clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

OLYMPIC CITIES: TECHNICALLY QUALIFIED, 4 BIDDERS NOW MUST COMPETE ON LESS TANGIBLE STANDARDS.

International Olympic Committee visitors to Salt Lake City see a winter skyline of gleaming office buildings silhouetted against towering, snow-capped mountains.

In Quebec, Canada, the view is of a centuries-old fortress above the St. Lawrence River; in Sion, Switzerland, castles and the Alps; in Ostersund, Sweden, a lush island on a frozen lake.Bid backers in each of these cities are hoping the landscape conjures up visions of a successful Olympics for the IOC members, who will meet in June in Budapest, Hungary, to name the site of the 2002 Winter Games.

The four cities have already been judged by a special IOC panel to be technically capable of hosting the Games, based on a rigorous review of everything from the size of athletes' rooms to proposed competition sites.

This first-ever effort by the IOC to weed out cities that weren't capable of readying themselves for an Olympics eliminated five contenders in January: Graz, Austria; Jaca, Spain; Tarvisio, Italy; Poprad-Tatry, Slovakia; and Sochi, Russia.

The intent was to save weaker candidate cities from the expense of a bid campaign, which is costing the finalists a combined total of more than $28 million.

The reality is that the report of the IOC Evaluation Commission leveled the playing field for the four finalist cities. Since all are qualified technically, the IOC now must measure them against less tangible standards.

This increases pressure on Salt Lake City, which earned its front-runner status by putting together what is unquestionably the strongest technical bid.

As the largest urban area bidding, Salt Lake City already has the airport, highway, hotel and other infrastructure capacity needed to host a Winter Games.

And, because of an agreement made with the U.S. Olympic Committee in exchange for being named the nation's choice for both the 1998 and 2002 Winter Games, most venues are either built or under construction.

So no one was surprised when Salt Lake City received the only "excellent" rating from the IOC Evaluation Commission. The other finalist cities were judged to be "good" or "very good."

Now that Salt Lake City has sold the IOC on its preparedness, what is it campaigning on?

Each of the 96 voting IOC members is going to cast his ballot come June 16 for a different reason, Salt Lake Olympic Bid Committee President Tom Welch said.

"What a city has to do is get a feel for what those issues are and respond to them. Then each city has to try to capitalize on its strengths," Welch said.

Both Quebec and Sion share an Old World, European flavor. Ostersund showcases the Scandinavian love of winter sports. And Salt Lake City? "We're trying to capture a feel of the western United States," Welch said.

Western images, like cowboys and buffalo, help set Salt Lake City apart from Atlanta, the host of the 1996 Summer Games. The southern city's selection over sentimental favorite Athens likely cost Salt Lake City the 1998 Winter Games.

Such themes, combined with an emphasis on Utah's young, wholesome population, also work to dispel attitudes that Salt Lake is just another anonymous and charmless American city.

Bid supporters know that impression must be overcome.

"I think we're pretty unique, with all of the strengths of a major city tied with the intimacy of a mountain village in Park City," Welch said. "Not another city offers that combination."

Still, once IOC visitors look beyond Park City's Main Street and other tourist sites, they may see little that distinguishes Salt Lake as a bid city aside from its technical superiority.

Especially when compared to the distinct features of each of the other bid cities. After all, only two of the 96 voting members of the IOC are from the United States.

The remaining IOC members are from Europe, Asia, Africa, island nations and the rest of the Americas. Some still may harbor bad feelings about Atlanta, believing American cities offer increased Olympic revenues but little else.

American television audiences for an Olympics are always big, and bigger if the competition is here at home. More viewers mean more money from television networks and corporate sponsors, the two major sources of revenues.

Welch and other bid backers have worked hard to portray Salt Lake as a city embracing the Olympic ideals, rather than one that could make a great deal of money for the IOC, which shares in those revenues.

Cynics have dubbed the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta the "Coca-Cola" Olympics because of the city's ability to attract corporate dollars. That's not what Welch wants for Salt Lake City.

He prefers to tell IOC members about how Olympic values are improving Utah's youths. A program in "Olympism" is expected to be introduced in state schools, and young athletes are already training at would-be Olympic venues.

"Our campaign has been shaped to demonstrate all the reasons they can trust us to put on the Games," he said. "Salt Lake City is the most complete winter venue that's ever been offered . . . but that isn't enough, in and of itself."

Quebec

The strongest challenger to Salt Lake City's front-runner status, the capital of the French-speaking Canadian province of the same name is selling European charm with a North American address.

Quebec has been interested in hosting an Olympics since the early 1970s, when local officials created a nonprofit organization to attract international sports competitions.

But it wasn't until Salt Lake City lost the 1998 Winter Games to Nagano, Japan, that Quebec decided to bid, reasoning that by 2002, it would be time for the Olympics to return to North America.

The French Alps were the site of the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, and Scandinavia played host to the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. Quebec bid backers didn't seem to care that their Salt Lake counterparts had the same idea.

Quebec has campaigned heavily on its uniqueness. Settled by the French some 400 years ago, the city retains more than just language as proof of its heritage.

The old city, dominated by a still-active military installation and a grand hotel that looks more like a castle, sits behind a walled fortress just as it did when the English captured it in 1759.

That battle was fought on the Plains of Abraham, a farmer's field that bid backers want to fill with athletes from all nations during the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies.

Quebec voters have yet to decide whether they want the province of some 6 million French-speaking Canadians to become a separate nation. A referendum on secession has been postponed until the fall.

Whatever happens at the ballot box, the provincial government has pledged to pick up the national government's nearly 30 percent share of Quebec's proposed $592 million budget.

No government can promise, however, that temperatures won't plunge drastically. Even the IOC Evaluation Commission warned of the possibility of the thermometer falling to minus 22 degrees.

Quebec, though, celebrates its bitterly cold winters with an annual carnival featuring ice and snow sculptures and plenty of "Caribous," a mixture of whiskey and red wine.

Fine dining is celebrated here, too. Although government is the largest employer, 4 million tourists visit Quebec annually for a taste of the Old World.

Backers of the Quebec bid hope the IOC members are equally charmed.

"We want to do more of what we do best," Quebec Mayor Jean-Paul L'Allier said. "What we do is welcome people. Tourists to me are more than clients. They are guests."

Sion

The French-speaking capital of the Valais canton, this small community of about 25,000 residents is a study in contrasts.

A pair of ancient stone castles loom above banks, discount stores and staid office buildings. The city teems with government and other workers during the day and is all but deserted by nightfall.

Tourism is a major industry, but most visitors are on their way to one of the famous ski resorts of the Valais, including Crans-Montana, one of Europe's largest, and Zermatt, home of the Matterhorn.

Those who do decide to stay after hiking to the magnificent castles and window-shopping along the medieval cobblestone streets in the oldest part of Sion have only a few small, aging hotels to choose from.

Residents speak with pride about their ties to the land, yet bid backers hope to convert a vineyard that stretches between the two castles into a temporary stadium for the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies.

Sion Mayor Gilbert Debons, who serves as president of the city's bid committee, believes the Olympics would bring a much-needed economic boost to the area, recently hit for the first time by unemployment.

Debons and other Sion bid supporters think the Olympics would increase tourism and, more importantly, expose Sion to business investors from all over the world.

But locals aren't all convinced by such declarations. The region's largest French language newspaper has repeatedly suggested the bid won't succeed this time around.

Sion's bid was launched just a year ago last January, but backers scoff at suggestions they don't have enough time to convince the IOC it's time to bring the Olympics back to the Swiss Alps.

"We don't feel that. On the contrary," said Cecilie Nordback, a recently hired bid spokeswoman. "We believe we are getting stronger and stronger. . . . We are not afraid of any other candidate."

It's been 47 years since the Winter Games were held in Switzerland. St. Moritz was the site of both the 1928 and 1948 Winter Games and would be the site of the bobsled and luge competition if Sion is selected.

The decision to use the existing St. Moritz bobsled and luge run, intended to save both money and the environment, may hurt Sion's bid because it's nearly 200 miles away. That makes Sion's the most spread-out of the four bids.

Ostersund

This lakeside community has tried twice before for the Winter Games, narrowly losing the 1994 Winter Games to Lillehammer and finishing behind Salt Lake City and Nagano for the 1998 Winter Games.

Despite the disappointments, Ostersund bid officials are counting on the incredible success of Lillehammer to convince the IOC members that the Winter Games belong in Scandinavia again.

Few argue that the 1994 Winter Games were the best ever, due in no small part to the incredible support and appreciation shown by the Norwegians. The Games drew record television audiences.

Even with such strong proof of Scandinavia's love of snow sports, eight years might not be enough time to put between two Winter Games in the same region.

But Sweden is the only country among the four finalists that has not organized an Olympic Games, even though the sparsely populated country ranks fifth worldwide in medals.

Located just 300 miles from the Arctic Circle, Ostersund is filled with winter sports enthusiasts. There is downhill skiing on community-owned hills and cross-country skiing across the frozen lake.

The huge lake, Storjon, stretches well beyond the community of about 60,000. Commuters from Froson, a largely residential island, drive across the frozen lake in the winter to get to the two main streets of Ostersund.

About 60 miles farther is Are, one of Sweden's most popular ski resorts and the proposed site of Olympic alpine ski events. The resort has already hosted a number of international competitions.

Ostersund Bid Committee Chairman Christer Persson thinks the shift away from technical considerations will help the bid. "It could be more a question of what type of Games they would like to have," he said.

And only Ostersund can offer a "cozy, Lillehammer-type" Olympics, according to Persson.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

The competition

SALT LAKE CITY

Population: 158,000 (1.5 million Wasatch Front)

Language: English

Prior Bids: 1972, 1992, 1994, 1998 Winter Games

SION, Switzerland

Population: 25,000 (300,000 Valais region)

Language: French

Prior Bids: 1968, 1976 Winter Games

QUEBEC, Canada

Population: 167,000 (600,000 Quebec area)

Language: French

Prior Bids: None

OSTERSUND, Sweden

Population: 60,000 (150,000 Jamtland region)

Language: Swedish

Prior Bids: 1994, 1998 Winter Games