Steamboat Springs Sven Wiik will never forget waking up on Nov. 8, 1972, to the stunning election news. It wasn't Richard Nixon's landslide victory over George McGovern for the presidency of the United States that left Wiik shaking his head. It was Colorado voters' decision to reject state funding for the 1976 Winter Olympics.
"I never thought that anybody would vote against an idealistic event like the Olympics, but Denver sure did," Wiik recalled. "I couldn't conceive a sporting event of that magnitude would be turned down by any city, state or country."
Flash forward 30 years to January 2002, and Steamboat Springs is abuzz with the news that it can claim 15 freshly minted Winter Olympians. They are scheduled to compete in nearby Park City, Utah, in less than a month. A number of those athletes will take part in Nordic skiing, and it's startling to recall that in the early '70s, Steamboat was that close to hosting all of the Nordic events in Colorado's own Winter Games.
Colorado never hosted the Winter Olympics they were moved to Innsbruck, Austria and the opportunity may never come again.
As the former coach of the U.S. Olympic cross country skiing teams at Squaw Valley in 1960, Wiik had been tapped by the Denver Olympic Organizing Committee to do feasibility studies for the sites under consideration for the cross country races. He awoke on Election Day fully expecting that Steamboat Springs would be the site of all of the Nordic skiing events at the '76 Olympics. He could already trace in his mind the cross country courses that would wind through Strawberry Park.
The organizing committee could not have been totally surprised by the opposition after all, the residents of Evergreen had expressed vehement opposition when their tiny community in the foothills outside Denver was originally selected as the site of the Nordic events. And hosting the Olympics was the source of significant division here in Ski Town USA.
One of the most startling events in Steamboat history came on May 19, 1972, when the 90-meter ski jump burned down. It isn't clear from historical accounts if the blaze was an act of arson meant to protest the Winter Olympics, a careless act by "hippies" who were known to camp out under the superstructure of the ski jump or spontaneous combustion.
Wiik recalls that he began working on plans for the 1976 Olympics before he ever moved his family to Steamboat. He was coach of the cross country team at Western State College in Gunnison when the DOC enlisted his help.
In order to gain some understanding of what transpired in 1972, it's helpful to know how much the Olympic stage had changed in the intervening dozen years since Wiik coached the U.S. team in Squaw Valley.
David Sumner did a concise job in an article he authored together with the DOC's Ted Farwell. The article appeared in Colorado Magazine in February 1973.
"Squaw Valley was the end of an era, the last of the pocket-sized games," Farwell told Sumner. "The logistics of putting on a modern Olympics have grown tremendously. There's just no way one could squeeze the 1976 Olympics into a Squaw Valley and still do justice to all the people involved. Today only a major city can handle an event of this magnitude. Yet in the entire world, there are very few urban centers that are actually close enough to mountains with snow. The city of Denver itself is certainly in a questionable location."
Keep in mind that Sumner wrote his Olympic postmortem almost three decades ago.
Since then, hosting the Olympics has become infinitely more complex. Denver was awarded the games in May 1970.
Farwell suggests, through Sumner, in his piece that the International Olympic Committee wasn't fully cognizant of the way the games it governed had changed. And the Denver Olympic Organizing Committee was playing along with the IOC and its increasingly quaint view of the world in an effort to land the games.
"Back in 1970, when Denver bid for the games these facts hadn't really dawned on the IOC, and I doubt they have to this day. But the DOC knew what was wanted and they played it to the hilt both because they wanted to and because they had to. They were eager to hobnob with the Olympic elite around the world; they wanted to be the wheels. And they also had to conform to the IOC's outdated image of the games tell them Denver had the perfect, cozy site and say things that weren't realistic. The IOC would never have voted for a sound, modern, innovative Olympic plan."
At the same time, political opposition to the games was mounting from people opposed to growth and worried about the impact the Olympics would have on the Colorado environment.
Richard Lamm, then a state representative, and soon to become governor, led much of the opposition that focused around damage to the environment, real estate speculation and the prospect that the Winter Olympics would touch off a round of undesirable growth and development.
Lamm described the Olympics as "an environmental Vietnam" for Colorado and argued the taxpayers would be saddled with the costs, while resorts and airlines would profit.
The DOC won the bid for the 1976 Olympics but it came back to Denver with an impractical plan to host the games close in to Denver that was only marginally feasible, Sumner wrote.
The original site for the alpine events was to be Mount Sniktau on the eastern side of the Continental Divide. Wiik was asked to do the feasibility study of hosting the cross country races in Evergreen, also in the Denver foothills.
Other members of the DOC were scouting the foothills west of Denver for the perfect site for the ski jumps.
Unreliable snowfall proved to be the undoing of all of those plans.
"Evergreen made lots of sense," Wiik recalled, except for its climate. "Everything in Evergreen was ideal except for the snow. I'll never forget picking up the International Ski Federation representative at the airport in Denver in mid-April. Wouldn't you know, we got a foot of snow on the course the night before."
However, the U.S. Forest Service produced snowfall records, Wiik said, that made it plain winter snow in Evergreen in the month of February was completely unreliable.
A similar report, undertaken by the DOC itself, proved the undoing of the Mount Sniktau plan.
It showed the mountain's upper slopes were often scoured bare of snow by the wind, and the prospects for a commercial ski area after the games were poor.
It was at this time that Steamboat surfaced as a possible site not only for the Nordic events, but the Alpine events as well. There was even a plan to develop a national ski training center in Steamboat.
"Along with the idea of the national training center at Steamboat, some of us were now focusing a plan for the Olympics that I think made genuinely practical sense," Farwell told Sumner. "The basic idea was to have the ice events and the ski jump around Denver; the snow events would be all together west of the Divide where there are good natural conditions. And we'd connect the two with an air bridge (commercial airliners)."
Steamboat's Marvin Crawford was a strong advocate of hosting the Alpine events on Mount Baldy at Harrison Creek. And John Fetcher led a strong lobbying effort to bring the ski jumping events to the Yampa Valley as well.
Fetcher, Crawford and the late Gordy Wren devoted many hours to producing technical reports to support the feasibility of Howelsen for hosting the Olympic jumping events. And they traveled to numerous meetings in Denver to state their case.
Independence Mountain near Keystone and the present site of Beaver Creek, west of Vail, were also getting serious consideration for the Alpine sites.
"The DOC didn't really care about shifting the Nordics to Steamboat," Farwell told Sumner. "They were just something a city has to do when it puts on an Olympics. But the Alpine ski events were the big spectacle of the games."
Farwell thought the Steamboat plan made sense.
"Steamboat could take the crowd pressure off Denver," Farwell said.
"I also preferred Steamboat because it is the only Colorado site with both world-caliber Nordic and Alpine terrain. And I liked the idea of putting part of the games in a typical American small town, rather than at a commercial resort."
Divisions in the 'Boat
Steamboat was awarded all of the Nordic Winter Games in early February 1972 when the DOC met with the International Olympic committee in Sapporo, Japan.
Meanwhile, Steamboat residents were split over the prospect of their community hosting the Nordic events.
The Steamboat Pilot undertook an unscientific telephone poll of residents in mid-October 1972 to find out if residents would support Amendment 8.
The measure would have allowed the state Legislature to levy taxes to help fund the Olympics.
The poll found that 43 percent of locals were in favor, 38 percent were opposed and 18 percent were undecided.
Reasons given for supporting the Olympics included, "Steamboat will get a fine recreation facility at Howelsen Hill, which everyone will be able to use in the future." Others said: "Our personal and patriotic pride is at stake. Colorado is ski country, why should the Olympics be somewhere else?"
Opponents said: "We don't need more people in Steamboat or the Colorado area" and "The ecology is going to suffer permanent damage for just two weeks of events." People were also wary of the DOC, convinced it would go over its budget and Colorado residents would foot the bill for development interests.
Wiik muses over how the course of events in Steamboat over the past 30 years might have been altered had the town hosted Olympic events. He recalls that when he moved his family into a house on Sixth Street in 1969, he could put on his cross country skis in his front yard and ski along the snowy streets to get to Howelsen Hill.
The town would have received a federal grant to build a new water plant had the Olympics come to Colorado, Wiik recalled.
On Election Day, Steamboat voters narrowly cast a vote indicating support for the Olympics. The vote in favor of Amendment 8, which would prohibit the state from levying taxes to fund the Olympics, tallied 2,132. Those against counted 2,210, signifying their support for the Olympic movement.
Where there's smoke
And to this day, no one knows for certain why Steamboat's ski jump burned in May 1972. However, local historian Sureva Towler laid out the cause for suspicion in her book "The History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs."
During the week preceding the blaze, someone had painted a four-letter obscenity preceding "'76" in yellow letters five feet high on the side of the jump. A city crew painted over the epithet and two days later, someone used aluminum paint to repeat the vandalism.
When the fire broke out and the alarm was sounded at 11:49 a.m. on May 19, it was confused with the noon whistle, delaying the reaction of firefighters.
What burned was a wooden scaffold that formed the final 50 to 75 feet of the jump's takeoff.
Wiik believes the fuss over the fire was exaggerated; had Steamboat hosted the Olympics, the jump would have been rebuilt anyway. But Steamboat was not fated to host the Olympics after all.
In retrospect, Wiik thinks the Denver Olympic Committee was blinded by its own optimism.
"I think we were too confident," Wiik said. "We were too sure that nobody would vote that way."
Wiik plans to watch the Salt Lake Olympics from afar and says he is curious to see how the media treat his beloved Nordic events.
"I've had my time and I would like to watch it on TV for a change," Wiik said with a smile.
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