Leaders of the U.S. Olympic Committee have already said they were looking to host the Winter Games, nodding to Colorado as a potential location.
But if they did, would Denver be willing — or able — to play the host?
To find out, Mayor Michael Hancock has convened a statewide committee of influential leaders to explore the feasibility of hosting a future Winter Olympics and Paralympics.
“Nobody’s made the determination that we want the Olympics,” said Rob Cohen, chairman of the committee and CEO of insurance and wealth management company IMA Financial Group.
“(What we’re) trying to do is do our process so that when the United States is ready to look at a future winter bid, we already have the answer to whether Denver is interested or not,” he said.
The 36-member committee, made up of civic and community leaders, is charged with assessing whether the city can fund the games through private dollars, and with considering environmental impacts, community support, venue requirements, protocol, process and timing of a bid for the games.
The panel is a powerful mix of politicos, including Hancock, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks, and chieftains of major companies and large employers, including Vail Resorts, Liberty Global and CH2M.
Among the many notable people on the committee are former Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and retired Denver Nugget Chauncey Billups, Hogan Lovells’ managing partner Cole Finegan, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce chief Kelly Brough, CRL Associates’ Maria Garcia Berry and Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck’s Bruce James.
The International Olympic Committee in 1970 awarded the Mile High City the 1976 Winter Olympics. But in 1972, Colorado voters rejected the games after a heated campaign led by then-state legislator Dick Lamm over concerns about the stress they would bring to the state’s finances and environment.
“All of the recent history is against running an economical Winter Olympics,” Lamm said Friday. “It takes an incredible audacity for the mayor to think he can run an economically sensible Winter Olympics.”
Lamm said he supported the committee coming together to explore the idea. But he said he has doubts about the economic value of the games to Colorado and worries about the giant obstacle Interstate 70 poses to traveling between events, from ski jumping in Steamboat Springs, downhill races in Vail and a luge run “God knows where.”
“I’m skeptical they can do this, but I sort of admire their audacity because they’re flying in the face of recent history,” he said.
Chris Gates, former chair of Colorado’s Democratic party during the Democratic National Convention held in Denver in 2008, has experience with large-scale events. He said raising money to build more infrastructure to accommodate athletes and thousands of spectators would be a challenge. But he said it could be positive exposure for the city, state and region.
He noted that Colorado has changed a lot since the 1970s. Back then, he said, there was a clear demarcation between people who wanted to protect the environment and those who wanted to boost the economy, which became the flashpoint of the Olympics fight. These days, there is a pragmatic recognition that the two go hand in hand.
Additionally, the population has since exploded, and Gates noted that transplants may have a different perspective.
With the rise of social media, there are more ways for people to debate the idea. Gates said he expects public conversations around the impact on the quality of life, noting that Coloradans have lately been vocal about this, citing fierce debates around a bid for a new Amazon headquarters in metro Denver.
“If you can do these things and do them right and make sure there is not only an economic benefit but civic pride benefit, … they can be good — if you figure out the financial side of it,” Gates said.
Updated Dec. 16, 2017 at 8:28 a.m. Chris Gate’s title has been corrected to former chair of the Colorado Democratic Party.