exploratory Committee Chairman Rob Cohen said in a statement after the USOC announcement.
Salt Lake City can re-use the facilities it built for the 2002 Olympics, and Park City, not Colorado’s peaks, can soak up the world’s attention.
Utahns are prepared to fork over $1.35 billion to put on another Winter Olympics. Denver can’t even get In-N-Out Burger.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and the challenger he defeated in a runoff June 4, Jamie Giellis, backed Initiative 302. Hancock said the issue should have been voted on statewide.
Giellis fashioned the question into a rhetorical weapon during the 9News/Colorado Politics debate.
“I think 302 is a direct response to the lack of trust in the mayor spending the public’s tax dollars on legacy projects that don’t benefit the community,” she said.
It was Hickenlooper and Hancock who convened the exploratory committee that raised Denver as a possible host city, at a time other major cities are losing interest in the Olympics.
An opposition group called the NOlympics Community Board released a statement after the committee said to ask the voters.
“At the end of the day, it’s billions of dollars for a three-week event that is a proven drain on communities — at a time when the same group of establishment politicians and business interests have continued to overlook community priorities for housing, environment, transit and overall quality of life for the people that live here,” the statement said.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis tried to stay out of it. His office initially said he didn’t care to weigh in on the municipal ballot issue.
I asked how he felt about the Olympics in Colorado in general.
Spokeswoman Maria De Cambra said Polis wouldn't advocate bringing the Olympics here, “because of his concerns about the cost and potential negative economic impact it could have on our state, but if approved by the voters, he would honor the voters’ decision. His position has not changed.”
While it’s hard to find a reason to root for the Olympics — Sunday afternoon ski traffic on steroids — it’s worrisome to see Colorado snubbing another big event.
Last year, Denver pulled its name out of contention to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention, after sinking big bucks in the 2008 political circus.
Denver needs a win, or it can sink quickly into the status of a flyover cowtown instead of a vacation and convention gateway for the Mountain West. Until we get a dome and a decent public transit system, we won’t get a Super Bowl, either.
We won’t always get the gold, but we should at least stop quitting at some point.