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August 04, 2021 News » Cover Story

Going for the gold ... Again 

Utah's Olympic organizers say it's a matter of when, not if, Salt Lake City hosts another Winter Games.

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DEREK CARLISLE
  • Derek Carlisle

Utahns love the Olympics.
Since the 2002 Winter Games boosted Salt Lake City's international profile, surveys on the prospect of a second turn hosting have shown levels of support that a politician could only dream of. And more recently, Forbes analyzed Google Trends data and found The Beehive State leading out on Tokyo-related internet searches.

"The Olympics transcend general sports interests," said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall. "It's not just about Team USA, it's about the world coming together."

During a recent interview with City Weekly, Mendenhall talked about her experience with the 2002 games. She said she was a newlywed living in the Avenues at the time, and in addition to attending bobsled runs and the gold medal round of curling, she would head downtown to bask in the Olympic energy.

"It's just so heartening to participate," she said, "whether you're watching it on TV, or we may be so lucky as to see it in person in the future."

According to Utah's Olympic organizers, the prospect of Salt Lake City hosting a second Winter Games is less a question of luck than it is timing. The various public and private entities critical to a future event are on board, existing venues have been relatively well-maintained, development has bolstered the city's public infrastructure and the citizenry are energized, not to mention the Wasatch Front boasts about the greatest snow on Earth.

"I believe strongly it's when, not if," said Fraser Bullock, president of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games. "We're one of the best cities in the world. We have incredibly beautiful mountains, superbly welcoming people, and we have a full complement of venues, all in a very compact geography, which makes us very, very unique."

But Utah also set an atypically high bar for itself with what is generally considered to be one of the more successful Olympic Games in the modern era, scoring viewership records at the time and turning a sizeable profit that helped fund, among other things, the creation of the Utah Athletic Legacy Foundation. Subsequent host sites have contended with runaway costs, construction-related deaths, community displacement, performance-enhancing drug operations, leadership scandals and, of course, a global pandemic.

Yet despite the talk of Olympic inevitability around town, very little has been set in stone regarding what a future Winter Games in Utah would look like, how it would function and what it would cost to pull off.

And in the absence of those details, it's difficult to verify or challenge the undaunted optimism of folks like Bullock as Utah waits for a clearer picture of the next Olympic dream to take shape.

"We think, absolutely, we can capture lightning in a bottle again for a new generation that hasn't experienced it," Bullock said. "And for those of us who have experienced it, being able to do it twice in a lifetime is just so special."

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said a second Olympics could speed up the city’s plans around housing, transportation and community investment. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said a second Olympics could speed up the city’s plans around housing, transportation and community investment.

A Date With Destiny
While it can feel like Utah has been anticipating a second Olympics since the moment the cauldron at Rice-Eccles Stadium was extinguished, Bullock said high-level discussions began in earnest in 2012. The idea at the time was to aim for 2022—the 20th anniversary of Utah's host year—but it wasn't until 2018 that Salt Lake City was designated by the U.S. Olympic Committee (now the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, or USOPC) as the nation's candidate for its next Winter Games bid, whenever that bid might occur.

"We have a focus on 2030 or 2034," Bullock said. "And we've been working in partnership with the USOPC for many months now to determine which one we want to collectively pursue."

In the past, it was prohibitively expensive to bid for the games, let alone host them. And the winning sites were selected in a winner-take-all fashion, with losing candidates expected to effectively start over from scratch to stay in the running.

But a new approach that has taken shape over the past decade prioritizes dialogue—with interested parties invited to submit more generalized proposals that are then refined over time to fit a specific edition of the games.

According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the new process dramatically reduces the cost of bidding, while encouraging local governments to fit the games into their existing and planned infrastructure projects in lieu of Olympics-specific construction that might fall into disrepair and disuse after the games conclude.

"The reforms ensure the IOC remains in step with a rapidly changing world to deliver games that are better aligned with future hosts' long-term development plans while maintaining the inherent magic of the games and providing the best possible experience for athletes," the IOC website states.

Bullock said a past bid would cost anywhere between $50 million and $100 million, with no guarantee of success. By contrast, the current budget for Utah's next bid is $3.8 million, he said, all from private donors.

"We're still in the process of raising money," Bullock said.

Broadly speaking, the changes to bidding work in Utah's favor, according to Bullock. Unlike many previous host sites, Utah has made regular use of its Olympic venues. And the growth of the state over the past 20 years has corresponded with the construction of a new airport, the expansion of light rail and mass transit lines and the proliferation of hotels and other housing facilities.

"Everywhere you turn," Bullock said, "we're even more capable of hosting the games in the future than we have been in the past."

He said the next phase of Olympic planning will see the state's conversations with the USOPC shift in a more targeted direction, with the nuts and bolts of a particular bid year—2030, 2034 or beyond—becoming more clearly defined. But he added that there's no set date for when the USOPC will decide which year to pursue, or when the IOC will make its selection, particularly with Olympic energies focused on back-to-back games.

"They are obviously pretty occupied right now with Tokyo," Bullock said. "And then right on the heels of Tokyo, they've got Beijing and they've got another games to get ready. It's an extremely busy Olympic period in 2021."

Beyond the cost of the bidding process, Bullock said Utah would be in a position to save money on hosting the games, since the state could update its legacy venues rather than start construction from scratch.

But Bullock declined to comment on the potential cost of a second Winter Games, even in ballpark terms, saying he prefers to release financial projections when they are more narrowly detailed.

"Once we feel like it's polished and ready to go, and we have a version for both 2030 and 2034, we would then share those with the public and discuss the components of those budgets," Bullock said.

A 2018 policy brief from the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Institute pegged the cost of the 2002 games at $3.5 billion in direct spending, generating an overall economic impact of $6.1 billion for the state.

"Based on our analysis of Utah's travel and tourism industry before and after the 2002 Olympic Winter Games," the brief states, "we expect skier visits, national park recreation visits, accommodation taxable sales, airport passengers and private leisure and hospitality employment to continue a positive growth trajectory after another Olympic Winter Games."

Village People
The broad strokes of a future games are expected to mirror 2002, with the same or similar ski resorts and competition venues welcoming the world's athletes.

But preparing to host the games would be more involved than simply getting the key to the Olympic Oval and turning the lights on. Regular athlete training and event hosting has kept Utah's venues from falling into disrepair, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're ready for the Olympic spotlight—now, or a decade from now.

click to enlarge Fraser Bullock, president of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Fraser Bullock, president of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games

"There would be extensive touching up, so to speak," Bullock said. "They're at a world-class level now, but they are aging. They will need more investment to make sure they're at their absolute peak for the games."

Bullock pointed out that a mere do-over of 2002's events and venues would be insufficient, with a 40% increase in sport disciplines added to the Winter Games over the past 20 years. New events like Ski Cross or Big Air and Slopestyle snowboarding have changed the on-the-ground realities of what it takes to be a host city, he said.

"We are blessed with many resources here in Utah to not only handle what we did in 2002, but also handle all the new, exciting events for a future games," Bullock said.

And while U.S. organizers are on board with a Salt Lake City repeat, it is ultimately the International Olympic Committee that makes a site selection. Los Angeles is slated to host the 2028 Summer Games, and the more globally oriented IOC could be reluctant to follow that event with an American-hosted winter edition just two or four years later.

If Utah's bid were to be rejected, Bullock expects the state to essentially try, try again until success is achieved. But Mendenhall—who agrees that Salt Lake City is optimally positioned to host a future Winter Games—said pushing the selection date beyond 2030 or 2034 would strain the city's advantages.

"The age of the facilities might come into play if we look that far out from 2002," she said. "We would be a different applicant beyond the years that we're aiming for."

As with the 2002 Games, the University of Utah is expected to serve as the beating heart of a future event, with the opening and closing ceremonies to be held at the now-expanded Rice-Eccles Stadium and with student housing repurposed as the Athlete Village.

But there is a critical difference between then and now. Housing facilities on the U campus were built specifically for the games' competitors and later populated with students. The next time around, however, the games would require the displacement of residents.

"Of course it's going to create some interruption to schedules," Bullock said. "But last time, we demonstrated we can do that in partnership with [the U] very well, and we anticipate the same in the future."

Jason Perry, University of Utah's vice president for government relations, said campus leaders are aware of the looming challenges and have the benefit of time to draw up plans.

"Ever since we held the Olympics in 2002, most of us have known it's just a matter of time until they come back," Perry said. "Most people in Utah would say we are ready for whenever it comes, we just want it to come."

click to enlarge Jason Perry, University of Utah VP  for government relations: There are “good options to try to minimize the negative impact on our students.” - UNNIVERSTIY OF UTAH
  • Unniverstiy of Utah
  • Jason Perry, University of Utah VP for government relations: There are “good options to try to minimize the negative impact on our students.”

He said continued development of university housing provides administrators with flexibility to fit an Athlete Village into an active campus. And while there are obvious inconveniences to hosting the games in the middle of an academic year, there are also the advantages of being part of the Olympic experience.

"We will put together a plan as to whether we need to hold some rooms back or find alternative housing in other places in the valley, or even adjusting the school schedule for that period of time," Perry said. "There are a lot of good options to try to minimize the negative impact on our students. There's also a corresponding opportunity for many of these students to participate."

Perry said most of the faculty who were with the university in 2002 consider the experience to have been an "unqualified success," building on the reputation of the state of Utah as well as its flagship university.

"We made our commitment already as part of the bid package that went forward," he said. "We have a lot of time to plan how we can do it best, and the University of Utah is very supportive of having the games come back."

Sink or Swim
Salt Lake City is "on the rise," Mendenhall said, and has grown over the last two decades in ways that make it a better fit for the Olympics—perhaps the best positioned city in the world to host the games.

And if past is prologue, Salt Lake's selection by the IOC could trigger yet another building boom and catalyze investment in public works.

"That visibility would increase the popularity of the city," Mendenhall said. "It's an opportunity and a challenge that I wholeheartedly would accept."

The effect of the 2002 games on Utah's capital city can't be overstated—from the obvious examples like The Gateway Mall and Gallivan Plaza where Olympic imagery still evokes the games to the frenzy of UTA activity around the turn of the millenium that saw the buildout of TRAX and Frontrunner.

Olympic energy accelerated the city's plans for transportation, housing and community resources, Mendenhall said. And with many, many more plans on the books, in some cases stalled for years awaiting funding and prioritization, a second Winter Games could be the spark that moves those initiatives forward.

"You could look to any of the plans that our community has helped us build in recent years and imagine those accelerated and amplified, able to come to fruition sooner than they would otherwise," Mendenhall said.

But the Olympics are also a cautionary tale. The changes to the bidding process lauded by Bullock are part of an intentional rebranding effort by the IOC after years of controversy and allegations of corruption (those stories have been told better elsewhere, and also prominently feature the 2002 games). And part of the reason Salt Lake City's Olympic debut is remembered so fondly by Utahns is because so many of them were able to attend events, with thousands of unsold tickets distributed by organizers to schools and other community groups.

That Utahns will turn out in droves as spectators to the games can no longer be taken for granted as a sure thing. The delayed and crowdless summer games in Tokyo demonstrate how Mother Nature can make even the best-laid plans go awry, and nations of the world have been made painfully aware that there can be no assumption of safety from emerging diseases—or lingering COVID-19 for that matter—particularly with overt vaccine skepticism sweeping conservative politics.

What the next decade brings is anyone's guess. Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney—who became a household name leading the 2002 games—is increasingly suggesting a diplomatic boycott of next year's events in Beijing. And the declining snowpack in Utah's mountains is cause for many concerns, perhaps the least of which is athletic competition.

Bullock stressed that organizers are taking an athletes-first approach to the games, with notable Olympians joining the Committee for the Games in leadership roles. And underlying all of the discussions is the strong endorsement of the public at large, which to date has been the most constant variable in the machinations but one with the potential to shift with little warning.

"That strong support, which is incredibly high, reflects on the great success of 2002 and the enthusiasm for hosting again," Bullock said. "That is foundational to our bid."

He said he looks forward to providing more specifics to residents as they take shape—perhaps as early as next year following the Beijing games—and finding ways to involve community members in the planning process when, not if, things accelerate.

"As we make progress toward a bid, we envision having celebrations, having community activities where people can learn more and celebrate our various stages of success," Bullock said.

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