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Lessons learned from Utah’s Olympic moment

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FILE: Workers load giant signs on to a truck in Olympic Square in Salt Lake City the day after the closing ceremony of the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympics on Monday, Feb. 25, 2002.

FILE: Workers load giant signs on to a truck in Olympic Square in Salt Lake City the day after the closing ceremony of the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympics on Monday, Feb. 25, 2002.

Associated Press

Editor's note: Portions of this op-ed were previously published in Utah Business.

“Not everybody gets the chance to skate the performance of their life.” That was U.S. figure skater Sarah Hughes' assessment of how she had catapulted from fourth place to Olympic gold on the last night of the figure skating competition in the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. Her performance mirrored Utah’s achievement in hosting the Olympics. We excelled in nearly every way. With the Rio Olympics in full swing, it’s a great time to reflect on Utah’s Olympic moment and the lessons learned.

I experienced the Olympics from the vantage point of a governor’s spokesperson. Fully credentialed and working 16-hour days, I moved from event to event, country home to country home, athletes village to media center and points in between. Here’s a short collection of the lessons I learned:

American greatness: Opening ceremony was historic because less than five months after 9/11 the peace-loving world gathered for the first time after that event to celebrate human achievement. A crowd of 50,000 people and a TV viewing audience of about 2 billion people watched as eight athletes from the U.S. Olympic team carried in a tattered U.S. flag from the World Trade Center. The crowd fell dead silent, our hearts beat as one and we united as a people. I learned the power of a united America. I crave this feeling again.

Economic intangibles: I worked with a team of professionals to help quantify the economic impact of the games to our state. We considered the new money that flowed into Utah and then calculated the impact on sales, earnings and employment. These are useful measures, but they miss the mark. The economic value of Utah’s Olympics is best expressed through the intangibles — how we got better as a people, how we gained confidence that we could compete and win on the international stage, and how we showcased our welcoming spirit to the world. I learned that economic value is too often confused with statistics, when it’s the things we can’t count that really matter.

A gracious spirit: Gov. Mike Leavitt shared with me a story about the Canadian pair skaters — Jamie Sale and David Pelletier — who were wronged by a French judge and temporarily denied a gold medal. While visiting the athletes village the governor complimented Sale and Pelletier on the class they had shown during the controversy. Leavitt asked them how they found the maturity to be so gracious. Pelletier said it was a lesson taught to them by their parents. The skaters’ magnanimous characters were matched only by the beauty of their performance on ice. In the end, they were awarded the gold medal they had earned. I learned that a gracious spirit wins every time.

Grittiness: I attended the short-track speed-skating event where Apolo Ohno collided with other skaters on the final turn, cut his leg and then did a massive, gritty crawl to the finish line to earn the silver medal. Short-track speed skating is a lot like life — a crazy, unpredictable scramble filled with moments of beauty, speed and exhilaration. Sometimes we get knocked down; sometimes it isn’t fair. I learned that even the very best get slammed against the wall, but the truly great get back up and scramble to the finish line.

Utah exceptionalism: An overnight snowstorm blanketed the Wasatch Mountains the morning of the opening ceremony. Hours later Air Force One arrived carrying the president of the United States and several Cabinet members. Our city — framed in snow, dressed with building wraps, supported by a new freeway and light rail system, and polished in a way that only the Olympic spotlight can bring — radiated with beauty. A ceremony was held at the Utah State Capitol where, in the presence of the leader of the free world and with the acoustics of the rotunda, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir belted out "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." I found myself with tears streaming down my face. This was my hometown. We had worked so hard for this opportunity. I was so proud of our state. I learned Utah can do extraordinary things.

The Olympics have amazing power to unify and improve people. Let’s all take a moment to rekindle our Olympic spirit and the lessons learned so we can help make a better world.

Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.