On the morning of Feb. 8, only 12 hours before the Winter Olympic Games were to open in Salt Lake City, a small herd of eight mule deer wandered through the Avenues residential district pensively, seeming a little lost. The deer may have been frightened down from the foothills the night before when giant Olympic rings were lighted on the mountainside and presented with the booming and flashing of fireworks. But whatever drove the deer down through the neighborhood covered in a fresh shroud of snow, they weren’t the only ones who looked pensive and a little lost.
As more foreign visitors crowded into the city and more roads were closed to secure downtown areas around the Olympic Medals Plaza and Olympic Media Center, locals braced themselves for the big celebration, not knowing exactly what to expect. A collective anxiety seemed palpable—who were all these people with multiple I.D. tags hanging around their necks? Do we really need five policemen on every corner?
After dark, people streamed down sidewalks downtown, a rare sight in these parts where the place is usually rolled up tight by 7 p.m. A crowd was gathering at Washington Square that surrounds the City & County Building. Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t spend $880 for a seat at the Opening Ceremonies had been invited the night before the official opening by Mayor Rocky Anderson to something of a regular people’s party. Salt Lakers milled around as the Seven Nations rock band played from the sound stage on the west steps, flanked by two jumbotrons that threw their image to Matheson Court House across State Street. On 500 South Street, the “Right to Life” truck drove by with huge photographs of aborted fetuses. It wasn’t exactly a nice touch, but there it was, anyway. Two hours before the torch was to arrive, the party seemed anything but lively. Salt Lakers, generally speaking, aren’t known as party animals.
Nearby bars, however, were packed. Bourbon Street, kitty-corner from Washington Square, was standing-room only. The thick air inside was at least celebratory, if not quite ribald. Down 400 South at Port O’ Call, private security officials patted down patrons before they could enter. You can’t be too careful these days. A vision of the Irish Republican Army setting off bombs in crowded London pubs comes to mind. Maybe the terrorists have won after all.
The sparse crowd at City Hall had grown to 6,000 or maybe even 7,000 by 9:30 p.m. in anticipation of the arrival of the Olympic torch. The Deseret News put the crowd size at 50,000, apparently wishing to make the scene much bigger than it actually was. Either that or the reporters were too drunk to count. A small army of police officers wearing yellow Olympic ski jackets lined up along the steps of the courthouse. There, officers were making home videos of the scene while some of their comrades were taking group photos of each other with the lighted Olympic rings gracing the sandstone neo-Gothic City Hall in the background. It was, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Nonetheless, the place seemed wide open if a terrorist had wanted to attack. People milled about, some wearing backpacks, as the crowd pushed to get closer to the stage. A bombing like the one in Atlanta could have been easily repeated here. Just set that suitcase bomb down and stroll away into the dark.
As the clock inched toward 10, the stage had been taken over by the people from Chevrolet and Coca-Cola, who remarked on the wonderfulness of the Olympic torch and Olympic Games and repeated as often as possible how much their corporations had financially supported the events. “It is the best thing Chevrolet has ever done,” beamed the cute brunette corporate representative through perfect teeth. She noted that over 11,500 people have carried the torch as it made its way across the country. “At Chevrolet, we were excited to get to know them. At Chevrolet, we are extremely proud to be an Olympic sponsor.”
Fortunately, a smart marching band called “The Utah Olympic Spirit Band” decked out in white-and-blue western outfits with white Stetsons took the stage for some upbeat patriotic music that proved a good antidote for the corporate rhetoric. International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge appeared and announced, “Let the Games Begin” to a roar from the crowd that had now come to life. Mayor Rocky Anderson beamed more brightly than usual. “It may be chilly out tonight. But the Olympic flame has never burned brighter,” he announced to another loud cheer. SLOC President Mitt Romney graciously thanked the mayor as Gladys Knight belted out a rendition of “This Is Our Time to Shine.”
Local TV stations had set up platforms so their reporters and anchors could broadcast the 10 p.m. news with the stage and cauldron in the background: Michele King and Marc Kobbel from Channel 2, Christina Florez from KTVX and Shelly Osterloh and Keith McCord from Channel 5. The choreography seemed perfect as the Olympic torch made its way down State Street carried by wheelchair-bound Special Olympian Chris Waddell, accompanied by Olympians Kristi Yamaguchi, John Stockton and Steve Mahre. The crowd went nuts as a cauldron on the steps was lighted.
By contrast, local TV affiliates, including Fox 13, were nowhere to be seen the following afternoon as the Citizen Activist Network ran its mock Olympic torch up South Temple to Reservoir Park at 1300 East. With the temperature hovering in the mid-20s with a north wind, the ragtag and poorly-dressed group gathered there to protest poverty looked cold. Members of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union had car-pooled from Philadelphia, led by the charismatic Cheri Honkala. The group was joined by Salt Lake City’s JEDI women, headed up by Bonnie Macri.
“Everybody has the right to food and clothing,” read one placard carried by Thomas Spence, who, along with his wife and others, had driven three vans from Philly for the protest. A half-mile away, preparations were under way for the Opening Ceremonies at Rice-Eccles Stadium. “That’s just crazy,” Spence said of the $880-to-$1,000 asking price for a ticket to the event. “One thousand dollars could feed a lot of people.”
Tony White had also come from Philadelphia with Honkala’s group. He said they wanted to protest during the Olympics because it presented an opportunity to get their message concerning affordable health care and a living wage before a larger audience. He seemed not to notice that there were no TV cameras—save a pair from Philadelphia. “This will get us more media coverage,” White said. “They can’t just overlook us now. They can’t just brush us under the carpet, like they usually do.”
The group, growing slowly toward 200, stood in mud and snow near a softball backstop at the park’s northwest corner on 1300 East. An impromptu podium had been set up with a scratchy P.A. system. A young woman with a nice voice led the protestors in several verses of “Amazing Grace.” Above her head, attached to the backstop was hung a placard quoting Mahatma Gandhi: “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”
Of course, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, JEDI and Citizen Activist Network are not the only groups using the Olympics in an effort to get their message across. The previous day in downtown Salt Lake City, about 250 people marched down 400 South and then north to Pioneer Park to call attention to the persecution in Mainland China of the practitioners of Falung Gong.
Most of the demonstrators spoke only dialects of Chinese. But Canadian Carole Collard from British Columbia explained that she had come to Salt Lake City for several days to demonstrate with the group. “It’s important for the whole world to know that the Chinese government is spreading lies to make Falun Gong appear as something it is not.”
Collared noted that the Falun Gong tradition emphasizes truthfulness, compassion and forbearance.
The Falun Gong marchers could not have been more peaceful. They smiled and waived at passing traffic. But like the Kensington and JEDI protest, there was scant attention from Salt Lake City’s mainstream news media—electronic or print. Outside of animal rights activists, apparently, protestors aren’t part of Olympic coverage.
That is probably something Jianping Qui, who now lives in New York City, didn’t count on. “This is a good opportunity to show people all over the world that this is a very peaceful tradition,” she explained, crossing 300 West to the park.
Was this what the Deseret News editorial board argued should not be allowed to take place during the Olympics? Or perhaps they were more concerned about the Kensington people, whose march was halted and then walled off by an army of police officers in yellow Marker ski jackets as George W. Bush’s motorcade breezed down University Street toward the Opening Ceremonies. The president most likely didn’t see the banner carried by Honkala and Macri that asked him to wage a war on poverty. He probably didn’t hear the group chanting, “Hey, hey, ho-ho, poverty has got to go.” And undoubtedly, the president couldn’t have known that Honkala and Macri and three other women were arrested for attempting to carry their banner to the Opening Ceremonies. It just wasn’t part of the official Olympic script. Out of sight, out of mind. Salt Lake City’s TV news operations and daily newspapers apparently also understand that the Olympics are not for poor people.