As the Tokyo Olympics take center stage, it’s natural for Utahns so ask, “Why should Utah do this again?” I think the answer is simple: Approximately a million people who live in Utah today were not here in 2002. That’s nearly one in every three residents.
I want all these people, and those who were too young to remember (like my son), to experience the magic of and be inspired by an Olympic Games.
I count myself among the many Utahns who have vivid and life-changing memories from the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. My journey started in 1986 when I worked as an economist to help with Utah’s bid. I helped calculate the sales tax diversion used to pay for our Olympic venues and analyze the economic impact of the Games.
Later, I served on the governor’s senior team and as his spokesperson during the Games. I traveled to Greece with an official state delegation to witness the start of the torch relay and then visited U.S. cities as the Olympic flame made its way to Utah.
I hiked to Delicate Arch the morning NBC spotlighted on the “Today Show” the arrival of the flame to Utah. I’ll never forget the imagery — a freestanding arch, the snow-capped La Sal Mountains in the background, a TV helicopter in the air, and a Native American chief passing the flame from his torch to his granddaughter’s torch. The flame represents the indomitable will of the Olympic athletes. For all of us, it speaks to our own sense of enduring life’s challenges well.
I traveled to Washington, after the tragedy of 9/11, to help obtain additional security funding. I stood in the Utah state Capitol the morning of the opening ceremony and listened with tears in my eyes as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” after a moving speech by President George W. Bush. That evening, I sat in Rice-Eccles Stadium for opening ceremony, glowing with pride as more than a billion people around the world focused on my hometown.
I mention these experiences to foreshadow what’s in store for others when we host the Games again, hopefully in either 2030 or 2034. And it’s more than public policy experiences like mine. It’s the Cultural Olympiad where the arts are celebrated. It’s volunteerism and being a part of something larger than self. It’s the inspiration that comes from witnessing the human drama of sport — joy of effort, personal best and fair competition. One hundred and thirty-eight thousand Utah school children attended the 2002 Olympics at no charge.
Think of Derek Parra shedding a tear on the medals’ platform, Apolo Anton Ohno getting back up after a nasty fall on the ice, and the brilliant Sarah Hughes skating the performance of her life to win the heralded figure skating gold. Utah hosted a Games that longtime chairman of NBC Sports Dick Ebersol said at the time were “Far and away, the most successful Olympics, summer or winter, in history.”
He’s right, and we can do it again. We hosted superb Games and our entire state became better. We took the challenge, unified as a community, and excelled under the bright spotlight of the world stage. Our collective confidence grew, and we developed a greater sense of purpose and self. Importantly, we showed the world our very best, whether it be volunteerism, extraordinary competency, natural beauty or our collaborative and friendly spirit.
Some see the Olympics as a giant marketing opportunity for the host city. Others see it as a way to promote greater patriotism. Still others view it as an economic development strategy. These are all good things, but the Olympics isn’t about us. It’s about others, including our children and grandchildren.
It’s about sharing our very best with the world, passing along the Olympic spirit, and inspiring the best in mankind. That’s the biggest reason we should pursue another Olympics in Utah.
Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.