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Denver said 'no thanks' to hosting the Olympic Games

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DENVER - They spend millions for the right to spend billions.

These are the Olympic bid cities, congregated in Denver this week to give one of their most important pitches to the people who will award the 2016 Games later this year.

The curious twist is that the city where they're meeting is the only one that ever earned the right to host the Olympics - and then told them to go away.

Yes, Denver owns a slice of Olympic fame - or infamy - thanks to the efforts of a little-known state legislator who led the charge to get voters to tell the International Olympic Committee to look somewhere else.

The voters spoke, rejecting the public funding that was needed to put on the Olympics. That was back in 1972 - about 2 1/2 years after the IOC had awarded the 1976 Winter Games to Denver at the then-unfathomable cost of $5 million.

Persuaded by Richard Lamm, a group of up-and-coming civic leaders and editorials from the Rocky Mountain News, Denver decided it didn't want the publicity or the hassle, the construction or the traffic, the pollution or the sprawl the Games might promote.

What it really didn't want was the expense.

"The organizing committee here was in way over their heads," said Lamm, who rode that populist crusade into the governor's office two years later. "They overestimated the benefits and underestimated the costs. Colorado was generally persuaded that they didn't have an adequate grasp on the figures and Colorado was very much liable to have to fund dramatic cost overruns."

Sound familiar?

Though the template of the Olympics has changed drastically since the 1970s, with corporate and private money now expected to pay most of the bills, almost every government still has to offer some sort of guarantee. In case the sponsors don't come through. Or the costs run too high. Or the economy goes sour.

Sound familiar?

Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London organizing committee, is in Denver this week hoping to reassure Olympic leaders that the 2012 Summer Games are still on track despite the economic downturn.

"I don't need to tell anyone in that room that these are extraordinary times," Coe told The Associated Press on Monday. "Not since the 1970s has a Winter or Summer Games been delivered under such a sudden change in economic circumstances."

The numbers being thrown about may seem staggering for what is supposed to be, essentially, a worldwide sports festival. But in the Olympic world, they are simply the cost of doing business.

Chicago is proposing a US$4.8-billion operating budget for the 2016 Games.

Madrid is at $5.6 billion.

Tokyo is shooting for $4.4 billion.

Rio de Janeiro's number is $14.4 billion but includes things the others do not, such as venue construction and security.

History shows that none of those numbers can be depended upon.

For instance, London's number for venues, infrastructure and regeneration is at $13.6 billion. That doesn't include the operating budget of $2.9 billion. The total - $16.5 billion - is more comparable to the Rio proposal for 2016 than the others. No matter how you look at it, it's still more than double the estimate when the British first proposed hosting the Games.

Next year's Winter Olympics in Vancouver - always much less expensive than the Summer Games - will have an operating budget of US$1.63 billion. That's about $104 million over the figure projected two years ago. The figure rises to more than $2 billion when venue construction is included. The government, meanwhile, has stepped in with interim financing to complete the athletes village after the original financier backed out.

"Projections for events like that very seldom hold true, whether it's a private activity or a public activity," said Denver's former three-term mayor, Wellington Webb, who also opposed those 1976 Olympics. "Anyone who has ever done construction on a house knows the bid does not last. That's what you call the foundation bid. The only thing you guarantee in there is the frame construction and the basement."

He knows about which he speaks.

Webb was the mayor who inherited the construction of Denver International Airport, which opened in 1994 - 16 months late and with a price tag of $4.8 billion, about $2 billion over budget.

There is a connection here.

Often, the cost of remodeling or rebuilding a city's airport is the kind of thing that's folded into an Olympic budget.

And that kind of accounting can make the Olympic effort look even more bloated than it is. (See Rio's bid as compared to the others.) The leaders of the 2016 bid teams will be quick to point that out in Denver this week.

"The fact that Athens and Beijing built new airports, first of all, I think are great things for the cities, but I don't think those are the costs of the Olympics," said Pat Ryan, chairman of the Chicago 2016 bid. "I don't think the ring roads in Athens are the cost of the Olympics. I mean, they modernized their city, which was a good thing, and I think generally the people of Athens are happy about that."

Those projects, however, produced a budget that has been estimated at anywhere from $10.9 billion to $16.9 billion. It stuck Athens with debt that's expected to extend for generations. Because of that, many believe the IOC will stay out of the city-rebuilding mode in the future.

Chicago, Tokyo and Madrid are all playing to that theme, saying much of their Olympic infrastructure is already there.

Meanwhile, it's hard to know what, exactly, would be different in Denver had the city voted to keep the Olympics.

Pollution has always been a problem.

Even without the publicity of the Olympics, Colorado has grown from 2.3 million to 4.8 million over the past 40 years, important enough in the minds of Democrats to bring their 2008 national convention to the hub of the Intermountain West.

Interstate 70, the main path into the mountain ski resorts, is a bumper-to-bumper nightmare on many Sunday evenings in the winter - a stark contrast to the wide-open highway that runs between Salt Lake City, the 2002 Olympics host, and its mountain resorts.

Would construction 35 years ago have made a noticeable difference?

Or what if Denver had done a big airport expansion back then? Would the cost overruns of the new DIA been avoided?

"Hard to know," Lamm said. "But I still think we dodged a financial bullet. The big question is, what can you really believe about what the Olympic people tell you? They dramatically overstate the reuse value of the facilities. They put a certain face on things that don't always prove out. And it's not just one city. It seems to be city after city after city."

But time has a way of changing perspectives, and it's possible this week could be the gateway into one of the most unlikely changes of all.

The people at the Metro Denver Sports Commission are hoping the Mile High City will stick in the memories of the many Olympic types who are here for the biggest get-together of its kind on American soil since 2002.

Very much on the minds of the hosts this week: A possible bid to bring the Winter Olympics to Denver sometime in the next decade.

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