Still happy in homestretch

Utahans: As the 2002 party winds down, residents of the host state are hardly ready to kick out their guests.

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 22, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY - Two days to go, and most of the locals still think the Winter Games are the best thing since sliced bread.

Sure, there's been some mud tracked on the welcome mat and some broken beer bottles on the street, but it's going to take a lot more than that to make Utahans pull a Greta Garbo and "vant to be alone."

It's hard to imagine residents of any other American metropolis - say, the Baltimore-Washington region in summer 2012 - showing such a collective stiff upper lip.

Utahans have endured years of highway and mass transit construction only to be followed by weeks of getting to work by 6 a.m. to lessen traffic congestion during the games. And they've bitten their tongues with each mention of alcohol, polygamists and Jell-O.

But this is a state built by pioneers in the face of long odds. The Olympics, they say, are a piece of their history and a chance to prove they belong in the big leagues.

Local television stations added Celsius temperatures to their forecasts, although one weatherman struggled with the concept, blurting out, "For our foreign visitors, we have metric weather."

Says Tom Clyde, a columnist for the Park Record in Park City: "We desperately want to be one of those alphabetized cities on the Weather Channel that people care about."

Certainly, after the bid scandal, there's a little bit of making chicken salad out of chicken byproduct. And one man's record-level restaurant profits is another man's two-hour wait for a table.

A poll by a local newspaper taken on Feb. 6, two days before the start of the games, showed 59 percent of the 408 Utahans surveyed planned to stay home as much as possible during the games and an additional 6 percent said they would leave town for the duration. Only 30 percent of those surveyed said they expected to attend any Olympic-related activity.

However, in frigid temperatures, in snow and in rain, locals are walking the downtown, marveling at how grown-up Salt Lake City looks.

"It's great to get caught up in the festival," says Kristy Fisher, 20, of Provo. "Although it's not as big as something in New York."

For some merchants - souvenir and pin shops, restaurants and refreshment stands, especially - the games have been a boon. But those appear to be the exceptions.

A local downtown landmark, Sam Weller's Books, expanded its hours, only to go back to business as usual when customers failed to materialize. A spokesman for Trolley Square mall said business was down, especially at clothing stores.

The newspaper poll also found most Utahans had a favorable impression of the games, but worried about the monthlong disruption.

But Pat Smith, who lives in Provo and recently was out enjoying the downtown scene with her five boys, dismissed those fears: "It's two, three weeks out of your entire life. Enjoy it!"

University of Utah dormitories are being used to house the athletes, so students are enjoying the games for another reason: an extended vacation.

"We're getting out of three weeks of school. That's awesome," said University of Utah junior Lyndsey Blodgett.

Other locals are giving up their vacations gladly.

More than 20,000 volunteers, picked from a pool of 67,000 applicants last year, do everything from direct traffic to provide security.

"They have to give 17 days and they don't get to see anything," marvels Salt Lake Organizing Committee president Mitt Romney. "We told them, `You'll be in the parking lots. You'll be moving the Porta-Johns,' but that didn't make a difference."

Diana Johnson of Salt Lake City says she couldn't imagine not volunteering, even though she had to begin banking vacation time two years ago so she could arrive at 4 a.m. at some of the mountain venues, where the temperatures are often in the single digits.

"It's the best celebration of the human spirit, bar none," she says. "I wanted to be a part of that."

Of course, every party has a pooper or two.

One woman who lives in West Valley City, where most of the ice hockey was played, grumbles, "It's like throwing a party and having your guests trash your house and leave you with the mess," and then turns on her heel and storms away.

And then there's the family that has shown its displeasure for the temporary parking lots erected for the Snowbasin resort by posting a can't-miss sign on their property near the highway: "We Hate What the Olympics Have Done to Our Home."

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