When Coloradans cast their ballots on Election Day to cut off state spending for the 1976 Winter Olympics, few residents were affected more conspicuously than a 29-year-old Greek immigrant named Evagelos Tsiagkouris. The vote meant that the Games would now be held elsewhere—if at all—a turn of events that Tsiagkouris failed to anticipate last March. That was when he bought an old coffee shop on Denver's shabby East Colfax Avenue, grandly renamed the place the Olympic Restaurant and made ready for what he assumed would be "a lot of free publicity between now and 1976."
Tsiagkouris accepted the election results bravely enough. Standing outside his restaurant he declared, "I feel bad that there will be no Olympics here, but what can I do?" He glanced at a splendid new sign over the door, one bearing both the restaurant's name and a picture of a lighted torch. Then he smiled resignedly. "That sign, you know, it cost me a lot of money."
A more biting disappointment was in the air at Denver's colonnaded City and County Building, where the familiar Olympic flag outside Mayor William McNichols' office was quietly hauled down. So ended, symbolically at least, a civic effort that began nine years ago and ultimately won the '76 Winter Games—which Denver organizers promised would cost just $14 million and take place entirely within the preferred easy reach of downtown. The Olympics were tied to the celebration of the U.S. bicentennial as well as to the 100th anniversary, also in 1976, of Colorado statehood. But last week, with projected costs up to $35 million and venues scattered up to four hours away into the Rockies, the voters served notice, in effect, that they would just as soon grow beards and let it go at that.
The vote, climaxing an Olympic year that had already seen upheaval enough, was a blow not only to Mayor McNichols, a Democrat, but also to Republican Governor John Love and much of Colorado's business Establishment. Pro-Olympic forces, having long since dissipated public trust through blunder and bluster, had tried desperately to win it all back by pumping at least $175,000 into a well-oiled campaign. They trotted out that old pro-Olympian Jesse Owens and flooded the state with entreaties to "light the torch now," meanwhile receiving sustenance from The Denver Post, which in the campaign's final days devoted up to five times more news space to Olympic boosters than to critics.
November 20, 1972
But the public confidence was never fully restored, symptomatic of the breach that the Denver Olympic Organizing Committee opened when it airily brushed off any inquiries about the source of pro-Olympic campaign funds. "I really don't see where it matters," insisted DOOC" Chairman W. R. Goodwin, who also is president of Denver-based Johns-Manville Corp. It probably didn't matter: by a resounding 537,440 to 358,906, an electorate worried about potential costs and environmental impact of the Games approved an amendment to the Colorado constitution barring the use of further state funds. In Denver voters also enacted a companion measure putting a similar freeze on city funds.
The defeat of the Olympics was managed by an army of doorbell ringers calling itself Citizens for Colorado's Future, which spent $23,600 in its 11 months of existence—most of it collected in contributions of $5 or $10. The CCF had a total media budget of $2,100, which it used for radio spots in rural Colorado; its one big fund-raising project, a concert by folk singer Judy Collins, lost $1,000. The CCF's books, stashed in a crate in the old house it used for headquarters, were open to the public.
Simply put, the only thing directly affected by the vote was a proposed $4.2 million in state funds ($800,000 had already been appropriated), since the rest of the $35 million of Olympic costs was supposed to come from the Federal Government, Denver's treasury, TV revenues and ticket sales. Still, both sides had defined the stakes as nothing less than the fate of the Olympics, an interpretation reinforced by the fact that the U.S. Senate, in passing a $15.5 million appropriation for the Games last September, had made the measure contingent on Colorado's coming up with its share. "The voters made their position clear," Goodwin said the morning after the election in the DOOC offices, which commanded a view, a mocking one now, of the Rockies in the distance. "They don't want the Olympics."
And now, seeking a new site for the '76 Winter Games, the International Olympic Committee could have more trouble than Meyer Lansky. The San Francisco Chronicle editorialized weeks ago against California getting any bright ideas about proposing alternative sites in that state, and the French government is not pushing Grenoble, the '68 site. Another former host, Innsbruck, did express interest, as did Vancouver, but the IOC indicated that it might be four months before a city is chosen. With the Winter Olympics already under fire for commercialism, it is not inconceivable that the IOC would seize this chance to cancel the Games altogether.
Nor are the 1976 Summer Olympics immune from similar troubles. A growing anti-Olympic movement in Montreal—one that would rather see the city's treasure spent on social needs—is now looking to Denver for ideas on how to proceed. The Colorado campaign may not exactly fit their needs, for in Denver the opposition centered on economic plus environmental issues. The result brought together under the anti-Olympic banner young activists, conservationists, blue-collar workers and fiscal conservatives. If the CCF provided the locomotion, the man at the controls was Dick Lamm, a lawyer who, at 37, last week also won his fourth term as a state representative
Lamm, an intense, intellectually restless man, was tilting with the state's big money interests. "The people behind the Olympics are the same ones who stand to profit—the airlines, hotels, banks and ski resorts," he said. Warning that Olympics have always been seeded with "economic land mines," he questioned whether the DOOC could realistically hope to keep costs from soaring far higher.
The Olympic foes further argued that the Games, at whatever cost, were an unwelcome extension of the "sell-Colorado" campaign that Governor Love has used to attract tourism and industry during his three terms in office. In fact, this may have been the strongest slat in the bed on which the Denver Olympics were laid to rest. Many Coloradans believe that Love's efforts have been, if anything, too successful. Evidence that the state may have been oversold is there in the Los Angeles-style sprawl that now stretches from Denver westward into the foothills of the Rockies. With problems of smog and water shortages worsening, posters have gone up urging outsiders to "Ski Kansas" and bumper stickers have flowered reading DON'T CALIFORNICATE COLORADO.
"We're starting to realize that growth isn't necessarily good," said Lamm. "We've got to stop this knee-jerk boosterism and mindless promotionalism."
All this was in stark contrast to the goodwill that prevailed back in May 1970 when a band of Denver boosters returned triumphantly from Amsterdam, having been awarded the '76 Games by the IOC. In view of the anti-Establishment cries heard later, it is noteworthy that much of the earliest opposition came from Evergreen, an affluent suburb in the foothills west of town with a population only slightly less rarefied than the 7,000-foot altitude. It was agreed in Amsterdam that the Olympic Nordic events would be staged in Evergreen but, unhappily, the matter had been discussed with few people who actually lived there.
The opposition that soon developed in Evergreen was sometimes hysterical, maintaining that biathlon competitors would gun down innocent children in their schoolyards. A more justifiable concern was the DOOC's failure to let the IOC in on the secret that Evergreen is in a mild region where chances of snow at the time of the Games would be one in 25. The sites had been chosen, of course, in the interest of keeping the Games on the front side of the range—and thus easily within a promised 45-minute drive.
Similar thinking influenced the location of the proposed downhill course. This was Mount Sniktau, a craggy, wind-whipped peak with scanty snow covering, a deficiency Denver's leaders hid by having an artist airbrush snow on bald spots in the picture submitted to the IOC.
Perhaps the airbrushing ploy was a perfect pointer to the entire blunder: in their eagerness to boost Denver, the committeemen had clearly sold the wrong side of the Rockies to the IOC. Denver, east of the Continental Divide, is not itself a ski area; the obvious Olympic-caliber skiing is many miles to the west. It is still puzzling that more knowledgeable protests were not raised earlier than they were.
On top of these and other misrepresentations, it also became clear that the Denver committee's $14 million price tag was utterly unrealistic. Through the veil of obfuscation came but one ray of light. Asked about the Denver delegation's performance in Amsterdam, Colorado Lieutenant Governor John Vanderhoof said: "They were pressed for time, so they lied a bit."
Under growing attack by now, the Olympic leadership went to Sapporo for the '72 Games where Mayor McNichols assured officials that "only 1% of the people back home oppose the Olympics." To argue otherwise, the newly formed CCF sent three delegates of its own to Japan, where they forced their way into a meeting to tell the IOC of the growing anti-Olympic sentiment in Colorado. Returning home, they easily collected 77,392 signatures, some 25,000 more than the number needed to put the Olympics on last week's ballot.
Later, while the winter sport world watched with growing amazement, the Denver panel made a last, desperate effort to save everything by redistributing the Games—a schedule reluctantly accepted by the IOC. First bobsledding was bustled right out, over the futile objections of that sport's international federation. Then Nordic events were shifted from Evergreen to Steamboat Springs, a 156-mile drive through the mountains. Alpine events wound up 100 miles away near Vail. Only luge, hockey and skating stayed in Denver. The scattered new sites made better technical and ecological sense, but instead of the centralized concept promised in Amsterdam they offered a strange new Olympic mode and a sharp break with history. In addition to expense, there was the prospect of three Olympic Villages, plus air and auto lifts for competitors to opening and closing rites.
In their efforts to undo the damage caused by past sins, Olympic supporters seemed clearly desperate: McNichols was accused of election-code violations when literature calling the Olympics "a force for peace, brotherhood and international goodwill" was distributed with the pay envelopes of the city's 8,000 employees, and if the mayor could have had his way, he clearly would have submitted the entire matter to Emily Post for arbitration.
"It's like inviting somebody to dinner," McNichols said. "You just can't tear up the invitation."
Another ill-advised campaign move was the DOOC's effort to discredit its foes by circulating a Denver Post story that darkly described CCF's organizers as "a small but artful band of tenacious young political activists who have filtered into Colorado over the past two years." The story omitted the fact that one of the key CCF leaders mentioned, 24-year-old Meg Lundstrom, was born in Colorado. "And our people didn't filter here," she added. "They come here." The DOOC leaflet also did not mention the fact that, on the other side, Chairman Goodwin himself became a Coloradan only when Johns-Manville moved its headquarters from New York last year.
In its final effort to save the Olympics, the DOOC stubbornly stuck to its $35 million cost estimate, and argued that the Games, far from being environmentally harmful, would produce valuable land-use planning for Colorado. This was a point that DOOC Vice-President Eric Auer, a Swiss-born engineer, was still making as late as Election Eve when he and Lamm met for a debate ("The Olympics: Boon or Boondoggle?") in a chemistry classroom at Denver Community College.
Auer, an embattled figure amid the Bunsen burners and element charts, was eloquent in behalf of boon. "The Olympics will bring together state and federal environmental planning in Colorado for the first time," he promised. "They'll be the catalyst for land use."
But next day, when the votes were counted, it was all boondoggle. The anti-Olympic amendment swept virtually every part of Colorado except the ski country around Vail and Steamboat Springs—and it lost in each of those communities by only a handful of votes. Insofar as the issues were money and environment, the outcome was reminiscent of public rejection of another big project, the SST. But the competence of the DOOC leadership also was in question, and the message for a crisis-ridden Olympic movement seemed clear: the excellence and fair play routinely expected in Olympic competition are no less necessary in the back rooms where the Games are actually organized.
This was the first time that an already approved venue had ever turned down an Olympics. Yet it was not a vote against the Olympics per se, nor a vote against sport. But it was a vote against sporting facilities that cost taxpayers millions of dollars and work against essential conservation attitudes in the area concerned.
As for other lessons, Lamm suggested a couple while celebrating at the CCF's Election Night party. "We have shown that we don't need circuses in Colorado, we need solutions to problems." At their wake elsewhere in Denver, pro-Olympic troops were finding comfort at a well-stocked bar. The CCF made do with inexpensive California wine and great quantities of Olympia, a beer popular in the West. Lamm, in his wisdom, may have found that brand inappropriate. He was drinking Budweiser.