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A History Lesson: Why Denver Snubbed the 1976 Olympics

12 Jul, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Cities used to make a stampede for the Olympic bargaining table. Today, they don’t. In fact, they run from the idea of hosting. The recent failure of bid campaigns by Boston, Hamburg, Rome and Budapest for the 2024 Summer Games can all be attributed to residents’ and politicians’ growing discontent with the prospect of increased taxes and widespread disruption.

But the roots of refusal to host actually stretch further than the 2024 Games. In fact, they go back nearly 50 years, to a time when America put its collective foot down and refused to host the Winter Olympics. Which were to be presented in America's bicentennial year, no less. And in that is not only a history lesson but something the IOC would come to see as the template for future behavior on the Olympic hosting circuit.

The back story: In May 1970, the IOC awarded the 1976 Winter Olympics to Denver, which edged out Sion, Switzerland; Tampere, Finland; and Vancouver, Canada. Denver's politicians and media rejoiced; getting the Games was a major coup. This would be America’s 200th birthday, and where better to show off the country than in the Rockies?

Well, the good people of Colorado could think of plenty of other places the Olympics should have been, considering they’d most likely be footing the bill for construction of everything from new roads to a media center to more air access to an athlete village. On top of that, the environmentally conscious portion of the population was concerned about the impact of bringing massive crowds of people into proposed Olympic venues that stretched over 150 miles from Denver to Steamboat. So instead of cheers, there was widespread grumbling, which turned into shouting, which turned into some very vocal and visible protests.

But for anything concrete to happen, it took a politician named Dick Lamm who was willing to be a point person for the opposition. That led to a referendum in Denver: should the Games stay or should they go? And in November 1972, for the first time, a city voted – and the Games came out on the losing end of a nearly 60-40 margin. A week after the vote, the leadership of Denver officially and with much embarrassment contacted the IOC and relinquished its status as host city.

National Public Radio called the move, “The most insulting snub in Olympic history.”

For the first time, the IOC found itself persona non grata. It needed a new venue for the 1976 Games, and it only had a little over three years to pick a city and get its infrastructure up to speed. The blog, Mental Floss, notes,

“The IOC offered Whistler the first crack at the Games, but the Canadians graciously declined. Salt Lake City offered up its hosting services, but the IOC wasn't going to fall for Americans' tricks twice in a row.”  The Games ultimately were awarded to Innsbruck, Austria, which had hosted the 1964 Games and still had many structures intact.

Ironically, Innsbruck is tinkering with the idea of bidding on the 2026 Winter Games, but has to conduct – you guessed it – a referendum of its residents in order to move forward.

In light of the current movement to refuse hosting duties, should the IOC now require a referendum of all potential Olympic host cities? Voice your opinion in SDM’s one-question poll.

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