Tonight, the people of Rio de Janeiro will take the spotlight, launching the opening to the 2016 Summer Olympics. It’s an opportunity to bring international attention to their city, the first in South America to ever host the Olympics.
The glory of hosting the Olympics comes at a steep cost – one that Denver is not likely to ever experience.
Though Denver may be better suited than a city like Beijing to host the winter Olympics (Beijing was awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics) this city would face virtually insurmountable political barriers to becoming an Olympic host.
“If the International Olympic Committee has no other choice, I think that is the best case for Colorado,” said J. Gordon Hylton, law professor at the University of Virginia.
Hylton studies international sports law and was involved when Chicago bid against Rio for this summer’s Olympics. In spite of Chicago having better facilities, a more stable government, and fewer public health risks than Rio currently faces, the city could not win over the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
And Denver faces even greater odds. In 1972, Denver became the first city ever to have won an Olympic bid, but then back out of hosting.
“No regrets, I think the voters did the right thing,” said former governor Richard Lamm. “My reaction was only to the 1976 Olympics in 1972, I hate to think that I have forever killed the possibility of the Olympics in Colorado… but they are not going to seriously consider Colorado.”
In 1970, Denver was chosen to be the host city of the 1976 winter Olympics. At the time, Dick Lamm was a state representative. He was adamantly against hosting the Olympics due to the steep costs and environmental impacts.
Ultimately, a measure was introduced to the 1972 ballot, and voters backed out of being host city.
Still that was 40 years ago, and a lot about Denver and Colorado has changed.
But those changes have not made us any more likely to host the Olympics.
“There’s no way they are going to come back here when we have the ability to get citizen initiatives on the ballot, we have the TABOR amendment,” former governor Lamm said.
“The obvious reaction to that is, well, ‘next,’” Hylton said, explaining that the IOC would not likely be interested in entering an agreement where voters have the ability to back out of a deal.
Colorado’s voters have more opportunities to voice their opinions at the ballot than they used to, and voters here have more power than those living in many of the cities that have been recent hosts.
In Rio, Sochi and Beijing, thousands of people saw their homes destroyed in order to make way for the games. In Rio, political turmoil over the last few years has resulted in the impeachment of the Brazilian president, and protests in the streets. There, more than 11 million people are unemployed – a result of the longest recession Brazil has seen since the 1930s. And yet, their country is paying billions to host the Olympics.
“While different cities will have different costs, what is consistent is budget overruns,” said Vaneesha Dutra, associate professor of finance at Denver University. “We are talking about significant budget overruns; Rio is double what they were supposed to spend, Sochi was nearly 4 times what they were supposed to spend.”
The Sochi Olympics reportedly cost $50 billion, the most expensive Olympics recorded. And nearly every Olympic game since 1960 has been an average of 179 percent over budget, according to an Oxford University study.
Still, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock wants the city to be prepared for the eventuality that Denver does become a possible host.
“I think it is a possibility, absolutely,” Mayor Hancock said. “If Denver and Colorado ever pursue the Olympics, the number one goal is to make sure the taxpayers do not have to foot the bill.”
But others, like Prof. Hylton are skeptical whether that is even possible. “Almost from the very beginning, even the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis were heavily subsidized by the United States,” Hylton said. “The idea that any city could do this without public funding seems unrealistic.”
And not only does the IOC ask for tremendous contributions from host cities, they don’t give much in return.
The International Olympics Committee is a non-profit organization. As of their most recent, publicly available tax forms, they hold over $3 billion in assets. In Rio, neither the IOC nor their official sponsors will have to pay taxes. In London and in Rio, local laws changed to better protect Olympic sponsors.
So any possible host cities have been warned: “The feel good story will only feel good for a little while,” DU’s professor Dutra said. “But when it is time to pay that check, there will be a lot of pain.”