Olympic ideas burn bright

Salt Lake: Games chief Mitt Romney is working hard to prepare the 2002 Winter Games, but he's mum on some details, including who will light the caldron.

Olympics

September 11, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY - When the Olympic torch is lighted here in less than five months, marking the start of the 2002 Winter Games, someone will assume a role defined by a legend.

Only one man knows who that is, and Olympic chief Mitt Romney says he won't tell anyone - not even the designee - until the last moment, so as not to spoil the surprise.

"I can't top [Muhammad] Ali," Romney says of the ailing heavyweight champion who touched the world when he touched the flaming torch to the caldron in Atlanta in 1996. "And I'm not even going to try."

Romney, who took over running the scandal-ridden Games a little more than two years ago, says he surveyed Olympic athletes, journalists, civic leaders and family members before making his selection while on vacation at his family cottage in New Hampshire.

"There is no way to find a person who is an Olympian and a world hero, who tugs at the heart strings the way Muhammad Ali did," he says, shaking his head.

Speculation has included the U.S. men's "Miracle on Ice" hockey team of 1980, Utah Jazz stars and Olympians John Stockton and Karl Malone and American gold-medal speed skaters Bonnie Blair and Eric Heiden.

Romney just smiles when the list is repeated. "I will give the person enough time to tell their family and learn how to light the caldron," he says.

Another secret Romney is having less success keeping is what the gas-fired caldron will look like. He flew last month to Los Angeles to check on a scale model and watch a trial run of the lighting.

"Neighbors called the fire department twice because they saw the flame," he says, laughing. "So a bunch of firefighters have seen it. I'm not sure they know what they saw, but they might figure it out."

The ceremony is just one part of the final preparations for the Winter Games, which begin on Feb. 8 and end 16 days later.

Romney says all of the big items, such as lodging and transportation, are in place, and the remaining time will be used to shovel through "the mountains of minutiae. No one task is daunting, but combined, it's a daunting array."

To keep from being buried at the last minute by the mountain, planners are holding weekly "table-top rehearsals," where someone presents a one-page problem that everyone else has to solve.

Recently, it was the case of a teen-age spectator who climbs a telephone pole for a better view, slips and falls into the center of a large crowd.

Brows furrow as on-the-fly checklists are prepared to clear the crowd for emergency vehicles and contact the hospital, family members, the risk assessment team and media staff. No one leaves the table until the problem is attacked dozens of ways.

Romney says the exercises are essential, because Salt Lake City has little room for error. "For example, we are borrowing 1,000 buses to get people around. If we've miscalculated, we can't bring in 500 more buses. There aren't that many in all of Utah."

The same is true at the airport, normally just a connector for 75 percent of its traffic. During the Olympics, 90 percent of passengers will be staying in Salt Lake, putting a strain on baggage handling, curbside loading and taxi service.

Even the weather can't be left for chance. Winter Games have never been held as far south as Salt Lake City.

At the Games three years ago in Nagano, Japan, a number of skiing events had to be postponed because of blizzards. Organizers worry about the opposite happening at Soldier Hollow, the venue for cross country skiing and the biathlon. Located at the snow line, it may not get enough natural cover and may be too warm for organizers to make the artificial variety.

The contingency plan is to make snow at a reservoir 35 miles away and truck it to Soldier Hollow.

"The Winter Games must have snow and ice, and we must guarantee it," Romney says. "But I'll also make another guarantee. I guarantee we'll have problems. Events will be postponed and people will get angry, but that's part of the thrill of winter."

When problems do occur, Salt Lake organizers will take a page from the playbook of a very successful summer host while avoiding the pitfalls experienced by another.

"Sydney was successful, in part, for how it dealt with problems. They admitted them, they corrected them and they moved on," he says. "Atlanta ignored problems, such as transportation, and that blemished the Games in some people's eyes. We start each day admitting our mistakes."

Favorite venues

When it comes to the venues, Romney has two favorites, one for what it offers on-site spectators and the other for its television drama. Soldier Hollow, he says, will enchant visitors "with its great scenery - the lake and Mount Timpanagos in the background - and horse-drawn sleigh rides in the center of the competition."

But he clearly relishes the downhill course at Snowbasin, "where the rock face jumps out at the camera and the last quarter of the men's course is really treacherous with lots of thrills and spills."

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