Denver 76 - Part One: The Story

Politics, environmentalism, athletics, and the will of the people in 1970s Colorado

Published: 30 Aug 2021

Topics: History, Travel, Design

TL;DR: Denver remains the only city to reject hosting the Olympics after being selected by the IOC

A Poster, a Question, a Rabbit Hole

As is often the case with me, it started with a single piece of design: A poster hanging in an antique shop for the 1976 Denver Winter Olympics bid. It was modern, it was iconic, and it felt vaguely familiar; but I had never seen this poster in any of my design history classes.

Denver 76 poster hanging in a local antique shop

Now, you may be thinking, “Wait a second: the 1976 Olympics in Denver?! Weren’t they held in Innsbruck in 1976?” and you‘d be correct, dear reader, but there is far more to the story than you may imagine.

In fact, after researching the poster, I learned so much about the 1976 Winter Olympic bid that I’m breaking my research into three separate blog posts:

  1. The Story and Failure of the Denver Olympics
  2. The Imagined Infrastructure and Architecture of the Games
  3. The Design of the Proposal

This first post will focus on the idea, proposal, selection, and ultimate failure of the Olympic bid. Buckle up! Let’s get started.

“Ski Country USA”

The idea of hosting the Olympics in Colorado started in the late 1940s and mid 1950s with Colorado Springs and Aspen joining forces to try to get the 1956—and subsequently 1960—Winter Olympic Games. There wasn’t enough support for these bids, but it seems like this was the germ of the idea.

An article from The Vail Trail in 1967 showing a member of the DOC and their original logo

Colorado hosted several international skiing competitions in the 1950s and they brought a great deal of tourism and attention to the area. By the 1960s, ski industry leaders promoted Colorado as “Ski Country USA.” Why not try to get the greatest winter sporting event in the world to be held in Colorado?

The three-time governor of Colorado, John Love, mentioned the idea of bidding for the 1976 Winter Olympics in a 1963 speech he delivered in Colorado Springs. The following year, Denver officially announced its intention to bid during the 1964 Winter Olympic games in Innsbruck, Austria.

Bidding for the Games

Promotional film from 1964 created by the Denver Chamber of Commerce for the 1976 Winter Olympic Bid

To take Denver from “Ski Country USA” to “Olympic Host City” was no small feat. It required the will to organize such a massive event along with support from the highest levels of industry, politics, and society.

In the mid 1960s, the Colorado Olympic Commission (COC) was formed by a group of entirely-white and entirely-wealthy business leaders including a magazine publisher, an executive of United Airlines, a president of Vail Associates, the mayor of Denver, and a head of an aerospace company.

Soon after, the Denver Organizing Committee (DOC) was formed with additional members of the social elite including two bank executives, a ski resort developer, and the head of a hardware, sugar, and cement conglomerate.

Members of the DOC showing off their bid posters at the airport as they prepare to fly to Mexico City for the 1968 Summer Olympic Games

Together, the COC and DOC chose Denver as the official Colorado bid city and commissioned the production of promotional materials. They wisely chose Unimark International to design the logo, materials, films, proposal books, and exhibition (more details coming in part three of this series) to convince the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that Denver was the best choice to host the games.

In late 1967, Denver was chosen by the U.S. Olympic Committee to be the official bid city for the United States. Soon after, the courting of the IOC began in earnest, with DOC members meeting with them at the Olympics in Grenoble, France and Mexico City, in 1968.

The DOC boarding a plane to Amsterdam for the final pitch to the IOC

Years of planning, hoping, and organizing coalesced in the members of the DOC pitching Denver to the IOC in Amsterdam, Netherlands on May 11, 1970. Competing against Sion, Switzerland; Tampere, Finland; and Vancouver, Canada, Denver was the ultimate winner and became the official selection for the 1976 Winter Olympic Games the following day.

Now, the hard work was really about to start.

Problems Arise

When it was announced in 1967 that Denver was the city chosen for the U.S. bid, public approval seemed high. But as expenses piled up and details came out of what was required both financially and in new infrastructure, people began asking more questions.

The town of Evergreen, just west of Denver was planned as the location for many of the nordic events, even though no buildings, ski runs, or sport facilities existed. As residents started learning about the plans—which included building a cross-country ski course that would literally go through people’s fences and a school parking lot—opposition arose. They created an organization to fight the Olympics called Protect Our Mountain Environment (POME).

Nordic skiing trail map in Evergreen, Colorado
The proposed nordic skiing map in Evergreen, Colorado (Image courtesy Olympic World Library)

As environmental and climate studies were completed, the small-but-very-important detail that Evergreen doesn’t actually get enough snow in the winter months for skiing became apparent. Regardless, organizers simply announced they would manufacture snow, despite greatly increasing the cost of the events.

By 1969, 61% of Evergreen residents were against having their quiet, wealthy town disturbed by the building of ski jumps, parking lots, and bobsled tracks that would permanently change their community long after the games were finished.

Evergreen community meeting regarding the Olympic site selection, June 1970

Alpine Skiing without Snow

In the official presentation to the IOC, Denver promised that all events would be held within a 45-minute drive from the Olympic Village at Denver University, near downtown. To make this happen, the organization chose Mt. Sniktau (pronounced snick-taw) near Loveland Basin for the alpine events.

Nordic skiing trail map in Evergreen, Colorado
Map from the proposal book showing (somewhat disingenuously) the 45 minute radius as promised to the IOC (Image courtesy Olympic World Library)

This was an extremely optimistic, if not willfully-ignorant, choice as the mountain is known for its steep slopes, high winds, and well, lack of any sort of skiable terrain. Being on the eastern side of the Continental Divide, there is typically less snow annually than west of the Divide and simply put: if Mt. Sniktau was a good place for a ski resort, it would have already been developed long before the Olympics.

Proposed alpine ski routes on Mt. Sniktau
Proposed alpine ski routes for Mt. Sniktau with I-70 below. There is a rumor that a photo-retoucher was asked to “add snow” to the top of the mountain for the presentation to the IOC. (Image courtesy Olympic World Library)

By 1970–71, the DOC finally accepted the reality that Evergreen and Mt. Sniktau could not, and would not, be good locations for the events. They then shifted focus to Avon (90 miles away, near Vail/Beaver Creek) for the alpine events and Steamboat Springs (150 miles away) for the nordic events. Now, many of the events would be staged far away from Denver.

This new plan was presented and sold to the IOC in a May 1972 Report and approved during the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan.

Everything is Political

With opposition growing and Colorado residents feeling left out of the process, the Denver Olympic Committee kept pushing forward—assuming that the resistance to the Olympics were from a small, albeit vocal, minority that didn’t believe in a pro-growth vision for Colorado. They would soon learn how wrong they were.

Editorial cartoon showing the heated political battle over the Olympics

A group based in Boulder, the Citizens for Colorado’s Future (CCF), was the largest opponent of the Olympics. Started by researchers at the University of Colorado, they studied the impact of hosting the games and found there would be significant environmental impact and forest depletion if the facilities and courses were built.

Meanwhile, Colorado State representatives Robert Jackson and Richard Lamm saw a political opportunity and declared their opposition; attempting to introduce bills in the Colorado state legislature to cut off funding. When these attempts failed, the CCF began gathering signatures for a referendum on the November 1972 ballot to deny further financial support for the games.

A residential billboard showing support for the Olympic games

Due to the uproar, upcoming vote, and fear of being stuck with the full cost of the games, the U.S. Senate Interior Committee declared that they would withhold federal funding for the Denver games if residents voted to block state funding. This meant if the referendum passed in November, there was no way to pay for the games which continued to grow in estimated cost.

The debacle in Denver became national news as this Life magazine article published four days before the vote shows
The debacle in Denver became national news as this Life magazine article published four days before the vote shows

A last-minute attempt by the organizing committee to shore up support for the games included a media blitz of newspaper articles, advertisements, and billboards to persuade voters of the economic boon and international prestige they insisted would come from hosting the games. It would soon be shown to be too little, too late.

Newspaper ad urging Colorado voters to support the games by saying “Let’s talk about DO, instead of DOOM”

The Vote

On November 7, 1972 Colorado voters went to the polls to vote on Initiative 8 to amend the Colorado State constitution. This awkwardly-worded amendment (in which a “No” vote meant “Yes, I want the Olympics” and a “Yes” vote meant “No, I’m against the Olympics”) banned any taxes or further funding for the Olympics from the state treasury.

Sample ballot of initiative 8, which would cut off further funding for the 1976 Winter Olympic Games

The amendment passed with a 59.4% majority, shocking the DOC and Olympic organizers.

On November 15th, the Denver Olympic Organizing Committee notified the IOC of their withdrawal from hosting the games, becoming the only city (to this day) to ever to reject the Olympics after being selected.

Factors of Defeat

Quoting from one of the alternative newspapers of the time, the The Straight Creek Journal summed up the defeat in an article entitled “Yes, We Have No Olympics”:

“The usual explanations offered for national consumption involved three factors, the fear of higher taxes, the fear of environmental damage, and the fear that the games would fuel population growth … This was an issue that had something for everybody. If you didn’t like the Governor or the Mayor or Big Business, you could vote against the Olympics.”

In the end, the failure to get enough support for the Olympics rests on the shoulders of the Denver Olympic Committee itself. From the beginning, the DOC was established by the biggest business and political power brokers of the time and they arrogantly believed they knew what was best for the city and state.

Article in the Straight Creek Journal about the failure of the Olympic vote

Additionally, money was spent lavishly and without appropriate oversight. Preparing and winning the bid cost taxpayers over $750,000 and the estimates for hosting the games jumped from $5 million to $40 million.

This “top down” approach with constant boosterism of economic growth and tourism didn’t sit well with many Coloradans at the time. Many people felt the Olympics were being shoved down their throats and their concerns over environmental impacts and hyper growth were being ignored.

Lasting Impact & Possible Regret?

Hosting the Olympics would have undoubtedly brought the world’s attention to Denver and encouraged growth, but at what cost? It seems in the end, we may never know.

Article from the Fairview Royal Banner from Fairview High School in Boulder, giving insight into what the younger generation thought about the rejection of the Olympics

To this day, there is chatter from time-to-time about an Olympic bid for a future Winter Games and the idea is continually shot down. Even as Denver has grown exponentially in the past 50 years, it seems that the same arguments come up again: What is the cost? What is the environmental impact? Could our infrastructure handle it?

The truth is, rejecting the Olympics put the IOC in an embarrassing and tight spot, having to select Innsbruck at the last minute. It seems likely that even with five decades of time past, the reversal still is a sore spot with hurt feelings. So the real question becomes: How long is the IOC’s memory and will they ever forgive the voters of Colorado?

Timeline of Events

  • April, 1949: First attempts to host the Winter Olympics in Colorado when Colorado Springs and Aspen make a joint effort for the 1956 and 1960 games

  • Early 1960s: Ski industry leaders approach Governor John Love about bringing the Olympics to Colorado

  • 1963: Governor John Love mentions hosting the games in a speech delivered in Colorado Springs

  • 1964: Colorado Olympic Commission (COC) formed

  • March 1966: Colorado General Assembly appropriates $25,000 for the COC, which employs the University of Denver Research Institute to make a study of staging the XII Winter Olympic Games

  • December 1967: Denver beats out Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Lake Placid to become the official U.S. bid city

  • May 1970: Official presentation to IOC in Amsterdam, Denver is selected to host the 1976 Winter Olympics

  • 1971: Issues arise with planned locations and lack of adequate snow or infrastructure at Evergreen and Mt. Sniktau

  • February 1972: Alpine events relocated to Avon/Vail; Nordic events moved to Steamboat Springs

  • April 1972: Colorado constitutional amendment is proposed that limits total funding for the Olympic games

  • Nov. 7, 1972: Colorado voters approve the amendment that cuts further funding for the games

  • Nov. 15, 1972: Denver notifies the IOC of their withdrawal from hosting the games

  • February 1973: IOC rejects last-minute American attempts and awards Innsbruck, Austria the 1976 Winter Olympics

Resources & Research

I’m indebted to several resources and people that allowed me to research this story:

Colorado Historic Newspapers

Olympic World Library

Sports Illustrated articles from 1971 and 2018

Colorado Encyclopedia

Denver Public Library

Denver ’76: The Winter Olympics and the Politics of Growth in Colorado During the Late 1960s and Early 1970s - Dissertation by Adam Berg

Jennifer Whitlock at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies

Jan Conradi, author of “Unimark International: The Design of Business and the Business of Design”

NPR Throughline podcast: Olympics: Behind the Five Rings which starts out with some great audio about the Denver 1976 bid

Further Reading & Writing