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WHEW! IOC INSPECTION TEAM IS TOUGH

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Backers of Salt Lake City's bid for the 2002 Winter Games were no doubt breathing a sign of relief Wednesday afternoon, as members of an Olympic inspection team finished their work here.

The three-day visit by the International Olympic Committee Evaluation Commission proved to be much tougher than Salt Lake Olympic Bid Committee officials expected.Sure, they'd prepared by ordering a variety of special gifts for the 15 members of the newly formed commission, including denim outfits, hockey sticks, artwork, briefcases and even directors chairs personalized with their names.

But the IOC members, sport officials, athletes and specialists were more interested in what Salt Lake City could give to an Olympics. They carefully inspected each proposed venue site, asking many detailed questions.

"They're tough," a tired-looking Tom Welch, bid committee president, said Tuesday afternoon after touring much of the Wasatch Front with the evaluation commission via helicopter.

"These guys have done their homework. If there's a soft spot, or a perceived soft spot, they'll know it," Welch said, who spoke while keeping his eyes on evaluation commission members as they watched a ski-jumping demonstration.

Thomas Bach, an IOC member and chairman of the evaluation commission, said members were pleased with the pace. "Salt Lake wants a very complex Games, and we wanted to organize a very complex visit," Bach said.

Bach and others on the evaluation commission have asked pointed questions about everything from who would pay for athlete housing at the University of Utah to how many hotel rooms will be available for the media.

Bid officials don't have answers yet for many of those questions, even though they are stressing Salt Lake City's readiness to host an Olympics after narrowly losing the 1998 Winter Games to Nagano, Japan, three years ago.

Salt Lake City was the first stop for the evaluation commission, which is scheduled to visit all nine cities bidding for the 2002 Winter Games before mid-November.

The evaluation commission's findings will be used by a special electoral college to eliminate all but four cities, a new IOC process expected to reduce the costs of bidding for the Olympics.Besides Salt Lake City, Quebec, Canada; Sion, Switzerland; Ostersund, Sweden; Graz, Austria; Jaca, Spain; Poprad-Tatry, Slovakia; Sochi, Russia; and Tarvisio, Italy, are bidding. The IOC will name the host city next June.

The evaluation commission's last full day in Salt Lake City started Tuesday with a quick tour of the U.'s Rice Stadium, the proposed site of the opening and closing ceremonies. Then they left by helicopter for Snowbasin.

The ski resort near Ogden is the proposed site for downhill and Super G events. Protests raised about further development there were only briefly mentioned, participants said.

Then the fleet of four helicopters whisked the evaluation commission members to the Utah Winter Sports Park at Bear Hollow, near Park City, landing one at a time at the base of the 90-meter, plastic-covered jump used for summer training.