Pedal to the Medal | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

January 02, 2019 News » Cover Story

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    • Beady Eyes

    Some 52,000 people stood in silence on a frigid February evening as U.S. Olympic athletes, Port Authority police and New York City cops and firefighters carried a tattered American flag into Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium. As the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony intoned the national anthem, a soldier watched the Salt Lake City scene from a television in Kandahar, Afghanistan, mouthing the words, "and the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave" as his countrymen hoisted a fresh flag up a pole.

    "The temperature here is in the 20s, but that's not the cause of the goosebumps now," NBC broadcaster Bob Costas said once the banner had been raised. The 2002 Winter Olympics opening ceremony was in full swing.

    Five months earlier, on Sept. 11, 2001, that flag had been waving outside the World Trade Center when members of al-Qaida flew two airplanes into the skyscrapers, the Pentagon and into the ground in Shanksville, Pa. Almost 3,000 people were killed that day across three targeted sites, making it the single-deadliest terrorist attack in human history.

    Colin Hilton and his colleagues at the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics and Paralympics watched the towers fall. The attacks made him unsure whether Utah would host the international competitions, as planned. "Were they gonna get canceled?" Hilton had asked.

    Still, life went on. Locals had mostly brushed the Olympic bribery scandal from a couple of years prior under the carpet; bar-goers continued to flock to the members-only Dead Goat Saloon, headbanged at the lively Zephyr Club or got wild at Club Blue; and in the wake of Britney Spears' vehicle Crossroads—released in movie theaters a week before the games—Jordan School District officials issued a ruling banning its female students from baring their midriffs or cleavage, displaying piercings and sporting "disruptive" hair color.

    If any state could turn the permanent national frown upside down, by gosh, that was Utah. Undeterred, and with many still in mourning, the Beehive State welcomed visitors from around the world for a combined 25-day party that, to this day, is remembered fondly inside and outside its borders. "If anything, [9/11] galvanized the organizing committee and the community to host the world when the world needed unity," Hilton, now the president and CEO of the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation, says.

    "It was a sense of pride and world unity that I've never seen since," he says wistfully before reflecting on the political polarization that's come to define our fractious times. "And that's too bad," he adds. "We need more of that today. And that is an opportunity why I think we're excited about looking at hosting again."

    • Kelan Lyons

    Olympic Pioneers
    Last month, Gov. Gary Herbert and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski gathered at the City and County building to share some news—the capital city had once again been chosen by the U.S. Olympic Committee to bid for an upcoming Winter Olympics. Utah could host the games in 2030, less than three decades after its first big bash.

    "We won!" Herbert cheered, jubilant that SLC had beaten Denver as a future U.S. bid city. It appeared Salt Lake was back in the International Olympic Committee's good graces, despite the 1988 bid scandal when locals gave $1 million in cash, medical care, scholarships and NBA tickets to IOC members and their families.

    "It ripped this community apart," Natalie Gochnour, who worked in Gov. Mike Leavitt's office in 2002, says of the controversy and resulting soul-searching. "There were some bad things that happened. And when I say bad things, think of paying for votes."

    Transgressions be damned! The Mormon mecca, not the Mile-High City, will get another shot at hosting the Winter Olympics and Paralympics. As Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox so eloquently put it, "Suck it, Denver!"

    Utah politicians had been jostling for an Olympics reboot for years, an enthusiasm that's apparently matched among their constituents. According to an exploratory committee report that analyzed whether the state should try to host another Olympics, 89 percent of Utahns support bidding for another Winter Games.

    That eagerness has not been matched by other nations in recent years. "It's gotten to the point where a lot of cities and countries are going, 'Why would we want to do this?'" Hilton says, admitting that many outside the state don't see the point in pumping so much money into hosting the international event. "Calgary was the seventh city in a row to have a public referendum to vote 'No' against hosting the Olympics," he points out.

    There were rumblings in Colorado's capital that its residents could follow suit. Brad Evans is a member of Let Denver Vote, a group of activists still fighting to get a referendum on the municipal election ballot next May, despite the fact their city has been overlooked for a 2030 bid. "We just wanted to make sure if it does come here or doesn't come here, the public participates in a transparent and meaningful way," Evans says.

    Each modern Olympic Games has had a public-finance component, Evans says. "The hard cost ends up being footed by the taxpayer," he explains, meaning roads, facilities and infrastructure. "I love the Olympics, personally ... but we don't love the debt that comes with hosting the parties."

    Salt Lake City is already in the midst of upgrading its infrastructure, independent of a looming possibility of hosting Winter Games. Mayor Biskupski said during the bid announcement that the city's airport upgrades will be finished by 2024, doubling its international-flight area. "We will be ready to host the world with a brand new airport," Biskupski later told City Weekly, "and welcome them in a way that we couldn't before."

    Local public transportation also is being expanded, Biskupski says. "The beauty of choosing Salt Lake City for this opportunity is we are already in motion, and so is the county, in adding additional transit opportunities in the county and in the city," she says, mentioning the Transit Master Plan that aims to expand local residents' and visitors' options for getting around. "Transit opportunities will be coming online for these games that did not exist before."

    The city has built miles of commuter rail lines since 2002, Salt Lake City Transportation Division Director Jon Larsen says. And prior to hosting the games, local leaders shortened the timetables on existing ventures. "I think a lot of cities and regions like to use the Olympics as an excuse to accelerate projects," Larsen says, like stretching the TRAX red line to the University of Utah. "It was insane how fast the UTA expanded their rail system."

    Between the voter-approved $87-million bond and the half-penny sales tax increase OK'd by the City Council, Larsen points out, the city has the funds to maximize locals' opportunities for walking and biking. (And scooting, for you adventurous types.) "We continue to really emphasize making it as easy as possible to get around without having a car," he says. "That's the best way to accommodate a lot of people."

    In other words, Larsen says the city isn't putting tax dollars toward Olympic-specific infrastructure. "These are just things we're doing anyway," he says. "Having the Olympics just makes it more exciting, and just adds to that sense of urgency."

    • Kelan Lyons

    Becoming, and Maintaining, a Winter Wonderland
    To understand why Utah wants to play party-thrower when so many other cities are saying, "Hell NOlympics," you have to look back to the mid-1980s. Gochnour, now the director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, says the state made a decision when it diverted $59 million of public money to build Olympic facilities before a bid had even been secured. "We took a pretty big risk. We took your sales taxes and diverted them to build ovals and ski jumps and bobsled runs, and did that without knowing we would have the games, all under the promise that it was about something bigger than the games," she says. "It was about becoming a winter-sports capital."

    In Hilton's telling, the investment paid off. The state made its $59 million back and issued $76 million as a legacy endowment, which generates $4 million in interest every year. That's money that Hilton's staff draws on to cover some of the $17 million it costs annually to operate the facilities. According to the state's Olympic and Paralympic exploratory committee report, the overall economic impact the '02 Winter Games had on Utah was more than $6 billion, an eye-popping amount the committee expects to meet, if not surpass, should Utah host the games again.

    The existing Olympic infrastructure in nearby places like Kearns and Park City, Hilton says, gives the area an advantage over other cities interesting in bidding. It's also why the exploratory committee expects a 2030 Olympics to cost about $1.3 billion in today's dollars, a pithy sum compared to the $52 billion it cost for Russia to put on the Sochi Olympics in 2014. "The concept of creating a sustainable operation of these legacy venues was something new in the Olympic movement," Hilton says of the state's decision to look decades into the future when constructing its wintry athletic paradise. "It really established a culture that continues today."

    Hilton pulls out a wrinkled spreadsheet from behind his desk at Park City's Olympic Park. The report details all the improvements each facility will need over the next decade, including a roof replacement at the Olympic Oval in the spring, that should ring in at around $1 million. Altogether, Hilton says renovations over the following 10 years will cost around $40 million.

    That's an assessment the state agrees with. Legislators released an audit in October 2017 that found they'd need to fork out $39 million in upgrades in order to make sure the region would be able to host international competitions like the World Cup and Winter Olympics.

    Those in favor of hosting another Olympics have repeatedly said the state could put on the grand affair without touching taxpayer money, but Hilton concedes the funding for these renovations will come from Utahns' pockets. "That is the one area where we asked for and received commitment from the state of Utah to help us with these capital-improvements costs," Hilton says, explaining that each year he can apply for grant funds to cover some of the backlogged repairs. "Ahead of the games, is the state putting in some funding, tax funding, for upkeep, over the next 10 years? Yes."

    All that refurbishing isn't for the Olympics, per se. According to the exploratory committee report, Utah has hosted some 150 international winter sports events, from ski races to luge competitions, and 550 elite-level events, since 2002. "We would be doing the upgrades necessary as we go along because we need these same improvements done to host an annual World Cup just as much to host an Olympics," Hilton says.

    The worldly events are only a slice of what the facilities are for, Hilton adds. "These aren't just for elite-athlete training," he says of existing infrastructure. "These are community recreation centers."

    Choosing a facility at random, Hilton breaks down a regular day at Kearns' Olympic Oval. For most of the year, speed skaters typically train until about 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, after which youth hockey and figure skating take over the rinks. "As the evening goes on, figure skating transitions to curling league, youth hockey turns into men's league hockey all the way till midnight, and then we get up at 6 a.m. and do it all over again," Hilton says. Kids and adults alike also take advantage of public skating as walkers and joggers do laps around the running track. "We call it high performance by day, recreation by night."

    Community athletic facilities like the Oval encourage a healthy lifestyle and help young people develop life skills, Hilton says. Five years ago, his own son did his first backflip into the Olympic Park pool, launching into the water from the nearby ski jump. Once winter came around, he was able to backflip in midair and land on the snow, mimicking the motions he'd practiced over the summer.

    Those safe-learning environments get children and teens off the couch and into the wild, positive habits that follow them into adulthood. "They're seeing nature, they're learning how to cross-country ski, they're doing things that are unique, that you can't do in other communities, by sliding down a bobsled track, or learning how to play hockey, or figure skate," Hilton says. "We are not just training Olympians. We don't even have a purpose to create Olympians. We have a series of programs that get people outdoors, introduced to winter sport, and if people have a good time doing it, we feel successful."

    • Kelan Lyons

    Climate Concerns and Dastardly Disruption
    One potential roadblock to Utah officially landing the 2030 Winter Olympics is climate change. The exploratory report lists three major risks to local climate: fewer days where the temperature is below freezing, unseasonably warm weather and stronger high-pressure ridges that cause drier, warmer conditions.

    "There's always concern about climate change and global warming, and whether that's man-caused or just happening in the Earth's cycles," Gov. Herbert tells City Weekly at the City and County building after bragging about SLC beating out Denver for the Olympic bid. "Doesn't matter. But certainly there's concern about that."

    Basking in the Olympic glow and wielding a "Utah can do anything" mentality, Herbert says he's encouraged by this winter's snowfall so far, and he says lawmakers will do what they can to encourage snow-friendly conditions, which could include passing climate-friendly legislation. "We have the greatest snow on Earth," he boasts. "We're going to do everything we can to make sure we're good stewards of the Earth."

    If not, Herbert adds, man-made snow could make up for a dry winter. "We can host the Winter Olympics, and I'm sure the climate will in fact be in condition to have that happen," he says.

    The realities of climate change have forced Hilton's staff to adapt to shortened seasons. "We're trying to keep up with advanced snowmaking systems, and stockpiling snow when we can," he says, "or knowing when the temps are cold enough that we're blowing snow and getting the hills open."

    Should Utah land the 2030 games, Hilton suggests pushing the Paralympics up by a week, so there's not much of a gap between the two events. "When we get into March, we know the sun gets really warm and the conditions of the outdoor events is compromised," he says.

    Another issue is the budgeting. According to a 2016 University of Oxford study, Salt Lake City's Olympics cost $2.5 billion. That's 24 percent over its budget—more than expected, but just the second-lowest overrun among all Winter Olympics held between 1960 and 2016.

    Andrew Zimbalist, the Robert A. Woods professor of economics at Smith College in Massachusetts and author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, tells City Weekly that it's plausible Salt Lake City could again host the games without running up a huge deficit, given that much of the infrastructure already exists. But, he adds, that doesn't mean it's going to be the "cat's meow" and represent an automatic economic windfall.

    Locals could get frustrated with traffic jams or the increased security presence, Zimbalist suggests, and skiers and snowboarders who might otherwise flock to Snowbird and Alta might sit that season out, to avoid maddening crowds. Plus, there's the matter of where the athletes will be housed. In 2002, they were holed up in dorms at the U. "I don't know how that's going to be handled this time around," Zimbalist says.

    The exploratory committee report estimates the university has 3,100 total beds on its campus, "with more anticipated after 2020 to meet rising student enrollment." Zimbalist suggests the university could structure its 2030 academic calendar so that students would be on leave or at off-site internships when the athletes come into town, but "it's still going to be disruptive."

    Zimbalist says proper planning and awareness of potential pitfalls is paramount to hosting a fiscally responsible Winter Games. But, he says, not all the concerns can be quantified. "I do think that even if you can't measure it in dollar terms, there's some costs there."

    The Games Live On
    It's a cold December day in Park City, but most of the para athletes seem numb to all but the pressure of competing in the Para World Cup series that morning. Most competitors' tensions are high and their tempers short, but Dave Nicholls is calm and collected as he prepares for his second slide down Utah Olympic Park's bobsled track.

    Nicholls' tranquility is a part of his pregame ritual, which starts the night before he races. He does "mind runs" when he's in bed, visualizing the track. "You have to know every curve. You have to know that Curve 13 is a left on this track, whereas Curve 4 in Calgary is a left," he says. "You have to know what to do because the stuff comes at you super, super fast. And one mistake, you can run out of real estate and flip."

    He'd gotten to the course early that morning, to make sure that his equipment was ready and his helmet wouldn't fog up, and to brace for his body and steel sled reaching speeds of up to 75 miles per hour as he careens down the icy path. His next heat should start soon, so he's trying to relax and remove himself from the strain of the elite competition.

    Nicholls has trained in Park City for the past dozen winters. In the summer, he conditions in Israel, where he has dual citizenship. He's the country's only bobsled pilot.

    A bearded, burly man sitting in a wheelchair and wearing a blue pullover with an Israeli flag stitched into it, Nicholls says he was the first "wheelie guy in a chair" to compete for the North American Cup, a competition that doesn't typically feature paraplegic athletes. "I started sliding in a two-man sled like 14 years ago, so I have a two-man license," he says. "The rules allow you to start seated in able-bodied [competitions], so it works well."

    Nicholls was a competitive NCAA skier before a skiing accident damaged his spine 15 years ago. The year after his injury, he started bobsledding. "It's a great sport. It does a lot for people's mentality and stuff, and keeps you in shape," he says. He's also a goalie for a Las Vegas sled hockey team, a sport he says is similar to bobsledding. "You have to be quick and you have to be on it. It's all moment-to-moment. You have to react. What's in the past is in the past."

    Like the community members who frequent the Kearns Oval, the young athletes like Hilton's son who ski-jump into the park's pool or the forlorn and anxious souls comforted by a display of world unity in the aftermath of incomprehensible violence, Nicholls is a beneficiary of Utah's Olympic legacy. Economic impacts can be quantified, but at least part of the 2002 Winter Games impact is intangible.

    "It was a long road coming, to get to the point where we could ever even be on the ice," Nicholls says after sliding down the track in 50.19 seconds. For 14 years, he and a few others have fought to elevate para bobsledding. "There were times when we were not allowed on the track. There were times we were told this sport wasn't for us," Nicholls says. "That it was too dangerous and too risky, and it just wasn't going to happen."

    Participating in such a highly competitive contest, Nicholls says, means a lot to para athletes like himself. "Just a feeling of equity and equality that, 'Hey we're just like everybody else, and should have the same opportunity to participate,'" he says, intimating Olympic and Paralympic values like determination, respect and equality. "Just because we're on wheels or missing a leg doesn't mean we can't do this, or shouldn't have the ability to do it."

    Losing a leg or breaking your back is a traumatic, life-altering experience. "A lot of things change, mentally and physically," Nicholls says. To some, becoming a para athlete means an opportunity to regain some control of their life, to move forward and grow after a seemingly incomprehensible tragedy like the U.S. did with 9/11. "I tell people that the story isn't really all about bobsled. It's about changing people's lives and getting them to where they want to be," Nicholls says. "We just happen to do it through sport."

    for Gold

    Gold, silver and bronze requests if SLC were to host a Winter Games again.

    Hosting the Olympics can be a convenient excuse for development projects, economic booms (albeit, usually temporarily) and even changes to long-standing laws—remember those pesky private-club membership requirements? While Salt Lake City managed to shake the post-Olympic doldrums from 2002 and avoid ending up with ghost-town venues that only take up space, what could be in store for another potential games?

    Here are a few wishes we, and likely you, would want to see happen in the runup to potential Winter Olympics. Some are more of a pipe dream, while others are totally doable. The time for bicycle bars is now!


    Widen bike lanes and devote more resources to further developing bike infrastructure
    If the Olympics can inspire political willpower to expand train lines, why not bike lanes, too? Jon Larsen, Salt Lake City's transportation director, previously told City Weekly that, love 'em or hate 'em, electric scooters could lead to more investment in bike lanes throughout the city. Perhaps an influx of visitors from more bike-friendly continents like Europe will inspire officials to double-down. If not the scooters, maybe e-Pogo Balls or fry sauce-fueled Jetsons-style spaceships could usher in change (hey, it's the future).

    During inversion, make it so vehicles with odd numbers at the end of their plates drive on odd days (and vice versa)
    OK, this might sound a bit radical. After all, this is telling people they can't drive at all on certain days or they'll face penalties. Ever heard of Beijing? That city has had some of the world's worst air. The government ordered certain cars could only drive on certain days and roads, and guess what? It didn't eliminate the pollution, but it helped. Worst case scenario for the Olympics: We have red (or action) days the entire time.


    Restore the Hoberman Arch
    There are few 2002 Games supporting characters as iconic as the Hoberman Arch (sorry, Coal the bear). So why not dust it off and restore it to its original glory? Once the daddy of the Olympic Medal Plaza's stage, the high-tech arch has since been dismantled and placed in a storage facility to gather dust. If the games return, bring back the damn arch.

    Allow pedal taverns around downtown
    This is a longshot, we know. But pedaling around downtown on a mobile pub? Mobile bars are a big hit in places like Nashville, Tenn. You BYOB, exercise and get a little crunk. Yes, the state has enough problems trying to regulate all its brick-and-mortar watering holes, but oh, what a joyous thing would it be.


    Draft beer higher than 4.0 ABV
    It's time for Utah to stop being a pain in the ass of beer drinkers and breweries everywhere. Lifelong Utahns are used to this, but speaking as a Beehive State transplant, the diluted drafts have got to go. Of all the nutty Mormonisms codified as state law, few are as harebrained as cutting beer ABV. Nothing says "shame" like hundreds of thousands of national and international visitors wondering why the hell they have to drink seven beers to work up a buzz. Cheers to that.

    Expand public transportation
    Salt Lake City's public transportation infrastructure got a big boost from the last Olympics (think Trax). So why not use that as motivation for public transit's next big development? Maybe more train routes? Cleaner buses? A possible hyperloop? A public-input survey on teletransportation? The possibilities are endless.

    —Ray Howze and Kelan Lyons

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