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Olympic Square: The Games’ ground zero

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First things first: It's not a square.

Although it says it in the name "Salt Lake Olympic Square," its shape resembles something more like a redrawn congressional district or an elephant with a large tail standing on one foot.Deseret News graphicOlympic Medals PlazaRequires Adobe Acrobat.

Also, due to traffic and road closures downtown, any plans to visit the square will require a plan of attack that would impress Napoleon.

All minor quibbles aside, though, Olympic Square ? an area that encompasses parts of eight blocks of downtown Salt Lake City ? will be the hub of activity come the Winter Games Feb. 8-24. Organizers expect around 60,000 people downtown every day.

"It's an opportunity for visitors and residents of Utah to come together downtown and participate free of charge," said Fraser Bullock, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee chief operating officer. "They can celebrate and enjoy within the confines of a secure area."

The square is a venue itself, while also being home to a variety of other venues.

Name switcheroo

At one end, the Delta Center will be magically transformed into the Salt Lake Ice Center ? a non-corporate name complies with Olympic rules ? which will host some of the Winter Games' most high-profile sports like figure skating and short-track speedskating.

This transformation will begin at the stroke of midnight Feb. 2 as soon as the last Jazz fan shuffles out after the last Jazz home game before the Olympics. As the Salt Lake Ice Center, 17,500 people will pack into the arena to see stars like Michelle Kwan compete.

Of course, transforming the Delta Center is nothing new. It housed the 2001 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, and on any given week when the Jazz aren't playing, the arena houses anything from concerts to monster truck rallies.

Doug Knudsen, the Delta Center's vice president of facility services, said there should be zero problems with the ice because the arena has plenty of redundancy measures to ensure everything will go as smooth as the ice that's made.

"Mostly what we will be doing once the building is passed over to SLOC is covering up. It's what's called 'the look,' " Knudsen said. "We won't cover the Delta Center sign outside, but all advertising inside gets covered. So if a sign said 'Pizza Hut' then it would be changed to just say 'Pizza.' "

On the other side of the square, the Salt Palace Convention Center will also undergo a name change. The new rather straightforward name will be the Main Media Center, or "MMC," for those preparing themselves for the Olympic jargon.

It's not open to the public, but a peek inside would show approximately 9,000 reporters running around, plugging their computers into one of the ubiquitous phone jacks set up by SLOC to quickly transmit their stories around the world.

The 430,000 square feet of floor space at the MMC will house both the Main Press Center (for print journalists) and the International Broadcast Center (for broadcasters). Reporters will practically be able to live at the MMC with Games-time amenities ranging from a cafeteria to a hair salon to a fine-dining restaurant. The real importance of the place lies in the main interview room where news conferences and daily SLOC briefings will take place.

Super shopping

In between the re-christened Delta Center and Salt Palace is the giant white tent that is home to the Olympic Superstore. At the store, visitors will be able to find everything from pricey fine Olympic art to mugs carrying the bouncy images of Olympic mascots Coal, Copper and Powder.

The 22,000-square-foot Superstore promises to carry nearly every official licensed Salt Lake 2002 product, including 65,000 T-shirts, 65,000 caps and 250,000 Olympic pins for starters. Although it is currently closed, the store will open again Jan. 31.

Bullock said Olympic Square will have plenty to keep people entertained, from big-screen televisions to stages with "atmosphere entertainment."

There will also be a pedestrian mall that will feature interactive showcases and pavilions of SLOC sponsors, plus food and drink outlets.

The whole area will also be gussied up with giant banners on buildings, ice sculptures, towers that will show the look of the Games and even 26 miles of fence wrap to make the normally painful-looking chain-link fences more appealing.

At the center of all of this is the crown jewel of the square, the Olympic Medals Plaza. Located between North and South Temple and 200 and 300 West (a k a Block 85), the plaza plays host to the main celebration every night of the Games. It has a spectator capacity of 20,000, far outstripping the 3,000-spectator capacity of the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

Although there will be plenty of entertainment at each ceremony, that isn't the focus, said Scott Givens, SLOC's creative director. "The sole purpose of the Medals Plaza is to honor the winning athletes," Givens said.

Just to ensure an excitable crowd for the athletes, SLOC has invited a few acts whose famous names alone all but guarantee an enthusiastic audience before one firework is shot off or one medal is hung around anyone's neck.

Acts like Dave Matthews Band, Brooks & Dunn, Creed, 'N Sync and Smash Mouth have all jumped on board to perform at the plaza ? receiving only a small honorarium for their work ? after the medals ceremonies each night. There are still four acts to be announced, and everyone from radio stations to people standing in line for ticket wristbands has fantasized them to be U2, Bon Jovi or any other big name entertainer that pops into their heads.

"It's truly a great list of talent. . . . In fact I think you'll see this will be one of the biggest music festivals of 2002 with these names," Givens said. "It's a real sacrifice by the groups to come here for such a modest fee and when most of their concerts aren't touring."

Safeguarding the square

The Medals Plaza location was debated when first announced because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had, at the request of SLOC, loaned the space, and some thought the Salt Lake Temple was sure to dominate the backdrop of the plaza.

The debate has since mostly faded, and fears of too much temple in the background have been toned down. At the medals ceremonies, a good portion of what the audience will see is a giant metallic curtain ? 36 feet tall and 72 feet wide ? that will dominate the plaza stage.

This has not been the only controversy associated with Olympic Square. The "free-speech zones" that would have allowed five to 10 demonstrators inside the square have been eliminated, and now protesters will be on the outside looking in as they protest the plight of the homeless, animal rights or whatever their cause.

To get into the big party that SLOC is planning for the square each day, be prepared to tackle the velvet rope. Well, actually, it will be something that will more resemble airport security, with metal detectors and guards checking bags and pockets.

Still, the proverbial velvet rope isn't too far from the truth since SLOC has reserved the right to turn away would-be visitors to Olympic Square who do not have tickets to an event going on inside the square if the area gets too full. In instances like that, visitors will be encouraged to head over to the Gallivan Utah Center or Washington Square where the city will be putting on a party of its own, Bullock said.

"We've been cooperating with the city a lot," Bullock said. "We all recognized the need to have community areas where people can get together."

Getting to Olympic Square will be no picnic. SLOC suggests two ways:

Drive to one of the park and ride lots at Liberty Park, Sugarhouse Park, Skyline High School, Cottonwood Mall and others that can be found at SLOC's Web site; www.saltlake2002.com. Take an Olympic shuttle to a drop-off point near Salt Lake Olympic Square.

Take TRAX light rail to the Gallivan Utah Center or City Center Station and walk to Salt Lake Olympic Square.

Steps have been taken to minimize the traffic problems, Bullock said. For instance, downtown businesses have been encouraged to have their employees change the hours of their work so that the afternoon commute will go more smoothly.

"If we all come together, we can make it work," Bullock said.

When all is said and done, Bullock said, everyone should make a point of visiting Olympic Square at least once during the Games, no matter how tough it will be to get there.

"For anyone that wants to really experience the Games with or without tickets, they should come down and rub shoulders with people from around the world."

E-mail: pthunell@desnews.com