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Unusual Stories in Olympic Host History

Before we get to experience the amazing pageantry, heroics, and unforgettable moments that come with the Olympics, there is a dramatic bidding process that goes into hosting the competitions. It’s often times an emotional and controversial affair, as the decision of the IOC arguably dictates the future and fate of an entire city.

I recently took a deep dive into the bidding process and found that simply looking at the vote totals only tells part of the story. Here are some of the unusual stories in Olympic host history.

The 1976 Winter Olympics in…Denver?

Olympic Host History

Denver Post via Getty Images

When I was kid, I always found it strange to look at a list of the Presidents of the United States to see that Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and 24th Commander in Chief. I had the same reaction a few years ago when I saw that Innsbruck, Austria hosted both the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics. At first, I just assumed that the host site was so perfect that they simply rolled it back and played it again. That is so far from the truth.

Very few people know that it was actually Denver, Colorado who was awarded the 1976 Winter Olympics. The selection was made in May of 1970, and just a year and a half later, the entire project was gone.

Why the sudden change? There were three major issues: Mother Nature, funding, and a healthy serving of ineptitude.

As the story goes, during a site visit the Olympic representatives quickly earned a reputation for not caring about preserving the environment, which anybody who knows anything about Colorado, absolutely does not fly with the locals. State Representative Bob Jackson bluntly stated, “We ought to say to the nation and the world, “We’re sorry, we are concerned about the environment…Take the Games elsewhere.” Soon, a series of protests regarding proposed event sites forced events to be held farther and farther outside of Denver, adding to the pile of potential costs. One could also assume that using the University of Denver‘s campus for the Olympic Village…during the middle of the school year…wasn’t going to work either.

It’s no secret that the Olympics almost always loses quite a bit of money. A  fter the 1972 Sapporo games cost $70 million to put on, it was pretty clear that Denver’s $30 million dollar budget wasn’t going to cut it. Rep. Jackson added, “We feel it is unrealistic to assume Colorado can get by for that amount when expenditures at other sites have exceeded that by 10 or 20 times.” The hosting committee was so desperate to save money that they asked the IOC to eliminate the four man bobsled competition so that a track would not have to be built. This, too, did not go over well.

So the final decision came down to the polls, and after a record turnout at the voting booths, Coloradans made their voices heard by rejecting a series of bills that would allow public money to be used to fund the games. Once those votes were tallied, the Denver Olympic dream was dead. But the story didn’t end there.

Desperate for a quick solution, the IOC then offered the 1972 Winter Olympics to Whistler, as Vancouver had been a finalist for the games just 2 years before. They, too, rejected the bid. With nowhere else to turn, the IOC reached out to the good people of Innsbruck about hosting again, and the rest is history.

Check out the official Denver promo film for their Olympic Bid:

Motown nearly makes the cut

When you look through over a century’s worth of Olympic hosting bids, there have been several surprising US cities that have been in contention several times. I use the word “surprising” speaking from 2021, as at this current time those cities do not fit the mold of an Olympic city.

The most glaring contenders are from the upper Midwest, as Minneapolis, Minnesota and Detroit, Michigan were major candidates for decades.

Granted, for years Detroit was one of two cities in the US to have four professional sports teams playing in four different stadiums. Looking back at what the city looked like back then, it’s easy to see why Detroit made a lot of sense. Unlike so many Olympic games that rely on newly constructed arenas that rarely see use post competition, the Detroit Olympics would mostly have utilized pre-existing sporting venues. Local college locations were designated for events such as basketball. There were also ideal locations in the vicinity for rowing, which is often tough. Built to host massive audiences, professional sports locations Olympia and Tiger Stadiums were obvious choices to host popular events like soccer and boxing. The Olympic Games Authority also planned to construct a new stadium at the fair grounds on the city’s north side that would serve as the jewel of their pitch.

Here are some of their finishes:


  • 5th in 1952 (Helsinki)
  • 4th in 1956 (Melbourne)
  • 3rd in 1960 (Rome)
  • 2nd in 1964 (Tokyo)
  • 2nd in 1968 (Mexico City)
  • 4th in 1972 (Munich)


  • 2nd in 1952 (Helsinki)

Of course, those two cities were major parts of American industry in the mid century. However, would certainly raise eyebrows if they had a successful bid today. For example, Atlanta, Georgia managed to snag the 1996 Summer Olympics before it was considered a major city in the travel world. It’s interesting to think about what Detroit would have been like today had they hosted the world when the auto industry was at its peak and Motown music dominated the charts.

Here is the promo video, featuring President Kennedy:

Christmas Time Competition?

In 2022, the FIFA World Cup in Qatar will take place over the months of November and December, which is a drastic change from the popular soccer tournament’s Summer tradition.

Surprisingly, this is not the first time an adjustment like that has been made. In 1956, the two finalists for the Summer Olympics were Buenos Aires, Argentina and Melbourne, Australia, both located in the Southern Hemisphere. In a winning vote of 21-20, the hosting duties were awarded to Melbourne. The competition was scheduled to be from November 22 – December 8. Well, most of it was at least.

Australia has a strictly enforced set of regulations regarding horses, so much so that it was simply easier to hold the equestrian competition five months earlier…in Sweden.

That’s not the only unique fact about the 1956 games. As is the theme with so many host sites, financing the games was a major concern, and the Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies refused to allow federal funding to be the solution. Preparations were so far behind that an unusual suggestion was made to fix the problem: move the Games to the site of the 1960 games.

Rome, who had been awarded the 1960 Summer Olympics, was well ahead of schedule in the preparations while Melbourne was alarmingly behind. IOC President Avery Brundage was 100% serious in 1955 when he said that the two host sites should consider swapping their host dates. Eventually, things worked themselves out and Melbourne hosted the games successfully.

In case you were wondering about the scheduling of future Summer Olympics in the Southern Hemisphere, there have been two: 2000 in Sydney, Australia and 2016 in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Only Sydney had a somewhat varied schedule, as the competition took place from September 15 – October 1.

We Built This City!

When you read the history of the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, it reads like one of the biggest upsets in sports history. Somehow, a ski resort – and we literally mean a resort consisting of one single chair lift, two rope tows, and a fifty-room lodge – managed to convince the IOC that they were the best option in the world to host the entire 1960 games.

The organizer of the bid was a developer named Alexander Cushing, whose motivation for throwing his resort’s hat in the ring was simply to get some free press. From there, things escalated very quickly, likely more than Cushing ever imagined. Upon hearing that California was an option to host the first Winter Olympics in North America since 1932, the state government committed $1 million to back the bid. This propelled Squaw Valley to legitimacy overnight, eventually overtaking Anchorage, Lake Placid, Colorado Springs, and Reno has the US representative. All of this within three weeks of Cushing even coming up with the idea.

Despite the $1m backing, no one in the greater sporting world took Squaw Valley seriously. The European ski community mocked the infancy of resort. No one actually seemed to know where the Squaw Valley was, including American and IOC President Avery Brungdage, who was openly against the bid. But Cushing proved to be a savvy salesmen and morally flexible. His resort was up against all European cities, several who had already hosted the games, which became the center of his pitch. He began to recruit IOC voters from outside of Europe, and was able to convince them that it was time to take the games somewhere off the continent.

In his pitch, he ended his argument stating, “Winter sports are now developed to the point that the winter Olympic games, like the summer Olympic games, belong to the world. They no longer belong to the continent that fathered them.” After a few bids were eliminated, Squaw Valley won the Olympics on the second ballot, 32-30, beating Innsbruck, Austria.

And this is where Cushing really began to feel the heat. Fearing that Squaw was a complete liability and potential embarrassment to his home country, IOC President Brundage secretly hoped that Squaw would feel over matched and hand over the games. He told Cushing in 1956,  “It is not easy to transform a picnic ground into a high class winter resort in four years…The IOC can switch the Winter Games very easily on less than a year’s notice.”

Challenge accepted, but it wasn’t going to be easy. Squaw Valley had to overcome international critics, money shortages, and a bitter ex-business partner who tried to hold the land needed to host the games hostage. Cushing’s original business partner at Squaw, Wayne Poulsen, approached the IOC claiming that he owned 90% of the acreage required to put on the games, and he wanted to be paid for it. Unfortunately for Poulsen, the previously featured 1956 Melbourne games was in the middle of a financial crisis and at risk of failing to complete all that was needed to host. Seeing a similar situation hovering over Squaw, Avery Brundage approached the State of California with a threat. They either pay up to ensure the job gets done, or he would see that Innsbruck get the Games. They panicked and committed another $4 million (the number would eventually end up at $8m). They also essentially usurped the land from Paulson, claiming eminent domain.

Due to his conflict of interest in the Poulson matter, Cushing had to resign his role as the president of the Organizing Committee, but what he was able to accomplish in just a few months is absolutely unfathomable. He essentially bluffed a tiny, unknown ski resort in the Sierra mountains of California that wasn’t even on a map to the forefront of the sporting world, all the while using someone else’s land and using other people’s money. One single chair list to being featured millions of TVs across the world in just four years.

One final fun fact to share about the 1960 Games. They were the first Winter Olympics to be broadcast on TV, so the organizers did not take any risks. They hired Walt Disney himself to direct the opening and closing ceremonies.

Montreal’s Money Annihilation

As we’ve touched before, very few Olympics stay within their budgets. As the years go by, there continue to be horror stories of stadium built for Olympic use that are left to rot, and national finances that limp along for quite some time. Hopefully, no one will undergo the same financial ruin that Montreal suffered for nearly four decades as a result of hosting of the 1976 Summer Olympics.

In May of 1970, the capital of Quebec beat out bids from Moscow and Los Angeles to be awarded the 1976 Summer Games. Moral was high in the city, and the sports world was excited as the former MLB franchise Montreal Expos were in the beginning of the their inaugural season. At the time, the winning bid came with an estimate of $120m to put the thing on properly, with half of that ear marked for a state-of-the-art Olympic Stadium. Things never really found any rhythm, as construction started a full year and a half late, forcing millions in overtime pay to be dished out to get projects done on time. Then there was a series of strikes that lasted a total of 5 months worth of lost time between the end of 1974 to April 1976, setting up a disaster scenario leading up to the Opening Ceremonies. This also came when the price of steel tripled, and with incomplete projects remaining all of the city, the bill was already at $310 million.

Sigh, and then came the security bill once the games were underway. After the unfortunate terrorist attack at the 1972 Olympics, an emphasis on security was at the top of the list. That bill alone cost $100 million, good for 80% of the entire original Montreal budget. We haven’t even mentioned the corruption going on with the main contractor using funds and supplies to build his friend a mansion!

Well, the games went off rather well, except for the fact that Canada became the first host nation not to have a gold medal winner in any sport. In the end, the total cost of the 1976 Montreal Olympics totaled $1.6 billion dollars, more than 13 times the original budget. The main stadium alone cost $1.1 billion, and the proposed retractable roof that ate up most the cost was never actually built! The Expos baseball team moved into the stadium after the games and endured all types of fire and structural issues until the team left the city in 2004. Today, the stadium has been empty for nearly 17 years.

And who got stuck with the bill? The city of Montreal, who spent the next 30 years chipping away at the debt while other parts of the city’s infrastructure were passed over.

Midwest Tug-O-War

Francis Olympic Field on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis

So, where to begin?

The first Olympics held to be held in America, the 1904 in St. Louis were actually not supposed to take place in Missouri. The IOC had originally selected Chicago to host, but St. Louis managed to essentially hold the games hostage and eventually usurped the whole thing. How, you ask?

This doesn’t seem balanced. Also, pre World War flags

Well, at the turn of the century there was no bigger spectacle than the World’s Fair, and St. Louis was able to land the 1904 edition. As the center of the travel world that Summer, the powerful hosting committee saw an opportunity to attract even more spectators by somehow stealing the games from their Midwestern counterpart (and rivals) Chicago. Having been founded just a decade earlier, the IOC was still in its infancy and carried little weight in terms of clout or finances. The financially superior World’s Fair organizers used this to their advantage and began to negotiate with the AAU, the organizers of the track and field competitions. As the jewel of the entire Olympics, not having the top track and field athletes in Chicago would devastate the legitimacy of the games, so Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin begrudgingly moved the games 300 miles to St. Louis. He was so infuriated by the situation that he refused to attend the event, and later stated, “I had a sort of presentiment that the Olympiad would match the mediocrity of the town.”

de Coubertin’s pessimism proved to be rather prophetic, as some of the wildest stories you may ever hear regarding competition took place in 1904 in St. Louis.

1904 Marathon Results

Here are some of the head scratchers:

  • – First of all, the games lasted FIVE months, which amazingly is the second longest after the 1908 Games in London. Looking to capitalize on the association with the Olympics, the organizers held many events with completely unqualified athletes. There were several track races containing high schoolers referred to as Olympians.
  • – There was a diving competition called “plunge for distance,” which means there was someone who was able to walk around the rest of his life as the only distance plunging champion in Olympic history.
  • -There were 630 athletes from 12 countries. 523 were American, with almost half of them from Missouri.
  • – The track and field competition included a Tug-O-War. However, we’re not totally against bringing this back.
  • – A German-American gymnast named George Eyser became a star after winning 6 gold medals…with a wooden leg. His victories included the vault, where he had to jump up without a springboard.
  • – Some unfathomable, horribly controversial competitions were held, aimed at making fun of some guests. A series of bizarre events were part of the “Anthropology Days.” The focus of these days were to exploit untrained and unsuspecting participants from the World Fair’s “Human Zoo.” Events included pole climbing and mud throwing, and the cruelty was not lost on de Coubertin. He angrily called the episode an “outrageous charade.”
  • – The only two women’s events were archery and boxing, though the later was only an exhibition. But we’re sure the organizers couldn’t imagine passing up the profits that would come from women fighting.
  • -The games took place in a time of great immigration into America. As the years have passed, many of the athletes who represented and won medals for the US have been shown to be non-citizens in 1904. Several countries have come forward to claim certain athletes and their medals for their birth nations.


The Marathon

The first marathon took place in St. Louis, which took place on public roads, most of them made of dirt. The participants included a Cuban mailman who was robbed of his belongings in New Orleans, hitchhiked to Missouri, and showed up for the race in pants and street shoes. He would later eat an apple picked from a roadside orchard, only to find it was rotten and induced immediate sickness. A runner from South Africa was chased nearly a mile off the course by a pack of wild dogs. Another man nearly lost his life after his throat filled up with dust and fumes from the cars escorting the runners.

The first person to cross the finish line was an American named Fred Lorz, who was declared the winner only to be exposed for raiding in a car for 11 miles on the course and disqualified. The official winner was American  Thomas Hicks, who was practically carried across the finish line with a body full of brandy and strychnine, which was given to him instead of water by race officials. Hicks finished the race 8 pounds lighter than when he started.

Other Interesting

  • – The 1908 Olympics were originally scheduled to take place in Rome until a volcano eruption in 1906 wreck havoc on the city of Naples. The country needed to use emergency funds for the disaster, so the games were moved to London. The volcano? Mount Vesuvius.
  • Madrid has been a major contender to host several times, but have come up short each time. The city finished 3rd for the 2020 games.
  • – The 2016 games were awarded to Rio de Janiero in October of 2009. The USA candidate that year was Chicago, who sent newly elected first lady Michelle Obama and Chicago based TV host Oprah Winfrey as the presenters. The Windy City did not make it past the first round of voting, finishing 4th.
  • – We shared earlier that the 1976 Denver organizing committee asked if they could save money by not building a bobsled track. They probably got the confidence to make such a shocking request after the 1960 host city – Squaw Valley, California – made the same request and it was ACTUALLY approved.

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