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About Utah: A long overdue thank you

SALT LAKE CITY — Thirty-one years since he first started bidding for an Olympics for Utah, 21 years since he secured the bid, 18 years since he was dismissed from the organizing committee on ethics allegations, and 15 years since he was acquitted in a federal court of bribery charges, Tuesday night at the Little America Hotel Tom Welch will hear in public something that’s long overdue:

“Thank you.”

The occasion is the annual Utah Sports Hall of Fame Foundation spring honors banquet, where six men — who among them won 13 state championships — will receive Distinguished High School Coach awards and three individuals will be honored with the foundation’s Distinguished Service Award, including Tom Welch.

No one would be surprised if Welch enters the ballroom sideways, and doesn’t start eating until someone else takes a bite. He was the state’s Charlie Brown for way too long for him not to be wary he might be getting punked.

Remember Mitt Romney, long before he turned on Donald Trump, turning on Tom Welch? (In his book “Turnaround,” Romney wrote of Welch and his sidekick Dave Johnson: “What a shame it was that the entire community was being given a black eye by the seemingly unscrupulous actions of a flamboyant few.”)

Remember the ethics committee report in February 1999 that blamed Welch and Johnson with a “pattern of deception” that buffaloed everyone else they worked with on the bid committee, a group that included many of the state’s most successful businessmen and political leaders?

Remember the wall of honor erected at The Gateway that recognizes everyone and anyone who had a hand in the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Games — except Welch and Johnson?

Even when Tom and Dave had their bribery and fraud case dismissed in federal court in 2003 by Judge David Sam on the basis of a complete lack of evidence, no one pushed to etch their names on the wall or throw them a parade, or something.

The years stretched into decades and … nothing.

Until this past winter, when the committee in charge of nominations for the Hall of Fame’s upcoming spring awards looked at the applications for 2016 and saw the name of Tom Welch.

The nomination came from one of their own, Ken Gardner, the former basketball star at the University of Utah and a board member of the organization that runs the Hall of Fame and its attendant activities.

Welch’s name, in turn, was presented for a vote to the full board of directors, comprising about three dozen seasoned Utah sports luminaries, none of whom needed anyone to remind them who Tom Welch was.

The vote came back: It was unanimous.

In favor of.

Dick Rosetta, the former Salt Lake Tribune sports writer who is past president of the Hall of Fame Foundation and a voting member of the board, said: “No one had a problem with it. Not one person. I was pleasantly surprised at that. It was such a controversial time in our history. It’s time to move on.”

Few have been dragged through the mud longer or harder than Tom Welch, who in 1985 answered a call from Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter and Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson to lead a bid to try to get the Olympic Winter Games for Utah. After losing to Anchorage for the right to be the designated U.S. bid city for the 1992 and 1994 Games, and to Nagano, Japan, to host the 1998 Games, he ratcheted up the stakes, quite literally, to secure the 2002 bid, showering IOC delegates who had their hands out with gifts, vacations, sweet real estate deals, college scholarships and outright cash.

By that point, Welch knew: no pampering the delegates, no Olympics.

As with the current upheaval of FIFA, soccer’s governing body, the problem wasn’t with the bidders, it was with the voters. Like FIFA in 2016, the IOC in 1999 went through a major cleansing when the actions of its overzealous membership became public, resulting in the ouster of 10 delegates and the sanctioning of 10 others — nearly 20 percent of its membership.

Before and after, Welch never denied lavishing gifts on IOC voters, nor did he ever deny doing it with anything other than complete transparency. He didn’t set the price, he just paid it.

For that, he got the Olympics to Utah, cleaned up the IOC, and turned himself into Utah’s biggest fall guy since John D. Lee.

But it would seem the statute of limitations for being a scapegoat is slightly less than 20 years. If the news is legit, Tuesday night Tom Welch is finally going to get a pat on the back, instead of a knife.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays.

Email: benson@deseretnews.com