Utah's solid-gold memories


Olympics: Utah celebrates the anniversary of the 2002 Winter Games, which, after early doubts about the role of the Mormons and a bribery scandal, burnished the state's image around the world.

February 11, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY - When you invite strangers to your home, you never know what will happen. But in the case of the 2002 Winter Olympics, it appears that both hosts and guests are better off for the 17-day visit.

Over the weekend, the thousands of volunteers who threw a party for the world one year ago partied themselves to celebrate the anniversary. They fired up the cauldron, brought back some Olympic notables, touched off fireworks and had the Mormon Tabernacle Choir belt out a few numbers.

"It's so great to do it again," said Rebecca Thurlow, who at this time last year was directing buses at the skiing events. "It was the greatest time of my life."

In addition to feeling good, the people living along the Wasatch Front are looking good, thanks to billions of dollars worth of public works projects completed in the name of pre-Olympic preparations.

Downtown and the suburbs are linked by a light rail system. A vastly improved freeway system circles the city. The airport has the latest security systems. The University of Utah has turned housing for Olympic athletes into dormitories.

On Saturday, Salt Lake City Mayor Ross "Rocky" Anderson helped dedicate the new $84 million public library, which includes retail shops and was designed by Moshe Safdie, an architect with international credentials.

"The Olympics were good for the economy, good for tourism and good for the soul of our city," Anderson says.

Throwing open the front door last year was a gamble for the people of Utah, whose Mormon ancestors fled East Coast civilization and religious persecution more than 150 years ago to set up their insulated society.

It was also a gamble for the guests, who feared that a state based on a teetotaling religion would serve up a winter celebration as weak as the 3.2 percent beer poured in its bars.

The skepticism started early with the revelation that members of the International Olympic Committee had received bribes from local organizers to steer the Winter Games Salt Lake's way. The leaders of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee were forced to resign. Sponsors backed off. The bookkeeping ledgers ran red.

With two years to go before the lighting of the cauldron, besieged organizers tapped venture capitalist Mitt Romney to restore order. By the time the Winter Games began, Romney had worked miracles, dealing not only with the fiscal chaos and tarnished image but also the fears of terrorism after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

That was enough to revive the spirit of a state that has always had an internal conflict between the huge inferiority complex born of religious persecution and the cockeyed optimism of settlers who took one look at the desert and giant salty lake, and declared, "This is the place."

"Often, the feeling of a community about itself is a reflection of what others think of them," says Anderson. "The Olympics transformed people's perception about this place and our people."

More than 20,000 volunteers, mostly Utahans, dedicated a month of their lives to making the Winter Games flawless.

Fraser Bullock, chief executive officer and president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, says, "Everybody has some questions about their relative standing in the world, and we wondered, `Could we hold our own?' All of those questions, we answered."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spiritual home to 70 percent of Utahans, won grudging respect for the role it did not play. Concerns that the streets would be filled with proselytizing missionaries were unfounded as church President Gordon Hinckley made good on his promise that the Winter Games would not become the "Mo-lympics."

"We had said for years that the church would be a partner. ... I don't believe the media thought it would be that way," says Michael Otterson, church spokesman. "It was like night and day the way [perception] switched around once people got here."

As a result, the church reaped a bushel of favorable air time and ink. NBC anchor Tom Brokaw interviewed Hinckley in prime time. Pictures of the six-spired temple appeared on front pages.

Perhaps the world changed the church, too.

The state legislature is looking this year at sweeping revisions of conservative liquor laws, the first in more than a decade. And church leaders have signaled that they will not oppose a plan to allow more bars in downtown Salt Lake City.

Local residents point to the opening six months ago of the nightclub Naked as another sign of change.

But not everything is gold. On Main Street, Lynette's Birkenstocks Plus is one of a dozen storefronts covered in brown paper or shuttered. Downtown merchants say they are only beginning to recover.

"If you weren't selling Olympic merchandise, food or beer you were dead," says David Dean, who owns a card store and a stationery store in Crossroads Mall. "The closer we got to the Olympics, the more we took a nose-dive."

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