That time Colorado passed on the Olympics to avoid the problems facing Rio

The organizing committee was received with cheers, but two years later, voters rejected the offer to host.

staff photo
American nordic combined skier Todd Lodwick at the 2010 Winter Olympics. (Kevin Pedraja)

American nordic combined skier Todd Lodwick at the 2010 Winter Olympics. (Kevin Pedraja)

On May 12, 1970, a small group of Denver officials secured what had been a dream for years: the chance to host the 1976 Olympic Winter Games.

The Denver Organizing Committee was greeted with a brass band and a motorcade after winning its bid for the international event, The Rocky Mountain News reported.

But cheers for the games eventually gave way to concerns — not unlike the ones we’re hearing from Rio De Janeiro today — about costs and environmental impacts.

During the past decade, the Olympic games have cost an average of $8.9 billion each, according to a new study from the University of Oxford.

The study published this month states that every Olympic host has had to shell out more than originally estimated. Rio is already expected to go $1.6 billion over budget for hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics in August.

In the 1970s, Coloradans were hearing similar reports about how costly hosting the games could be for cities.

Concerns about the Olympic’s price tag and impact spurred a Denver state legislator, who would eventually go on to be governor, to rally the state to take an action that had never been done before or since.

On Nov. 7, 1972, Colorado voters decided by a 60-to-40 margin to make the state the first to reject hosting the Olympics.

Left with little choice, the International Olympic Committee moved the ’76 games to Austria.

In recent months, leaders in Denver have expressed interest in tempting the hands of fate again and putting forth a bid to host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper were in Rio in June learning about the city’s approach to bidding for and hosting the games.

Brazil is raising familiar questions about the benefits of hosting the games. The country is in the middle of an economic recession and facing political turmoil, a Zika virus outbreak and negative press about crime and poverty.

Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes recently told the Los Angeles Times that Brazil hoped hosting the games would be an opportunity to improve the country.

“We beat out Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago. But we didn’t win because our infrastructure is better. We won more because of our problems than because of our qualifications,” Paes said.

“We never said we’d solve all of Rio’s or Brazil’s problems. We said the Olympics would make progress on some problems.”

In exchange for the games, Rio promised in 2009 to “use clean energy, clear the city’s clogged streets, preserve its natural spaces, and upgrade its ‘favelas’ — poor neighborhoods full of ad-hoc infrastructure — to more-urbanized spaces with functioning utilities, public transportation, and other amenities.”

But as The Atlantic reports this month, it doesn’t seem the city will meet it targets before the opening ceremony.

Business & data reporter Adrian D. Garcia can be reached via email at agarcia@denverite.com or twitter.com/adriandgarcia.

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