Utahns got their first glimpse Monday of how a downtown parking lot will be transformed into a nightly celebration site during the 2002 Winter Games.

The Salt Lake Organizing Committee unveiled a "working model" of the medals plaza, where ceremonies will be held nightly during the Games to award the gold, silver and bronze medals won by athletes.

The model showed a covered stage in the shape of a half circle, surrounded by three enormous sets of bleachers as well as VIP boxes. An arch made of aluminum and standing 36 feet tall will frame the west-facing stage.

The massive stage will also feature a 24-foot model of SLOC's snowflake logo as a backdrop as well as giant video screens on both sides — 22 feet by 30 feet — so everyone "can see the emotion of the athletes" as they receive their medals, said Scott Givens, SLOC's creative director.

A giant tower with special lighting will dominate the plaza's center.

The medals plaza, located in the block between North Temple, South Temple, 200 West and 300 West, will also be the site of nightly concerts. Once the athletes receive their medals on the stage, it will rotate to reveal that night's performers.

All events will be free to the public, but tickets will be required.

SLOC is expected to announce how the free tickets will be distributed later this year, as well as release a list of artists who'll be performing at the venue. There will be room for 20,000 people — 9,000 seated and 11,000 standing.

Givens said the plaza is 10 times the size of the area where medals were awarded during the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. "It belongs here in Utah. It uses the colors of the Games," desert reds and mountain blues, he said.

The site selected for the plaza has been controversial since it was first made public in the fall of 1999. It was SLOC that came up with the idea of using the downtown parking lot owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the nightly ceremonies.

The church agreed to spend $5 million readying the site. Without the financial assistance, Olympic organizers said that medals would have to be awarded at the venues where they were won.

Salt Lake City officials complained that Temple Square would be the dominant image of the Games, especially on television, and pushed to hold the ceremonies on the grounds of the City-County Building.

They got something of a consolation prize last November when SLOC announced a massive, illuminated set of the five Olympic rings would be displayed on the historic downtown building that serves as Salt Lake's City Hall.

Givens said all of downtown will be a focal point for the television cameras shooting the nightly ceremonies. "Honestly, the temple will be seen as part of the skyline of downtown. But there's no special place for it."

Utah communities that are the sites of Olympic venues will be highlighted at the plaza.

The recognition nights begin Feb. 12 with Wasatch County and will be followed by Provo and Utah County on Feb. 13, Park City and Summit County on Feb. 14, Salt Lake City on Feb. 16, Salt Lake County and Kearns on Feb. 18, West Valley City on Feb. 19, the University of Utah and Davis County on Feb. 20 and Weber County and Ogden on Feb. 22.

SLOC on Monday also released the timetable for nightly activities at the medals plaza.

Gates will open at 5:30 p.m. followed by entertainment by a disk jockey or local performing group until the world broadcast from the site begins at 7:55 p.m. The medals ceremonies will begin at 8:05 p.m.

The plaza will close daily at 11 p.m.

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