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Although they never allowed the public to see it, Utah's Olympic boosters were devastated when Atlanta was picked last year by the International Olympic Committee to host the 1996 Summer Games - the same organization that will determine Salt Lake City's fate this week.

"They had to scrape him off the floor after that announcement," one state official said of Tom Welch, chairman of the Salt Lake City Bid Committee for the Olympic Winter Games.The same could be said of any of the dozen or more Utahns who were in Tokyo as well as the hundreds of boosters back home, many of whom had been pushing for an Olympics in Salt Lake City for more than 25 years.

There's no question that the International Olympic Committee's decision to give the 1996 Summer Games to an American city hurt Salt Lake City's chances of hosting the Winter Games two years later.

`Coca-Cola Olympics'

The city that many Olympic watchers believed would get the 1996 Summer Games was Athens, Greece - the birthplace of the Olympics.

Critics of the choice of Atlanta dubbed the '96 Games the "Coca-Cola Olympics," complaining it was the sponsorship dollars pledged by large U.S. corporations that lured the votes.

The controversial selection of Atlanta came midway through the Salt Lake bid process, just as the push to raise money to pay for the privately funded bid process was getting under way.

Welch has maintained publicly that Atlanta's selection helps Salt Lake City's latest effort to get the Games, because it shows the IOC members are willing to select a site based on the quality of an Olympics that can be held there rather than sentiment.

Both Nagano, Japan, and Ostersund, Sweden, are in a similar situation as Athens in the competition for the 1998 Games. Both are strong on sentiment and short on substance.

Neither has the needed infrastructure in place yet, so both are focusing on the need to spread the Winter Games around. Japan has hosted the Winter Games only once, and Sweden - a winter sports haven - never.

Salt Lake City has always been sold to IOC members as the best location for the 1998 Games because the city and all its amenities are close to the mountains where many events would be held.

None of the competing cities comes close to matching the number of hotel rooms, transportation system or other infrastructure already in place in Salt Lake City.

Whether the IOC can be counted on to set aside sentiment again remains to be seen. Welch and the other bid backers won't know until Saturday, when the selection is named during the IOC's meeting in Birmingham, England.

That's when they and the rest of the world will find out if Salt Lake City's strategy of emphasizing substance over sentiment succeeds, if America's choice has overcome what Atlanta made America's curse.

Try, try again

This isn't the first time Salt Lake City has tried to woo the Olympics, and the bid backers promise it won't be the last if the IOC sends the '98 Games overseas.

Salt Lake City has a commitment from the U.S. Olympic Committee to remain America's choice to host the Winter Games in 2002, if the bid for 1998 is unsuccessful.

This is Salt Lake City's fourth try for a Winter Games. The city tried and failed to get the 1972, 1976 and 1992 Winter Games. Salt Lake City did get as far as being selected to represent America by the USOC in 1972 and 1976.

Salt Lake City lost to Sapporo, Japan, for the 1972 Winter Games and withdrew its bid before Innsbruck, Austria, was awarded the 1976 Winter Games because the federal government refused to help with finances.

Welch has headed the effort to get the Games dating back to 1985 when Salt Lake City bid for the 1992 Games only to be beaten by Anchorage, Alaska, which represented the United States for both 1992 and 1994.

Under Welch's direction, Salt Lake City beat out Anchorage; Denver, Colo.; Reno-Tahoe, Nev.; and Lake Placid, N.Y., to become America's choice for both 1998 and 2002.

That victory came with a price: Bid backers promised the USOC that $56 million in winter sports facilities would be constructed with taxpayer dollars whether the Olympics ever come to Utah.

Voters approved a ballot referendum to set aside 1/32-cent of sales tax collected - money that will pay for a bobsled and luge run, ski jumps, an ice-skating rink and a portion of three ice sheets.

Whether the Olympics are a prudent public investment was discussed before the referendum election, held less than five months after Salt Lake City was selected to represent the United States in the bidding for the 1998 Games.

But it wasn't until Atlanta was given the 1996 Summer Games almost a year later in September 1990 that serious questions began being raised about Salt Lake City's chances of getting an Olympics to put in those facilities.

As new doubts surfaced because of Atlanta's selection, Utahns became less willing to make contributions to the bid committee. This drying up of funds couldn't have come at a worse time.

Red-carpet treatment

The bid committee decided to bring in as many IOC delegates as possible to Salt Lake City to make sure they knew what the city has to offer - and to help ensure it wasn't dismissed because of the Atlanta decision.

Although the bid committee is expected now to be out of debt before the winner of the competition for the 1998 Winter Games is announced next Saturday, raising enough money to pay for the IOC visits was tough.

At the beginning of the year, the bid committee was $1.7 million short of what was needed to pay its bills, including those being run up by guests arriving almost weekly from around the world.

The Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce stepped in at that point and raised the money through an intensive effort aimed at the business community, returning again and again to the same core of supporters.

Welch and the rest of the Utah delegation are hoping Salt Lake City's bid will be well received by the IOC in Birmingham so they don't have to face yet another disappointment in their 26-year quest for an Olympics.


(Additional information)

Utah and the Olympics

Salt Lake City has made four formal attempts to be awarded the Winter Olympics. However, on June 15th it will only be the second time the International Olympic Committee has voted on whether Utah's capital city should be awarded an Olympics. Here's a thumbnail history:

February 1925

The idea of bidding for the 1932 Winter Olympics is presented to the Salt Lake Rotary Club. The idea goes nowhere.

February 1965

Gov. Calvin Rampton announces that Utah will make a bid for the 1972 Winter Olympics. He asks seven men to form the Utah For Olympics Committee to prepare the bid.

March 1965

Utah's first official bid is presented to the United States Olympic Committee. Included is a proposed speed-skating venue at Rice Stadium.

January 1966

The USOC awards the U.S. bid for the 1972 games to Salt Lake City during meetings in Chicago. At the time, Utah's proposed Olympic budget was $9 million.

April 1966

Utah loses the Olympics to Sapporo, Japan, during the IOC meetings in Rome. The organizing committee begins raising funds for a 1976 bid drive.

December 1967

Denver wins the bid from the IOC for the 1976 Games. Eventually, Denver voters reject the bid and Salt Lake City becomes the new candidate.

January 1973

In a last-minute decision, Salt Lake City withdraws its bid for the 1976 games. Salt Lake Mayor Jake Garn says there isn't enough time and federal officials aren't willing to give financial backing. Local newspaper columinsts says the city's chances for a future bid are ruined. Innsbruck, Austria, ends up with the Winter Games for a second time -- this time for 1976.

April 1985

Gov. Scott Matheson revives Utah's Olympic hopes during a meeting with then-Salt Lake Mayor Ted Wilson. Tom Welch is appointed chairman of an Olympic organizing committee.

June 1985

Utah Olympic novices quickly learn a hard lesson in Olympic politics as Anchorage wins out over Salt Lake for the USOC bid.

June 1989

The USOC casts Anchorage aside after two unsuccessful tries for the Winter Olympics, those scheduled for 1992 and 1994. Salt Lake City becomes America's choice for the 1998 or 2002 Winter Games with Utah officials promising to construct a winter sports training center.

September 1990

While meeting in Tokyo, the IOC hands the Salt Lake bid a setback by selecting Atlanta as the site for the 1996 Summer Olympics. Salt Lake City makes its first formal presentation to the IOC for the 1998 Games.

June 1991

More than 200 Utahns travel to Birmingham, England, where the IOC will choose between five competing cities on June 15.