The long-running debate over whether Denver should bid on a future Winter Olympics — a debate fueled by Gov.-elect Jared Polis’ skepticism — is now on hold.
The U.S. Olympic Committee announced Friday that it has chosen Salt Lake City over Denver “to represent the United States in a potential 2030 bid to host the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.”
That’s assuming the Colorado Springs-based USOC decides to mount a U.S. bid on the games 12 years hence.
“The USOC Board of Directors has expressed interest in bidding for future Winter Games but has not determined when a formal bid may occur,” the organization said in Friday’s statement. “This selection affords the USOC and Salt Lake City the opportunity to move forward with the International Olympic Committee’s ongoing dialogue phase.”
Denver and Salt Lake City were the remaining cities that the USOC had invited to submit bids for future Winter Games, after the Reno-Lake Tahoe area withdrew from consideration a month ago.
Salt Lake hosted the Winter Olympics in 2002, the last U.S. city to do so, and many of the venues built or upgraded for those games are still in place.
The USOC decision follows mid-November visits to the two cities by committee officials.
“The United States is committed to hosting Games that are both remarkable and practical, and we believe that Salt Lake City is the community most capable of delivering against that promise,” said USOC CEO Sarah Hirshland in Friday’s statement. “This exploration process was a unique opportunity for the USOC to develop even stronger partnerships with each city and state and all involved will continue to play a critical role in our winter athletes’ success.”
The announcement did not state the reasons Salt Lake was picked over Denver. The committee said each city was asked for “information related to its overall concept and vision for the Games, its proposed venue plan, transport and accommodations solutions, political and public support, and a proposed Games budget.”
It said it also conducted public opinion polling last month.
Business executive Rob Cohen, chairman of the Denver and Colorado Winter Games Exploratory Committee, issued this statement after the USOC announcement:
“I’m proud of the new and unique model for hosting an Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games that was developed by the Denver and Colorado Exploratory Committee and presented to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). 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.”
Cohen and other Colorado leaders had expressed renewed enthusiasm in seeking a future Winter Olympics, decades after Colorado won and then rejected the event, but others have been less interested in the idea.
A year ago, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Gov. John Hickenlooper formed the exploratory committee of Denver civic, community and business leaders — led by Cohen, Denver-based chairman and CEO of The IMA Financial Group — to look into whether an Olympics bid would make sense for the city and the state.
In June, the panel recommended that the city should make a bid for a future Winter Games, citing what it called “statewide support for hosting the Games,” but it added that “any future bid effort [should] only go forward if endorsed by a statewide vote of Coloradans in 2020 or beyond.”
At the time, Cohen said the committee had “developed a new financial model that would enable a future organizing committee to host the Games without requiring direct funding from any public entity or the taxpayers, nor would it rely upon government guarantees.”
The panel’s report estimated it would cost from $1.8 billion to $2.1 billion to stage the Games in Colorado if existing facilities were used to the extent possible.
Private financing of the Olympics would come from corporate backing and sponsorships, ticket revenue, licensing and merchandising, and an expected International Olympic Committee contribution of more than half a billion dollars, the committee’s report said.
Not everyone in Denver was on board with hosting the Olympics. An opposition group called NOlympics, led by real estate developer Kyle Zeppelin and others, argued that taxpayers could wind up paying for cost overruns if a private-financing plan fell short.
And Polis, while saying he would respect the results of a statewide vote on the Games, expressed strong skepticism about hosting the event during his campaign, saying that the Games “would make things worse, not better” for Colorado.
“These are like fun things for millionaires and business people, but it leaves the rest of us with the debt and the price tag,” Polis remarked during a 9News debate.
If the USOC submits a bid from Salt Lake City to host a future Winter Games to the IOC, the international panel would then choose a site from among bids submitted by various countries. It’s expected the USOC would submit only one U.S. city as a possible site, or none at all.
The Winter Olympics are held every four years on a schedule alternating with the Summer Olympics. The next Winter Olympics will be held in Beijing in 2022.
The IOC plans to select the 2026 host city in September 2019. A U.S. city is not in the running, and at this point, Sweden and Italy are the only international bidders.
It’s expected that the bidding process for the 2030 Games will begin in 2021, with a host city announced two years after that.
The call for a statewide vote before making a bid is significant because it was a statewide vote after submitting a bid half a century ago that led to Denver being the only place in the world to have rejected hosting an Olympiad after winning it.
Denver learned in May 1970 that it would be the host city for the 1976 games. But as it turned out, the people of Colorado weren’t overly impressed by the honor.
At a time when anti-growth, pro-environment feeling ran high in Colorado, Dick Lamm — then a Democratic state legislator — and others began to raise their voices in opposition to hosting the Olympics.
They cited the cost and potential environmental impact on the state and warned the Games might draw hordes of new residents. And, in an era when Winter Olympic venues tended to be close together, they noted that the Denver Olympics sites would be as much as 170 miles apart.
In November 1972, Colorado voters soundly defeated a statewide $5 million bond measure to finance the Olympics. Some Olympics supporters blamed confusing ballot language; opponents said it was clear the Games would have cost taxpayers several times more than $5 million.
In any event, Denver had little choice but to relinquish the 1976 Olympics, which were instead held in Innsbruck, Austria.
Lamm’s leadership on the issue helped him win the first of three terms as governor in 1974. And, despite the Olympic rejection, growth came to Colorado.