Supporters and skeptics face off as Denver weighs another Olympic bid

Photo: essica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe

Forty-six years after Denver first rejected the Winter Olympics, a group of civic leaders is trying again. A public forum proved that it’s still a tough sell.

DENVER — With Pyeongchang 2018 now in the books, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will soon turn its attention to selecting hosts for the 2026 and 2030 Winter Games — and if a group of Denver civic and business leaders gets its way, the latter will be held right here in the Mile High City.

On Saturday, however, representatives of Denver’s Olympic exploratory committee appeared at Park Hill Congregational Church to face their opposition: community leaders, activists, and residents who are mindful of the troubled history of Olympic organizing, and skeptical of the committee’s assurances that this time, things will be different.

Three members of the 2030 exploratory committee shared a panel with three opponents of the bid at a forum hosted by the Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, a Denver community group. Both sides fielded questions from the audience, offering sharply contrasting views on the games’ potential costs, financing, environmental impacts, and more.

“I know many people in this room don’t know me,” said Rob Cohen, a Denver insurance executive and chair of the exploratory committee. “But I told both the mayor and governor: if we’re going to do this process, it’s going to be transparent, it’s going to be inclusive, and it’s going to be representative of our community.”

But critics of the effort say it has already failed that test. Appearing on the panel beside Cohen, Denver real-estate developer Kyle Zeppelin accused the committee — which was formed in December by Mayor Michael Hancock and Gov. John Hickenlooper — of merely making a show of community engagement.

“Look at the exploratory committee,” said Zeppelin. “Every major business interest is heavily represented on there. You have all the construction companies, all the lobbyists, all the hotel operators — everybody that stands to make a direct benefit.”

“That’s not representative of both sides,” he added.

“A raw deal”

Denver is no stranger to the contentiousness and controversy that can surround an Olympic bid. The city was famously awarded the 1976 Winter Games, but later became the only host city in history to withdraw after winning its bid, following the result of a 1972 referendum that blocked the use of public funds for the games.

Dick Lamm, who led the campaign against the 1976 Olympics as a state legislator and later served three terms as Colorado’s governor, also spoke in opposition to the current bid at Saturday’s forum.

“There is a whole history of other places running negative balances, withdrawing their bids,” he said. “We’re climbing a very steep hill that other people have climbed, only to find the rock to roll back on top of them.”

Criticisms of the social, environmental, and economic risks of staging the Olympics have reached a crescendo in recent years — and the selection process for the Winter Games has become particularly fraught. Only two candidates submitted final bids for the 2022 Olympics, with Almaty, Kazakhstan narrowly losing out to Beijing, whose temperate climate will force organizers to rely entirely on enormous amounts of artificial snow.

Activist Chris Dempsey, the panel’s third Olympic opponent, noted that both 2022 bids were submitted by countries with autocratic governments, while a half-dozen other candidates withdrew because of failed referenda or a lack of political support.

“When democracies engage in these Olympic processes, they realize they are getting a really raw deal,” he said. “And they say, ‘This is not in our interest.'”

From 2013 to 2015, Dempsey co-chaired No Boston Olympics, a group that opposed the city’s bid for the 2024 Summer Games. Though chosen by the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) as the country’s official bid city in early 2015, the bid was terminated six months later due to a lack of public support.

“Bostonians were supportive of the bid, when the USOC chose Boston,” said Dempsey. “But as we learned more about the bid, Bostonians liked it a lot less.”

Among the key issues raised by Dempsey and No Boston Olympics was the IOC’s insistence on a taxpayer guarantee, a stipulation that puts local and state governments on the hook for cost overruns — which history shows are a virtual certainty.

Cohen pointed to recent statements from the IOC indicating a willingness to accept “a limited guarantee, as opposed to a full guarantee,” and suggested that the committee’s stated desire to return the Winter Games to more traditional locales could give Denver a negotiating edge.

The committee chair also repeatedly claimed that no final decision has been made on whether or not to submit an official bid, which would likely then compete with Salt Lake City and Reno, Nevada for selection by the USOC.

“What we’re trying to do as an exploratory committee is say, ‘If we were to do the games in Colorado, how would we do the games in Colorado?'” said Cohen. “And put forth what we think makes sense. If [the IOC] accepts it, great. If not, they can go somewhere else.”

That’s unlikely to assuage critics who say the exploratory committee has already made up its mind — and who fault the continued commitment of civic resources to business-friendly mega-projects like the Olympics and Amazon HQ2, at a time when Denver and its suburbs are faced with an affordable housing shortage, underfunded schools, lagging infrastructure, and more.

Cohen and his committee will submit their final report next month. He said the group is open to the idea of a public vote on the process, but remained noncommittal on the specifics.

Dempsey cautioned against accepting such vague assurances.

“What we saw in Boston was that the boosters said, ‘Give us a little bit more time, be patient, we’re just exploring this, it’s just an idea,'” he said. “And then, overnight, it became an official bid.”