Still carrying the torch

January 24, 1999|By June Arney | June Arney,Sun Staff

SALT LAKE CITY -- Take a walk along the broad avenues downtown these days and try asking for directions to the Salt Lake Organizing Committee office for the 2002 Olympics. Chances are you'll get a wisecrack instead.

"But they're not paying anything any more," quips one would-be Good Samaritan before offering up the requested information.

For employees at the U.S. Olympic Spirit Stores scattered around the city, jokes inspired by Salt Lake's Olympic bribery scandal come pretty much nonstop. Customers refer to the shops as "the bribery store," and zing clerks about whether there will be an official Olympic pin to commemorate the scandal.

Even tourists get into the act. Dave Fribush of Los Angeles, on a ski trip to nearby Park City, the resort area where the 2002 giant slalom and snowboarding events are planned, says the temptation is too great.

"When we go out to dinner, we always ask if we get a discount if we're on the Olympic Committee," he jokes.

The joking doesn't stop at the city limits. Closer to home, organizers of the Washington-Baltimore Regional 2012 Coalition working to bring the Games here get ribbed, too. Which of them, people have asked, is in charge of shotguns and scholarships (some of the graft passed out by Salt Lake)?

The problems for Salt Lake began in November when a local television station received information linking Salt Lake Olympic organizers with tuition payments to family members of International Olympic Committee (IOC) members.

Then a senior Olympic official from Switzerland alleged that some IOC members had sold their votes in past Games, and the fabric of the Olympic organization quickly began to unravel.

Already, two IOC members have resigned. In Lausanne, Switzerland today, more IOC actions are anticipated, with more committee members implicated in accepting gifts and favors from Salt Lake expected to resign or face expulsion.

But despite the dark clouds -- and dark humor -- Olympic spirit appears very much alive in Salt Lake.

Planted hopefully outside one downtown Salt Lake store, a T-shirt printed with the rainbow-colored flags of countries participating in the Games boasts: "Salt Lake welcomes the world."

Such shirts, along with hats, sweat shirts and bumper stickers, are for sale at every turn -- at the Chamber of Commerce, in ski shops and hotels. The gift shop at the downtown Hilton alone empties its shelves of 2002 Olympics goods at the rate of $1,500 to $2,000 in sales a month.

Still, even before the scandal rocked the Olympic movement, not everyone had fallen for the slick sports talk and majestic photos of the Salt Lake 2002 flag, waving against a cerulean sky above a snowcapped Timpanogos peak.

For 10 years, Stephen C. Pace has fought Salt Lake playing host to the Games. With the fallout from the scandal, he has become a popular interview in recent days, getting calls from media around the world. Of course, so have several other Steve Paces listed in the local telephone directory.

Recently, weary of answering all the misdirected calls, one of the other Steve Paces decided to speak out, too. Turns out he doesn't like the Olympics either.

"Down the road, I see that the taxpayers of Utah are going to get hit with the bill," he said.

The Stephen C. Pace who has long opposed the Games puts things a more bluntly: "The thing has been a swindle from the get-go."

"If [the Games] are successful, it means we pay the IOC a huge amount of money and send them on their way," he says. "I think financially, for the people, it will be a black hole. That's gone from highly probable to a sure bet."

Pace, a hospital consultant, has suggested the 2002 Games, expected to cost $1.45 billion, adopt "Tickle-My-Palm-Elmo" as an official mascot.

But while Pace lobbies the Utah legislature for a special election to determine the fate of the Olympics -- and threatens a petition drive otherwise -- the 2002 countdown continues.

Utah's sports calendar is full this year with five national championships, starting on Feb. 7 with the U.S. figure skating championships. And Salt Lake's true believers say the Games will go on -- jokes or no jokes.

"Salt Lake is the largest city to ever host the Winter Games," says John W. Ruger, a biathlon competitor in the 1980 Lake Placid Games and now on the Salt Lake and United States Olympic Committee boards. "This has the potential to be a spectacular Games."

Despite the bribery scandal, the naysayers and a lot of wisecracking, Utah's Olympic spirit seems alive and well.

Pub Date: 01/24/99

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