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SLOC's next task: Find rooms for biathletes

Organizers of the 2002 Winter Games were told Wednesday they'll have to find hotel rooms for athletes competing in the cross-country and biathlon events at Wasatch Mountain State Park near Midway.

Several nations complained during this week's International Olympic Committee meeting that the recently named competition site is too far away from the athlete housing planned at the University of Utah.The order to secure the alternative accommodations came during the Salt Lake Organizing Committee's presentation to the IOC's 107th session, which continues through Thursday.

The IOC also asked organizers to be ready for two additional women's ice hockey teams in 2002. Six women's teams were expected to compete at the most recent venue to be named for 2002, an arena being built in Provo.

That's the same number of nations fielding teams in the 1998 Winter Games that begin here on Saturday. Sweden, Finland, Canada, Japan, China and the United States will compete for the first-ever Olympic medals in the sport.

Both women's ice hockey and snowboarding are making their Olympic debuts in Nagano. No new sports have been added to the 2002 program, although women's ski jumping, bobsled and luge are among those being considered.

Dave Johnson, SLOC senior vice president of Games, said the decisions made Wednesday should not add to the cost of putting on the 2002 Winter Games, which already carry a $1 billion-plus price tag.

Johnson said the organizing committee won't pick up the hotel tab for the cross-country skiers and biathletes but should be able to offer them credit for the rooms they won't be using at the U.

Organizers had hoped to keep the 3,500 athletes and officials together at the new campus dorms. IOC rules require organizers to provide free housing to athletes within about an hour's drive of their competition venues.

The Soldier Hollow area of Wasatch Mountain State Park meets the distance requirement - barely. It's considerably farther than the original site for cross-country and biathlon, the Mountain Dell Golf Course off I-80.

The new site will be Salt Lake's busiest venue, with 21 medal events over 16 days. Plans to house the athletes competing there should be done by June when the IOC Coordination Commission for the 2002 Winter Games meets.

Now that organizers have completed their reports to both the IOC Executive Board and the full IOC, they can get down to the business of learning how to put on Winter Games by watching their Nagano counterparts.

"We have the luxury at this stage of observing. This is the last time we will have that because next time it will be our turn," SLOC chief executive officer Frank Joklik told reporters at a press briefing Wednesday.

Reporters from around the world attended the briefing, their first opportunity during the Nagano Games to question organizers of the next Winter Games.

There were only a handful of questions from non-U.S. media, including what the speed-skating oval would look like. Nagano's oval, the M-Wave, is the architectural showpiece of the Games.

Utah's speed-skating oval, located at the Oquirrh Park Fitness Center in Kearns, will be covered by SLOC "as cheaply as possible," Joklik said recently.

Joklik told the press that about 40 of SLOC's 65 employees will end up spending time in Nagano before the Games end Feb. 22. He said the staff size is still modest, although it will increase tenfold by 2002.

The IOC, however, wants to see more hires made now, especially in the area of sports. Right now, planning for the 68 medal events in seven sports scheduled for 2002 is being handled by a small department under Johnson.

A new senior vice president's position only for sports could be created before the IOC Coordination Commission meeting in June. New venue managers could also be named at that time.

The organizing committee has already filled several new top-level positions since Joklik took over last August, including senior vice president of communications and public affairs.

That job went to Shelley Thomas, a former television anchor and supermarket chain spokeswoman. Joklik said Thomas was a "big factor" in the apparent increase in public support for the Olympics.

A Deseret News poll released earlier this week showed 61 percent of Utahns favor Salt Lake City hosting the 2002 Winter Games, up from an all-time low of 53 percent during last year's turmoil over Tom Welch's resignation.