The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The story behind the 1976 Denver Olympics that never happened

Posters used in Colorado's effort to secure an Olympic bid in 1976 are part of the memorabilia collection of the Denver Public Library. (David Zalubowski/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

DENVER — They were young and principled and determined to change the world at a time when it seemed the world was changing all around them. But even the activists and obscure politicians who passed a referendum 50 years ago that blocked Denver from hosting the 1976 Winter Olympics it had been awarded had to think doing so would be impossible.

In 1972, two years after the International Olympic Committee had awarded the Games, Colorado’s most powerful business leaders had been planning the 1976 Olympics for years, hoping to sell a suddenly booming Denver to the rest of the world. They had the support of three-term governor John Love, the IOC and Richard Nixon’s White House.

No city had won an Olympics only to give it back. But then it happened, forcing Denver to decline the Games and the IOC to find another host, which ended up being Innsbruck, Austria.

Half a century later, the returned Olympics remain a glowing neon asterisk in Olympic history, “a cautionary tale,” says Heather Dichter, a professor studying Olympic bids at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, about what happens when a city’s organizers fail to grasp the public’s distaste for the financial slough that comes with hosting a Games. And even as host cities’ cost overruns remain an area of criticism, it has never happened since.

“Fortunately, we were too young and stupid to think of how audacious it was,” one of the activists, Sam Brown, said in a recent interview.

In parched Beijing, claims of a ‘green’ Olympics may not hold water

Led by state Rep. Richard Lamm, the Citizens for Colorado’s Future successfully portrayed the Denver Games as an unwieldy fiasco that would overwhelm taxpayers, damage the environment and bring more sprawl to an area many in the state thought was growing too fast. They typed brochures, handed out leaflets and visited VFW halls and Kiwanis Clubs, talking about overpopulation and Olympic budgets filled with hidden costs, always asking the same question: “Who pays, and who profits?”

“A Chamber of Commerce campaign,” Brown scoffed about the bid the Denver Organizing Committee sold the IOC in 1970 with glossy bid books and a film loaded with stirring scenes of mountain vistas that seemed more a slick gimmick to sell Denver as a tourist spot than a plan to host an Olympics.

The DOC insisted that most of the potential venues already had been built, but in reality, it needed to construct a ski jump, bobsled and luge tracks, a speedskating facility, media housing and a new downtown arena.

Because the IOC insisted that venues be within 50 miles of the Athletes’ Village, Denver couldn’t use ski resorts such as Vail or Steamboat Springs — some three hours away at the time — and instead planned to build a downhill course on nearby Mount Sniktau, an often-snowless peak known for howling winds. Cross-country skiing was to be placed in the Denver suburb of Evergreen, which also doesn’t receive much snow.

To get around this, the DOC suggested trucking in snow before eventually convincing the IOC to let it use the mountain resorts for Alpine ski events, offering ambitious visions of helicopter planes that would transport the skiers between Denver and the distant sites.

China warns foreign Olympic athletes against speaking out on politics at Winter Games

Opposition to the fanciful plans was small and mostly confined to environmentalists until one day in 1971 when Lamm and his brother Tom, an attorney, gathered in Richard’s office near the Colorado State Capitol. There, Richard Lamm, who died last year, spread out a map of the DOC’s proposed sites and laughed.

“It was obvious to Dick right away,” Tom Lamm said. “He was very suspicious of the whole thing right from the start. And the more we began to look at it, there was no way the venues were going to work. The finances were never going to work.”

The DOC was vague about the price tag, insisting the Olympics would cost $15 million before pushing its estimates to $35 million. This struck both Lamms as absurdly low.

“It was just a bare-naked real estate play,” Tom Lamm says. “A few guys would have gotten rich, and a bunch of venue buildings would have been built, never to be used again.”

Alarmed by what he believed would be a financial disaster and concerned about accelerating the city’s already rapid sprawl, Richard Lamm recruited Brown and another young activist, Meg Lundstrom, who had been working for the failed presidential campaign of Oklahoma Sen. Fred R. Harris.

Robert Jackson, another state legislator, joined, as did a few environmentalists from around Colorado. Another activist, new to Colorado at the time, Tom Nussbaum became part of the group after seeing a television interview with a DOC leader who tried to argue that it was too late for Colorado to vote on an Olympics that already had been awarded.

“It’s never too late to vote on taxpayer issues!” Nussbaum recalled thundering at his television.

Barry Svrluga: Olympic athletes are truly special. The IOC pawns them for whatever value it can get.

They printed brochures and newsletters and mailed letters explaining why they thought the Olympics would be bad for Colorado. They also started collecting signatures on a petition to deliver to the IOC that called for the Games to be moved. Within three weeks, their petition had 25,000 names.

“That’s when we knew it had really drawn people in,” Lundstrom says.

The first big move from the Citizens for Colorado’s Future came in January 1972, when three of its members flew to Tokyo for the IOC’s annual meetings before the Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan. They burst into the IOC’s executive board meeting and delivered the petition with 25,000 signatures, then told the board that Colorado’s residents wanted to have a say on whether Denver should host the Games.

Though news accounts at the time portray the IOC officials as irritated by the move, the leaders also were concerned about Denver’s ever-changing setup for venues and what seemed to be a strengthening resistance toward the Games in Colorado. Only last-second support from sympathetic politicians back home, including Nixon, kept the Denver plan alive.

But the city leaders’ authority was diminishing as the group’s efforts were gaining steam. Needing 51,000 signatures to get Proposition 8, a referendum to kill state funding for the Olympics, on the ballot, Citizens for Colorado’s Future got 77,392 in less than five months.

“We were just riding a wave; it’s almost like we could do nothing wrong,” Lundstrom says. “We had so much momentum that all you could do was stay on top of it as it went along and ride it.”

The DOC kept stumbling. It talked about fanciful plans of running trains between Denver and the distant mountain resorts. Rumors flew that the DOC, to guarantee high attendance numbers, was planning a television blackout of the Games in the Denver area.

“Just imagine how popular that one was,” Tom Lamm said.

Denver’s Olympic organizers kept insisting the Games wouldn’t cost more than $35 million, though later estimates by Olympic supporters went up to $92 million.

“I think when they put their bid together, they seemed to think they could do whatever they wanted,” Brown said. “To me, they seemed surprised they got the bid and were deer in the headlights: ‘Oh, wow, we got it; now what do we do?’ I believe they would have been better prepared if they knew they were going to get it in the first place.”

In an apparent attempt to alter its image, the Denver Organizing Committee rebranded itself as the Denver Olympic Organizing Committee, filling its leadership with many of the same people. It pushed its establishment status, announcing more business leaders as supporters, then days before the election ran a full-age ad in the Denver Post, blasting Citizens for Colorado’s Future as a group of political operatives from out of state “seeking issues to … exploit.”

“They were saying, ‘Trust us,’ ” Lundstrom said.

By the day of the vote, Colorado no longer did. On Nov. 7, 1972 — the same day Nixon was reelected in a national landslide — Colorado residents voted 537,400 to 358,906 to block additional state funding for the Olympics.

Most of those involved in Denver’s failed Olympics have died. Three years after the vote, Carl DeTemple, a Denver city councilman who eventually became the DOOC’s general secretary, sat for an interview that is one of the more complete accounts of the organizers’ side.

“People didn’t realize that you just don’t go to the library and check out a book and say, ‘This is how you run an Olympics,’ ” DeTemple said.

Then he blamed the media. And the IOC.

Organizers “were forced, in their planning and in their search for sites, to release information before it should have been released, before we were ready to release it because of pressures — public pressures, news media pressures, that type of thing,” he said. “So consequently it was incomplete in some instances. It was misleading in some instances because they were looking at a particular site as a possibility and in reality it was three or four down the list as far as priority was concerned.”

A half-century later, Denver’s abandoned Games remain an outlier in Olympic history, but in Colorado, Proposition 8 was the first of what would be many political earthquakes.

Richard Lamm rode the momentum of the Olympic campaign to be elected governor in 1974, serving three terms. Gary Hart, the young campaign manager for George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, won a U.S. Senate seat that same year. A local lawyer, Pat Schroeder, won the first of 12 elections for House of Representatives on the same day the referendum passed.

“It was the harbinger of what would happen” in future elections, said Steven Katich, a Lamm staffer who was not part of Citizens for Colorado’s Future. “The Olympic thing was the first time for us that the establishment order had been upset.”