Toussaint column: An Olympic-sized miscalculation
March 1, 2018
Quick, name five statewide issues that need public funds.
I bet that hosting the Olympics didn't make your list.
Back in 1972, I voted against Colorado hosting the games — or more specifically, against the $5 million bond that was needed. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had already awarded the 1976 winter games to Denver, and while planners were thrilled about the IOC's decision, voters weren't. That bond issue failed by a nearly 60-40 margin.
Recently, a "Winter Games Exploratory survey" popped up in my Facebook feed. Although it's worded to register only positive reactions, comments are running strongly negative. After asking whether anyone could "share an Olympics that made money or broke even," Jason Peck commented, "We need billions to fix transportation and water infrastructure, but hey, let's blow it on a two-week event!"
Frankly, I was gobsmacked to see this issue pop up again after 42 years, and for locals' sake, I'm glad to see Denverites trying to drive a stake through its un-dead heart. This holds big implications for mountain towns. I'm admittedly cranky about the fact that so many decisions get made on the Front Range — decisions that dry up our water supply and drive our health care costs through the roof — while we are alerted mostly by the sound of nails being driven into our coffins.
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The current drive to revive the Olympics in Colorado is being pushed by an "exploratory committee" convened by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Gov. John Hickenlooper. Following meetings in Denver that have been criticized for secrecy, the committee has sent out emissaries (Google Colorado Public Radio's interview with committee co-chair Rob Cohen), launched a website and that slanted Facebook survey.
A few public meetings have also been slated. Reeves Brown, a "community engagement consult" hired by the Exploratory Committee, gave a spiel to Eagle County commissioners earlier this week. (The webcast can be found at http://www.ecgtv.com, and comments can be left at http://www.sharingthegold.org).
I love the Olympics' values: peace, international connection, sportsmanship. I'm proud that so many Roaring Fork and Colorado athletes rank with the world's best. I'm glad the games remain among the few venues where money and power aren't enough to decide the outcome. In the Olympics, the merits of courage, dedication and individual skill can still win the gold.
But I think that hosting in 2030 remains an Olympic-sized miscalculation for Colorado. Aside from our population and weather, not much has changed since 1972. Colorado's economic and environmental issues remain the same, only worse, largely due to, um, population and weather.
In a blog about Olympics that nearly bankrupted host countries, author Laurie Dove opined, "The trick is to throw the world's biggest party without going bankrupt in the process."
To which I would add, "What if we threw the world's biggest party and the most important guest — Old Man Winter — didn't show?" Colorado's resorts depend on an increasingly unreliable snowpack. Because snowmaking equipment only works when air temperatures are below freezing, the lack of cold caused huge issues — and additional expenses — for both Vancouver's 2010 and Sochi's 2014 winter games.
Although Fortune Magazine concludes that "Almost every Olympic host ends up in debt" — most often because promises to privately fund the games and not dip into the public till fall apart — there's one notable exception. LA had enough existing facilities and didn't have to build. It actually turned a profit in 1984.
However, the list of losers is long. It includes Montreal (summer 1976), Lake Placid (winter 1980), Albertville, France (winter 1992), Lillehammer (winter 1994), Nagano (winter 1998), Sydney (summer 2000), Athens (summer 2004), Turin (winter 2006), Vancouver (winter 2010) and Sochi (winter 2014).
When Albertville won the 1992 Winter Olympics, 13 other nearby French Alps towns joined in, hoping to boost their tourism economies. It didn't work out, and the French government was saddled with a $67 million loss and decades of debt. A cautionary tale for mountain towns, perhaps?
When Athens hosted in 2004, the games cost $4.6 billion, $11 billion at today's exchange rate. Some economists believe that paying off the resulting debt helped spark Greece's 2009 economic crisis.
Then there's Montreal. It took the province of Quebec 40 years to pay off a debt of $1.48 billion (in American dollars). But taxpayers are still on the hook because the province must provide an annual $17 million subsidy to maintain the stadium that started life as the Big O (for Olympics) but was since dubbed the Big Owe.
In case you haven't been consulted and have an opinion on Colorado's Big O, get moving. The Exploratory Committee's online survey (www.explorethegames.com) closes March 3.
Nicolette Toussaint lives in Carbondale. Her column appears monthly.
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