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Utah athletes to vie in Moscow

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After eight months of out-of-the-public preparations and having survived a war in Iraq and the outbreak of SARS throughout the world, next month's Moscow-Utah Youth Games will return to the spotlight, courtesy of a Gov. Mike Leavitt news conference planned for later in the week.

With a metro-area high school expected to be the latest choice in the governor's revolving repertoire of news-conference backdrops, Leavitt will offer latest details of how more than 250 of the state's top high school athletes will be headed to Russia for an unprecedented international sports competition.

"There's never been a state that has ever done anything like this with Moscow," said Utah Sports Commission executive director Jeff Robbins.

Utah and Moscow youth will compete in 10 sports — with male and female competition in most of the 10 — in a weeklong Olympic-like event, which will begin with opening ceremonies on July 19 and conclude with closing ceremonies on July 26.

First discussed during the 2002 Winter Olympics when Leavitt hosted Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov on several occasions, the 2003 Moscow-Utah Youth Games became official in early October, when Leavitt flew to Moscow to sign an agreement with Luzhkov.

Simply put, Moscow hosts "Team Utah" in summer competition in 2003, with Utah returning the favor in winter sports in February 2004. It's part of Moscow's effort to draw attention to its bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics and Utah's effort to build upon the success and legacy of the 2002 Winter Games.

Utah will not only send youth athletes to Moscow but trade representatives as well in hopes that the Youth Games — which will be accompanied by business exchanges and cultural programs — will serve as an economic catalyst as well as mere sports competition.

"But the centerpiece is the Games," said David Winter, Leavitt's special assistant for post-Olympic projects. "It's all about the Games."

Officials have worked to keep costs at a minimum for Utah athletes — with the agreement being that the host city/state is responsible for all expenses — lodging, meals and transportation — once the visiting athletes arrive from overseas.

A charter flight will carry most of the Utah athletes to Moscow, so travel and uniform costs have averaged out to about $400 per Utah youth. Since both passports and visas were needed to be arranged well in advance, these all-star teams had to be selected as early as April — well before the spring prep sports seasons had concluded.

And after watching global concerns such as SARS and strained U.S.-Russian relations in connection with the Iraq war, officials have had to develop contingency plans for financial and scheduling reasons.

"All along, we've been cognizant of those things," said Robbins of Middle East conflict and global health worries. "But while we've been cognizant, we've also moved ahead."

For example, if some unexpected obstacle were to threaten next month's event in Moscow, the summer portion of the Youth Games would merely be postponed until 2004, with the athletic exchange then beginning in February in Salt Lake City.

Winder and Robbins have been among the Utah officials shuttling back and forth — as recently as late last month — and making the preparations for Utah teens to not only travel as athletes but also representatives of their state and country.

Winder said they're already warning the Utah teens of several concerns — the lack of pedestrian rights in Russia, Eastern Europe's trend for allowing alcohol and tobacco at an early age and the fact that there is little air conditioning throughout Moscow, even in large public buildings. Since the average summer temperature is 78 degrees (yes, it could be higher in July), Muscovites generally can't justify the cost of installing and operating air conditioning, Winder said.

Most of the sports in Moscow will be contested in venues used for the 1980 Summer Olympics, which were boycotted by the United States. Utah and Moscow athletes will be housed in the former Athletes Village, now a complex of four 28-story buildings used as hotels, with its own shopping and market area.

Some practice sessions have been scheduled so that the Utah and Moscow youth can associate together. And since the Utah contingent will be arriving several days prior to the July 19 opening ceremonies, the schedule includes sightseeing, cultural events and even trips to some of Moscow's discos.

E-MAIL: taylor@desnews.com