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Know the West

Colorado refused to play


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

In 1972, four years before Colorado was to host the world's biggest winter sports extravaganza, the state got cold feet.

Businessmen and politicians had been working to lure the winter Olympics to Colorado since the 1950s. But when the Olympic flag arrived in Denver, many people began to wonder if the thrill of victory would leave Colorado with the agony of degraded mountains, more unwanted growth, and an Olympic-sized debt.

"The history of the Winter Olympics is a history of red ink," warned Democratic state Rep. Richard Lamm. The 1960 winter games in Squaw Valley had cost California taxpayers nine times what organizers had initially projected.

Lamm, who would go on to serve three terms as the state's governor, put the games on the ballot with the damning phrase: "These are rich men's games paid for by poor men's taxes."

On Nov. 7, 1972, Colorado voters amended the state constitution to prohibit the use of tax money on the games. Denver residents amended the city charter to keep city funds out of the Olympics. Without public support or today's huge media contracts, organizers had little hope of raising the money they needed.

The international Olympic Committee took its flag and left.

To this day, Denver is the only city ever to win the right to host the games, only to turn them away.

John Love, who was governor of Colorado in 1972 and a key Olympic backer, is still stunned by the rejection. "It seemed to me (the Olympics were like) home, motherhood and apple pie," he says. "Growth and the movement of people west back then was almost religion."

Ironically, a look at Denver and ski towns like Vail shows that stopping the Olympics didn't stop growth. In fact, some Coloradans wonder if the Olympics might have been good for the state in the long run.

"If the Olympics had been there, could it have been any worse?" asks Terry Minger, who was Vail's city manager in the late 1960s and a supporter of the games. Minger, who later worked for Lamm in the governor's office, thinks the Olympics might have forced Colorado ski towns to plan for transportation and affordable housing - two issues that plague these towns today.

"You can use "the world is coming" to your advantage if you're ready," says Minger, whose Center for Resource Management is helping Park City, Utah, plan for the 2002 games.

But Richard Lamm has no regrets about running the Olympics out of Denver. "I would really hope that Utah would ask itself a similar question," he says today. "Who benefits? Do you really want 8 million people in Utah? Who benefits from this?"