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LDS striving to be gracious hosts

Church helping Games, but only ‘upon request’

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"Upon request."

It is a simple phrase that many believe has been lost and found once again during the past year as world media have scrutinized preparations for the 2002 Winter Olympics, now blossoming toward next month's opening ceremonies.

For Elder Robert D. Hales, a member of the Council of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the phrase has been his byword from day one regarding Olympic involvement.

A former presiding bishop for the church, he was involved in everything from land acquisitions and temple building to church welfare and humanitarian efforts. So when tapped to head up the church's Olympic Coordinating Committee following Salt Lake City's successful bid to host the Games, he knew that the church — as one of the state and city's largest landowners and potential resource pools — would surely be asked to help. The only question was how much.

Not that they weren't willing to do so. On the contrary, church President Gordon B. Hinckley directed that every reasonable effort be made to help accommodate the needs the Salt Lake Organizing Committee was bound to have. Yet it was all to be done only "upon request," said Elder Hales. "The instruction from President Hinckley was very clear, that we wouldn't be proactive in solicitations" of any kind.

"Everything we have done," with the exception of creating the church's "Light of the World" production in the Conference Center during the Games, "has been upon request" from SLOC.

The phrase is small wording for a vital distinction that he says seemed lost for a time during a media frenzy over whether Utahns would be hosting the "Mormon Games" or the Olympic Games.

Early last year, once the Salt Lake bid scandal had died down, many critics of the church speculated there were well-laid plans by LDS leaders to capitalize on the event as a proselyting bonanza, with missionaries poised on downtown street corners. Others were certain that the Salt Lake Organizing Committee was simply a front for the church as puppeteer, with SLOC President Mitt Romney — a practicing Latter-day Saint — as lead marionette.

Did the church offer land downtown so the Salt Lake Temple spires would become the backdrop for TV coverage of the medal ceremonies? Or did they just want to control the flow of alcohol? As a visitor, could you find a drink? How many wives could one man really have?

The questions seemed endless, and the reasons were obvious. In a state where 70 percent of the population claims membership in the church, and the overwhelming majority of legislators, congressmen and civic leaders are LDS, how could it be otherwise?

The "Mormon Games" moniker became so pervasive among journalists last spring that Romney held a press conference — complete with champagne and orange juice — to debunk it.

Yet Ray Beckham, who with his wife, Jeanette, is a member of the church's Olympic Committee under Elder Hales, recalled the first time that committee met. "We are a coordinating committee," the church leader told his charges. "We don't make decisions and we don't (initiate) things. We just coordinate."

Such a directive is unique in LDS culture, where members are constantly encouraged to be proactive, to get involved and to lead out by example both at home and in the workplace. Latter-day Saints are taught from the cradle that "every member is a missionary." It was difficult to believe that people so used to taking charge would sit back and let someone else run the biggest show to ever come to Utah — or at the very least, that they wouldn't try to use it to recruit new members.

Yet, Elder Hales maintains, that's exactly what the church has done.

"That's not spin, that's the way it is and the way it was from day one," he said.

The LDS Church's role

While church-owned businesses have donated money, and the church has donated use of the land for both the Olympic medals plaza downtown and a large tract at Bear Hollow near the Olympic Winter Sports Park, the decision to do so didn't come quickly.

SLOC did an extensive survey regarding the medals plaza and what would work best with traffic and crowd considerations, Elder Hales said. "After that study, they came and asked us. It was months afterward, not quite a year but close to it, before we responded.

"There were a lot of discussions about what the role of the church should be. . . . The interesting part about it was, I don't know where the stories began or how they are written regarding the motivation for what the church was trying to do. All we were doing was responding to requests that were coming to us."

When the Games were first awarded to Salt Lake City, no one had any good "concept really on the magnitude of it. You have to understand that. When you first start on it, the magnitude of it grows bigger than life. And it just keeps growing. That's why you end up having an unusual situation around the venues — (LDS) meetinghouses, stake centers, park-and-ride lots . . . .

"You come to the realization that you have to move tens of thousands of people, and you have to ask for help," Elder Hales said. "When you look at it, everything that has been done has been out of service."

Beckham said few people know that the church not only provided the medals plaza land and money to improve it, but the church had only one major stipulation regarding its use — and that didn't involve alcohol.

"They made one request — that no charge be made for those who attend. They never gave any stipulations regarding the Word of Wisdom. I know that's incomprehensible to someone out there in the world to really believe that.

"Particularly to say we'll do all this but you can't charge any one to come. The same is true with the Tabernacle Choir concerts," scheduled each Saturday night during the Games with world-renowned guest artists. Free tickets were distributed recently and were gone within hours.

When SLOC's Cultural Olympiad representatives asked that the choir be part of its activities, Elder Hales said, the church considered the request and approved it. The same with the choir's participation in the Opening Ceremonies.

"That's not something you propose. It just comes back to the phrase, 'upon request.' We merely said to them, put it in writing, we'll take it to the committee. Then we'll go to the First Presidency and have our discussions."

The church's 5,400 volunteers — who Elder Hales noted were recruited only after SLOC had recruited its own volunteers — will staff its downtown sites on rotating shifts. Each is required to complete a two-hour training session designed by Jeanette Beckham to learn the specifics on being gracious hosts.

"We talk about being nice for no hidden motives," Beckham said. "We want to be nice and helpful and friendly with no motivation other than to be helpful. We've stressed very heavily there is to be no proselyting. . . . It's a change of mind set for a lot of people."

"One of the brethren said we ought to give that (training course) to all the members of the church," Elder Hales said, smiling.

Security will be tight around church venues, but not oppressive, he said, adding that part of being gracious hosts is making people feel secure.

Church hosting of IOC members and other Olympic dignitaries and heads of state will be low-key, centered mainly around a Feb. 5 charitable benefit performance of "Light of the World" and personal meetings with church leaders "upon request."

"Again, we're doing it to show respect. If they are here and ask to visit, we will host them. We will not have a reception just for the IOC and such." Hosting will be centered around expected protocol, rather than any kind of "promotion," he said.

As for the medals plaza preparations, Elder Hales said he's excited to see an atmosphere that does the athletes — and the citizens — justice.

"To be able to do it for the athletes for me is very emotional. For the athletes and for the citizenry, it's just going to be a very fun time."

A healing time

He believes the the 2002 Winter Olympics will be marked as not only the most secure in history, but also as the most "healing" when the last athlete has exited Rice-Eccles Stadium — the Olympic Stadium — and the flame is turned off.

He hopes that healing will come in many forms — certainly for a nation more vulnerable since Sept. 11 and, hopefully, for the world. And in a very real way, for Utahns who have endured the divisiveness that questions surrounding the Games have generated.

Utahns of all faiths and cultures deserve to be "who we are and to be proud of it and not be ashamed . . . ," Elder Hales said. "Many people I've talked to (from the East) come in and tell me, 'Don't change who you are and what you are because that's who you are.' That says an awful lot. What visitors are telling me is it's not a problem for them.

"I think sometimes we may be overreacting to local politics. The world doesn't view it that way, they just don't."

So the Games will come, the world will come, the journalists will come and the excitement will come. And then, by February's end, Utah's biggest party will come to a close.

And the legacy, Elder Hales believes, will be the unity that comes when volunteers rub shoulders and share stories and shiver in freezing-cold parking lots for hours on end in order to put the collective best foot forward for the world.

"I was over there and watched as (SLOC's volunteers) came together. They bonded. It was a great thing to watch, and I think that's what we're going to see" when Utahns pull out all the stops as Olympic hosts.

"Of anything else" that happens during February, the most lasting will be the "strength of that legacy for our community."


E-mail: carrie@desnews.com