‘We’re going to be OK’: How the role of Olympic athletes changed after 9/11

Four-time Team USA speedskater Catherine Raney Norman raced on the Utah Olympic Oval ice during the 2002 Winter Games wearing a copper bracelet engraved with the name of one of the hundreds of New York City firefighters who lost their lives in the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States.

Tucked under her spandex skin suit, no one could see the name on the bracelet: FDNY Capt. Timothy Stackpole, who’d come close to death several years earlier after being badly burned battling a deadly blaze in Brooklyn. He’d earned the nickname “Jobs” during more than two decades of service.

On Sept. 11, 2001, his second day on the job as a captain, Stackpole assembled a company of firefighters who rushed into the south tower of the World Trade Center, the second to be struck by a hijacked passenger jet. Stackpole and the rest of the rescuers died instantly when the towers collapsed, authorities said at his funeral.

Catherine Raney Norman, Olympic speedskater and Salt Lake City-Committee for the Games bid leader, poses for a portrait at Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns on Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021, while holding a bracelet she wore while competing in the 2002 Winter Games bearing the name of a New York City firefighter killed in the 9/11 attacks. | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Raney Norman, chairwoman of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games that’s bidding to bring the Olympics back to the state, said recognizing the toll of the attacks, which took some 3,000 lives in New York City, Washington, D.C., and a rural field in Pennsylvania, changed the role of U.S. athletes in 2002.

“I think it gave the entire team that extra motivation of we’re competing for more than just ourselves this time,” Raney Norman said. For her, the bracelet provided to Team USA members in 2002 by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, remains a reminder of the Games’ power to bring people together.

USA’s Catherine Raney skates in the women’s 3000 meters, Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics. February 10, 2002. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Like an Olympic speedskater who grew up in Wisconsin and a heroic Brooklyn-born firefighter, whose legacy lives on through a foundation established to fulfill his belief that it is “our God-given mission that in times of trouble, grief, sorrow, trial and disaster, each of us has an obligation to reach out to help others, in any way we can.”

“I’ve never met his family, but you just feel that connection,” Raney Norman said, although she’s thought about reaching out to Stackpole’s wife and five children many times over the years and even considered stopping by FDNY Ladder Company 103 in Brooklyn, to see where he served.

“It’s something I’ve always thought about doing and I haven’t done yet. Maybe this is a good impetus to do it,” she said. “I still have that bracelet. I have tried to learn about him. I wore that bracelet when I raced during those Games to try to honor him. So, it was really impactful. It really was.”

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From scandal to ‘knocked down again with 9/11’

The 2002 Winter Games had been expected to showcase how far the Olympic movement had come following the worldwide scandal surrounding Salt Lake City’s successful bid, when details surfaced of the city’s selection of the cash payments, scholarships and gifts handed out to International Olympic Committee members.

Just days before 9/11, Fraser Bullock said he’d told Mitt Romney, who’d been brought to the state from Massachusetts a few years earlier to take over the troubled Salt Lake Organizing Committee at the height of the scandal and now a U.S. senator from Utah, that he was confident the controversy would be put in the past by the preparations in place.

Fraser Bullock, who served as chief operating officer for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics, poses for a photograph at his home in Alpine on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Bullock, chief operating officer and Romney’s hand-picked second in command at the organizing committee, said the efforts to win back sponsors and the public — which included an overhaul of the bidding process — all but ensured the Salt Lake City Olympics would be a success, even promising to leave a substantial surplus.

Then the terrorists attacked.

“The way Mitt and I looked at it is, we started in a deep hole. With great people around us and great support, we worked our way out of that and we were ready. Then we got hit, we got knocked down again with 9/11,” Bullock said. “We went through a very intense period.”

That included securing an additional $40 million in security funding from the federal government, on top of the $200 million already budgeted to protect the tens of thousands of people gathered in the state during the 17-day event, watched by more than 2.1 billion TV viewers in 160 countries.

A gold medal from the 2002 Winter Olympics, right, and the Olympic Order in Gold, which was awarded to Fraser Bullock, who served as chief operating officer for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the games, are pictured in Bullock’s home in Alpine on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Now president and CEO of the state’s new bid committee, Bullock said in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, there were questions about holding the Olympics at all as some nations began raising concerns about the ability of the United States to keep their athletes and officials safe.

After sending thousands of workers home that day “to spend time with their families so they could hopefully comfort their loved ones in a very difficult time,” Bullock said the first order of business for Olympic organizers was reassuring the world the Games would go on even as the crisis unfolded.

“They’re talking about grounding airlines and things like that. Still, we needed to send a message,” he said. “Our No. 1 message was that the Games would go forward. And No. 2, that we could keep people safe and we would continue our work of preparations.”

Fraser Bullock, who served as chief operating officer for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics, holds one of that year’s Olympic torches while he poses for a photograph at his home in Alpine on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

‘The world would never be the same’

Hours after the attacks, Romney told the Deseret News that while, “no one person can definitively make that call today,” he was “very confident the Games will go forward” and that how public safety and other plans for 2002 would change would be up to local, state and federal authorities as well as Olympic officials.

Romney spoke to the newspaper on 9/11 from Virginia. He was supposed to be in New York City’s Battery Park, near the World Trade Center, that day for an Olympic torch relay event, but it had been postponed until Sept. 12 so he could lobby in Washington, D.C., for federal funding mistakenly deleted from an appropriations bill.

Driving past the burning Pentagon shortly after the massive military facility had been hit by a hijacked passenger jet, Romney said he and the organizing committee’s vice president of federal relations, Cindy Gillespie, saw their car fill with smoke.

“It was quite an experience to be in the nation’s capital and see flames and smoke,” he said at the time. Later, Romney described the acrid black smoke as not smelling “like burning jet fuel or a house fire. It smelled like nothing I had ever smelled before. Like war. ... It immediately struck me that the world would never be the same.”

For Romney, who went on to be governor of Massachusetts and the Republican nominee for president in 2012 before being elected to the U.S. Senate, Utah’s 9/11 story “was what happened here with the Olympics because we wondered if we’d be able to hold the Games and would the community come together to help us.”

He recalled Utahns were eager to show they still wanted the Games. When organizers came out with a somber red, white and blue “We Stand United” Olympic pin, a fundraiser for 9/11 victims and their families, “people lined up literally around the block,” Romney said. “There was an immediate outpouring.”

The realization that the world was now a much more dangerous place forced a reevaluation of security for what would be the first major international event post-9/11. The same week of the attacks, a security summit was convened in Salt Lake City involving all of the local, state and federal agencies charged with protecting the Games.

International Olympic Committee President Dr. Jaques Rogge, Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Mitt Romney and U.S. President George W. Bush wave to the crowd before moving to their seats during the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games opening ceremony at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Friday, Feb 8, 2002. | Tom Smart, Deseret News

A number of enhancements were made to the existing security plan, such as requiring any noncommercial aircraft flying above any of the Olympic venues to have first stopped for an inspection at designated airports in Boise and other places, Bullock said.

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The military’s presence was stepped up, he said, with uniformed soldiers screening those entering venues. Jet fighters flew overhead, part of a continuous combat air patrol, and all air traffic at the area’s major airports was shut down during the opening and closing ceremonies at the University of Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The intent was to “provide that extra level of security but also that sense of comfort to those there,” Bullock said, calling the highly visible measures taken part of “a fine balance between not being intrusive to the Games, but yet providing that level of security and confidence that the Games would be safe.”

Spectators enter through the security checkpoints set up outside of Rice-Eccles Stadium for the opening ceremony of the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympic Games. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Anthrax scare during 2002 Games

Although that’s ultimately what happened, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt said that for several hours early on in the Games, it appeared anthrax — a bacteria used as a biological weapon that had already killed five Americans and sickened 17 others in post-9/11 attacks by mail — had been detected at the Salt Lake City International Airport.

“We had a very dramatic night until we determined it was a false read,” Leavitt said, remembering his fears while waiting that evening for four positive anthrax readings from an airport air monitor to be confirmed at Utah Public Health Laboratory.

“We sat in a room and began to think through, ‘What does this look like if in fact we have anthrax?’ We’re going into the period of the night where planes will land from 90 different cities. People will get off an airplane, they’ll walk through the terminal,” he said. “You could have potentially had 10, 15 or 20 thousand people exposed.”

Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt looks out of the window at his home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Leavitt, who was at what was then known as the Delta Center watching an Olympic figure skating competition when he was alerted to the crisis, said closing down the airport was considered, but the choice was made instead to station suited up hazardous materials crews under the concourse, ready to respond.

One of his worries was that two months earlier, a federal sweep found there were some 200 airport employees with improper or falsified identification. All it would have taken to unleash a terrorist attack with the powdery substance, Leavitt said he realized, was a single person with access to the airport’s ventilation system.

“You begin to think of it in the context, ‘This is possible,’” said the former governor, who stepped down during his third term to serve in President George W. Bush’s administration and was recently named president of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square by The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Even with the anthrax scare, Leavitt said he didn’t have second thoughts about Utah hosting the Olympics.

“It seemed a very bad idea to say to the world, ‘We can no longer gather because of terrorists,’” he said. “There’s no question it became the ‘Security Games’ and the world united around demonstrating we could meet and meet safely and the Olympic ideals could play out.”

Catherine Raney Norman, Olympic speed skater and Salt Lake City Committee for the Games bid leader, poses for a portrait at Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns on Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021, while wearing a bracelet she wore while competing in the 2002 Winter Games bearing the name of a New York City firefighter killed in the 9/11 attacks. | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Remembering the lives lost

This is the time of year that Raney Norman usually digs out the bracelet with Stackpole’s name on it from her jewelry box and quietly reflects on the victims of 9/11. Team USA athletes didn’t talk much about the bracelets during the 2002 Games, she said, instead keeping their feelings private.

A decade ago, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, three-time Olympic figure skater Todd Eldredge told of being asked to show his bracelet by one of the New York City firefighters escorting the tattered American flag recovered from the rubble of the World Trade Center.

That firefighter, Eldredge said, broke down because he recognized the name on the bracelet as a member of his own engine company.

“It definitely put everything into perspective for me right there. It put life into perspective. I thought, ‘If I don’t win, it’s not a big deal.’” said Eldredge, one of the athletes who carried the flag into Rice-Eccles Stadium during the opening ceremony.

Another bearer of the World Trade Center flag, speedskater Derek Parra, said he also wore his bracelet that night. Parra, now a member of the Utah bid committee’s board of directors, has said he felt the presence of the spirits of the victims when a gust of wind swept beneath the flag.

Raney Norman sees the 2002 Games as a model for making an Olympics safe in troubled times.

“None of us knew in September what state our country was going to be in, in February,” she said, or what should be done to honor the victims of 2001 attacks. When the flag appeared, Raney Norman said, “you felt it in the stadium of everybody almost taking a breath of like, we’re going to be OK.”

Contributing: Dennis Romboy

A bracelet belonging to Olympic speedskater Catherine Raney Norman is pictured on Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021, at Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns. Raney Norman wore the bracelet, which bears the name of New York City firefighter killed in the 9/11 attacks, while competing in the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News