Editor’s note: During this Winter Olympic season and leading up to the 2015 FIS Alpine World Championships, this weekly series will tell Colorado’s rich ski and snowboarding history and heritage through stories about the sport’s heroes and legends.
A half a century will pass since Denver was first slated to host the Winter Olympics in 1976 and the next time Colorado has an outside shot at landing the Games in 2026. And it realistically could take a lot longer.
A United States Olympic Committee executive recently told reporters in a pre-Sochi press conference that his organization is more focused on bidding for and securing the Summer Olympics in 2024 than the 2026 Winter Games. Colorado is already out of the running for 2022.
“We have a proud tradition on the summer side, and we’ve hosted the winter more recently than summer, so that’s going to be our initial focus,” USOC CEO Scott Blackmun told reporters. “I certainly hope it’d [cost] less than $51 billion, because the federal government doesn’t get involved beyond security. It’s a big, heavy burden on cities and states.”
The 1976 bid
Blackmun was referring to the record-breaking price tag for the 2014 Sochi Games, which dwarfs the $14 million projected cost of Denver hosting the 1976 Winter Olympics when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) first awarded the games in 1970. By the time Colorado voters rejected public financing in 1972, the costs had ballooned to $77 million.
“We were a small state of two and half million people, and the Olympic host is the insurer of last resort for any overruns,” said former three-term Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm. “Back in 1972 and looking at the ’76 Olympics, Montreal was a billion dollars over budget, and [’72 Winter Games host] Sapporo, Japan, was a billion dollars over budget.”
Lamm, who now teaches public policy at the University of Denver, was a state legislator at the time and led the charge against the Games out of concern the state would be stuck with a billion-dollar debt, rampant development and major environmental impacts.
“We were looking at a history of the winter Olympics when we acted that gave us pause and made me as the chair of the audit committee look at what was proposed,” Lamm said, “and it soon became apparent that [the Denver Organizing Committee] had dramatically overestimated the benefits and underestimated the costs.”
Lamm said he does not necessarily object to a future Colorado bid but adds that it must make financial sense and hopefully come with some solution to the Interstate 70 bottleneck.
A USOC decision on a 2024 summer host city bid is due by the end of this year — with an IOC choice in 2017 — and the fate of that bid will impact 2026 USOC winter bid.
“I believe that the USOC and the IOC are going to look for their best opportunities and their viable candidates, and I think Denver’s a viable candidate,” said United States Ski & Snowboard Association President and CEO Bill Marolt, a member of the USOC board.
Gov. John Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock in 2011 formed the Denver Exploratory Committee to pursue a 2022 bid, but the USOC in 2012 opted not to go after those Games.
“We were all excited as a committee to work on it and really passionate about it, but for a number of reasons it didn’t make sense the years that we were trying to put a bid together,” said committee member Jeremy Bloom, a two-time Olympic mogul skier and former NFL player.
“I think Denver is well deserving of the world’s biggest stage for the Olympics,” Bloom added. “There are a lot of infrastructure questions. Obviously, I-70 came up a lot in the conversations, and that would need to be expanded, but they did that in Vancouver — the road up to Whistler.”
Former 12-time Paralympic gold medalist Sarah Will, of Edwards, also a member of the exploratory committee, said that whether it’s 2026, 2030 or beyond, the Winter Olympics ultimately should be held in Colorado.
“We’re the only ones with the snow conditions now that has the altitude and the downhill,” Will said, adding she doesn’t think the IOC in future deliberations will factor in Denver’s history as the only city to ever reject the Games.
“That’s old school, old business and everybody realized that you don’t waste anybody’s time,” Will said. “You don’t make a bid unless you actually want it, and I think we learned a valuable lesson, especially when people are trying so hard to bid for something like that.”
For 1976, alpine skiing events were first slated for Loveland ski area, with a downhill course on nearby Mount Sniktau, while Nordic events were proposed near Evergreen – all within 40 miles of the Denver metro area. The IOC likes to keep things close to the city for obvious transportation reasons, even if it compromises snow and competition conditions.
But later, when it became clear there wouldn’t be enough natural snow in Evergreen or enough water for snowmaking, the Nordic events were moved to Steamboat Springs and the proposed Beaver Creek ski area landed the alpine events. That put events 160 and 110 miles from Denver, respectively.
After the Games were turned down by voters and moved to Innsbruck, Austria, it took another eight years of intense environmental wrangling for Beaver Creek to open in 1980. Ski-area designer Mike Larson thinks that extra time allowed the resort to get things right.
“I think it changed entirely the way it was approached,” Larson said in an interview for Beaver Creek’s 25th anniversary in 2005. “They were going to build just three runs top to bottom and four lifts for the Olympics only. The whole construction was going to be done just as a race venue, and it was going to be done in one year.”
Next season, Beaver Creek turns 34 and will host its third World Alpine Ski Championships. Its Birds of Prey men’s downhill course is lauded as the best in North America, and this past year it debuted its new women’s course, Raptor.
But it’s still 110 miles to Denver, and I-70 now more than ever remains a choke point on busy ski weekends. It can only be expanded so much given the corridor’s steep topography, and some see rail in the form of an Advanced Guideway System (AGS) as the only solution.
A CDOT-funded study in 2010 estimated the cost of high-speed passenger rail from Denver International Airport to the Eagle County Regional Airport west of Vail at $16 billion, with a DIA-to-Summit County alternative tallying a still-staggering $9 billion.
Russia reportedly spent nearly that much ($8.7 billion), or more than the entire $6.4 billion cost of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, just to build the 31-mile Adler-to-Krasnaya Polyana rail line linking the Black Sea to the mountain venues for the Sochi Games.
David O. Williams wrote this story for the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum. The museum is located on the third level of the Vail Village parking structure, adjacent to Vail Village Covered Bridge. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call 970-476-1876 or go to www.skimuseum.net.