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Jerry Kirshenbaum
November 20, 1972
Conscious of costs and ecology, Coloradans elected to send the Winter Games out into the cold
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November 20, 1972

Voting To Snuff The Torch

Conscious of costs and ecology, Coloradans elected to send the Winter Games out into the cold

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When Coloradans cast their ballots on Election Day to cut off state spending for the 1976 Winter Olympics, few residents were affected more conspicuously than a 29-year-old Greek immigrant named Evagelos Tsiagkouris. The vote meant that the Games would now be held elsewhere—if at all—a turn of events that Tsiagkouris failed to anticipate last March. That was when he bought an old coffee shop on Denver's shabby East Colfax Avenue, grandly renamed the place the Olympic Restaurant and made ready for what he assumed would be "a lot of free publicity between now and 1976."

Tsiagkouris accepted the election results bravely enough. Standing outside his restaurant he declared, "I feel bad that there will be no Olympics here, but what can I do?" He glanced at a splendid new sign over the door, one bearing both the restaurant's name and a picture of a lighted torch. Then he smiled resignedly. "That sign, you know, it cost me a lot of money."

A more biting disappointment was in the air at Denver's colonnaded City and County Building, where the familiar Olympic flag outside Mayor William McNichols' office was quietly hauled down. So ended, symbolically at least, a civic effort that began nine years ago and ultimately won the '76 Winter Games—which Denver organizers promised would cost just $14 million and take place entirely within the preferred easy reach of downtown. The Olympics were tied to the celebration of the U.S. bicentennial as well as to the 100th anniversary, also in 1976, of Colorado statehood. But last week, with projected costs up to $35 million and venues scattered up to four hours away into the Rockies, the voters served notice, in effect, that they would just as soon grow beards and let it go at that.

The vote, climaxing an Olympic year that had already seen upheaval enough, was a blow not only to Mayor McNichols, a Democrat, but also to Republican Governor John Love and much of Colorado's business Establishment. Pro-Olympic forces, having long since dissipated public trust through blunder and bluster, had tried desperately to win it all back by pumping at least $175,000 into a well-oiled campaign. They trotted out that old pro- Olympian Jesse Owens and flooded the state with entreaties to "light the torch now," meanwhile receiving sustenance from The Denver Post , which in the campaign's final days devoted up to five times more news space to Olympic boosters than to critics.

But the public confidence was never fully restored, symptomatic of the breach that the Denver Olympic Organizing Committee opened when it airily brushed off any inquiries about the source of pro-Olympic campaign funds. "I really don't see where it matters," insisted DOOC" Chairman W. R. Goodwin, who also is president of Denver-based Johns-Manville Corp. It probably didn't matter: by a resounding 537,440 to 358,906, an electorate worried about potential costs and environmental impact of the Games approved an amendment to the Colorado constitution barring the use of further state funds. In Denver voters also enacted a companion measure putting a similar freeze on city funds.

The defeat of the Olympics was managed by an army of doorbell ringers calling itself Citizens for Colorado's Future, which spent $23,600 in its 11 months of existence—most of it collected in contributions of $5 or $10. The CCF had a total media budget of $2,100, which it used for radio spots in rural Colorado; its one big fund-raising project, a concert by folk singer Judy Collins, lost $1,000. The CCF's books, stashed in a crate in the old house it used for headquarters, were open to the public.

Simply put, the only thing directly affected by the vote was a proposed $4.2 million in state funds ($800,000 had already been appropriated), since the rest of the $35 million of Olympic costs was supposed to come from the Federal Government, Denver's treasury, TV revenues and ticket sales. Still, both sides had defined the stakes as nothing less than the fate of the Olympics, an interpretation reinforced by the fact that the U.S. Senate, in passing a $15.5 million appropriation for the Games last September, had made the measure contingent on Colorado's coming up with its share. "The voters made their position clear," Goodwin said the morning after the election in the DOOC offices, which commanded a view, a mocking one now, of the Rockies in the distance. "They don't want the Olympics."

And now, seeking a new site for the '76 Winter Games, the International Olympic Committee could have more trouble than Meyer Lansky. The San Francisco Chronicle editorialized weeks ago against California getting any bright ideas about proposing alternative sites in that state, and the French government is not pushing Grenoble, the '68 site. Another former host, Innsbruck, did express interest, as did Vancouver, but the IOC indicated that it might be four months before a city is chosen. With the Winter Olympics already under fire for commercialism, it is not inconceivable that the IOC would seize this chance to cancel the Games altogether.

Nor are the 1976 Summer Olympics immune from similar troubles. A growing anti-Olympic movement in Montreal—one that would rather see the city's treasure spent on social needs—is now looking to Denver for ideas on how to proceed. The Colorado campaign may not exactly fit their needs, for in Denver the opposition centered on economic plus environmental issues. The result brought together under the anti-Olympic banner young activists, conservationists, blue-collar workers and fiscal conservatives. If the CCF provided the locomotion, the man at the controls was Dick Lamm, a lawyer who, at 37, last week also won his fourth term as a state representative

Lamm, an intense, intellectually restless man, was tilting with the state's big money interests. "The people behind the Olympics are the same ones who stand to profit—the airlines, hotels, banks and ski resorts," he said. Warning that Olympics have always been seeded with "economic land mines," he questioned whether the DOOC could realistically hope to keep costs from soaring far higher.

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