Does another Winter Olympics make sense for Utah?

Bidding for a future Games ‘good for our brand,’ governor-elect says

SALT LAKE CITY — For Gov.-elect Spencer Cox, bringing the Olympics back to the state in the next decade or so would give Utahns a chance to show the world they’ve grown even more since successfully hosting the 2002 Winter Games.

“It’s so exciting now to see us approaching this from a position of confidence and a position of strength, of knowing and feeling confident about our place in the world,” Cox, currently Utah’s lieutenant governor, said of the bid underway for a future Winter Games — likely 2030 or 2034.

It hasn’t always been that way in the Beehive State, he said.

“Utahns have tended to have a little bit of a — gosh, I don’t know, this probably isn’t the right word — but a little bit of an inferiority complex. That first Olympics, I think, really helped us to overcome that and see we really could play with the big boys and be at the big kids table,” Cox said.

In 1992, just after Salt Lake City lost its bid for the 1998 Winter Games that went to Nagano, Japan, and the last time a sitting governor wasn’t running for another term, the state’s gubernatorial candidates held a very different view of Utah, he said.

“There’s a real stark contrast. Back then, it was, ‘Utah can do better. We don’t have much going for us.’ There was a lot of negativity around who we are as a state. That’s certainly not true today. We’re the best in the nation in so many different categories,” Cox said.

The credit for the turnaround, he said, largely goes to the successful bid four years later for the 2002 Games.

The Utah Olympic Park near Park City is pictured on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“I really do think there is a direct line,” Cox said. “It’s when we really kind of grew up as a state and had a chance to introduce our state to the world. I think anytime that we get an opportunity to showcase what we do here in Utah ... then we should take that opportunity. It’s good for the citizens. It’s good for our brand.”

That brand, often described as the “Utah way,” a spirit of service rooted in the state’s settlement by pioneers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that has encouraged outsized volunteerism and extended to collaboration on a number of difficult issues.

Utah’s ‘secret weapon’

“Why do it again? Well, I think hosting the Olympics is a service opportunity to the world,” said Fraser Bullock, president and CEO of the Salt Lake City–Utah Committee for the Games that’s tasked with readying a bid.

“I think in Utah, it resonates with our service DNA in a really profound way.”

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Bullock, chief operating officer of the 2002 Games, said Utahns stood out then for speaking a wide range of languages often learned from serving church missions, as well as an eagerness to be helpful that led to an army of thousands of Olympic volunteers.

Utahns’ “welcoming and friendliness were iconic brands for our Games in 2002. Our great people are what gets showcased more than anything else,” he said, calling it “a little bit surprising to people from around the world when they come and they experience what we have here. They really notice it.”

The ability to deliver a similar volunteer force is Utah’s “secret weapon” in the competition to host again, Bullock said, on top of what he promises will be a “spectacular” Winter Games that will still be frugal enough to ensure there’s money left over to fund the sports venues far into the future.

A proposed budget prepared in 2018 dollars showed a Winter Games could be staged for $1.35 billion, less than the 2002 price tag thanks to costly venues already being in place, namely the bobsled, luge and skeleton track and the ski jumps at the Utah Olympic Park near Park City, and the Utah Olympic Oval speedskating track in Kearns.

That budget number is going up, however. A new budget is being put together to account for inflation, which alone could add nearly $500 million to the bottom line, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that is increasing the cost as well as the risk of hosting, as evidenced by the postponement of the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.

Just as in the 2002 Games, which ended up turning a profit of some $100 million even after the state was paid back for its investment in Olympic facilities, the budget does not call for spending tax dollars, counting instead on raising money privately largely through corporate sponsorships, the sale of television rights and ticket sales.

Telling Utah’s story

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States, the federal government significantly stepped up funding for security at the 2002 Games. This time around, Utah’s bidders have already said there will need to be a “deep collaboration” with national and international Olympic officials on risk mitigation to protect taxpayers.

“There’s a powerful fiscal responsibility message” that’s part of the bid, said Natalie Gochnour, director of the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. She is a member of the bid committee, but said she was speaking as an economist.

“The Olympic Games has had its story of being expensive and risky,” Gochnour said. “Our state has the ability to do it in a way that’s incredibly competent and fiscally responsible.”

A 2018 analysis by the institute showed that the 2002 Games had an economic impact valued at more than $6 billion as a result of $2.5 billion in new spending, a figure that takes into account the skiers and other tourists who skipped a wintertime trip to Utah that year.

“We had a lot of things going for us. We had great participation, really well-managed Games. The world embraced them and the federal government did their part,” Gochnour said. Post-Games tourism, including skier days and national park visits, increased by double-digits through 2016 compared to the same time period before, she said.

Seeing Utah through the Olympics helped drive that increase, but so did an investment in tourism infrastructure, Gochnour said. Whether Utah could replicate that kind of industry expansion remains to be seen, but she said it’s important to look at other, less quantifiable factors.

“I’ve always thought the greatest Olympic legacy is that it was a unifying event for our state and it increased our confidence in ourselves, helped us to find who we are. We’re a place where people come together. We’re a place that can unify nations, and unify our country,” she said, adding that they are legacies that “are equally important to dollar amounts.”

It’s also something people outside the state saw, too. Gochnour pointed to a 2003 study that showed top business executives who watched the 2002 Games were more likely to move to Utah for a business opportunity. Hosting again would provide a fresh opportunity to shape the state’s image.

“To me, the lesson is that it’s always good when Utah tells its story,” she said. “Let’s not forget, we’ve changed a lot since then, so there’s even a new story to share.”

Los Angeles impact

It’s been two years since the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee selected Salt Lake City to bid on behalf of the country for a Winter Games, but yet to be determined is whether that’s for 2030, 2034 or beyond, in part because another U.S. city, Los Angeles, has already been named the host of the 2028 Summer Games.

The California city got what will be its third Olympics after hosting in 1932 and 1984 at the same time Paris was awarded the 2024 Summer Games, the result of the International Olympic Committee’s efforts to make the bidding process easier on cities by stripping away some of the formalities of the past.

Utah bidders recently sealed their place in the process simply by sending a letter to IOC President Thomas Bach that said they were ready to begin a dialogue about hosting a future Winter Games. There is no timeline for the selection to be made for 2030 or beyond.

Zev Yaroslavsky, who spent 40 years in local government in Los Angeles and is now director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said another Olympics there makes sense because like Utah, Southern California already has the facilities in place to host again.

“The cost of putting on the Games are largely in the infrastructure you have to build. We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to sports facilities,” Yaroslavsky said. And again like Utah, he said organizers are looking to cut costs where they can, including by using existing university dorms rather than building new athlete housing.

He recalled as a Los Angeles city councilman working to prohibit the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles from utilizing general fund money from the city. That forced a new and ultimately successful reliance on private funding sources, even though the proceeds of an increase in the hotel room tax were available, Yaroslavsky said.

But maybe the biggest benefit from the 1984 Games wasn’t showing the world the Olympics could make money, he said. Instead, he touts the unexpected impact of the Olympic arts festival held in conjunction with the sporting competitions that’s credited with leading to the establishment of a world-class opera company in L.A.

Yaroslavsky said he doesn’t know what the 2028 Games will spark, although some major civic projects that got pushed up to be ready in time are already underway, including an automated people mover system being built at the Los Angeles International Airport.

“If you had asked me in ’82, I would never have said we would have an opera company,” he said, adding that he would be satisfied to see a profit again that this time is reinvested in sports programs for minority and marginalized communities who felt excluded from past Games.

“I am a cheerleader for the Games,” Yaroslavsky said. “But I’m a cheerleader for a Games that doesn’t cost taxpayers money.”

‘We’ve changed a lot’

The possibility of hosting another Winter Games in Utah provides a deadline for dealing with ongoing issues stemming from the state’s rapid growth, such as the need for affordable housing, transportation improvements and revitalizing the capital city’s “grand boulevards,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said.

“It puts a date on it,” Mendenhall said, “All of those things, being as clear as they are to lawmakers from city to county to state level, there’s no hard deadline for us to do something about it. When a city and a state is given an opportunity to host an Olympics, you’ve got a hard, fast date of when you need that infrastructure.”

Such a deadline is not likely to go unnoticed by Washington, D.C., either, when it comes to federal funding for transportation and other projects. In 2000, Congress was told approximately $1.1 billion in additional federal support was used to accelerate projects, including the I-15 expansion and TRAX construction.

That could mean speeding up transit improvements as well as a solution sooner rather than later to the mayor’s concern that visitors driving in from the Salt Lake City International Airport “see very much the same blight that was on the 600 South corridor in 2002,” as well as along 400 South and 500 South.

And depending on whether the University of Utah once again would be the site of the athlete’s village, housing for competitors could be built somewhere in the city and later turned into an affordable option for local residents who’ve been priced out of the market.

The Utah that would be on display in a future Winter Games is not the same as what the world saw in 2002, Mendenhall said.

“We’ve changed a lot. We were proud to host the world in 2002 and we would be thrilled to show the world how we’ve grown since then,” the mayor said, and not just in size. “It’s about the heart of our communities. It’s about the celebration of diversity.”

The city, the site of last summer’s sometimes violent protests over police brutality toward Black Americans, has “prioritized this focus on equity and resolving inequities,” she said, adding that 2020 “has undoubtedly been an opportunity for us to make dramatically positive shifts in the systems we’ve created that better serve all our residents.”

Four-time Olympian Catherine Raney Norman, a speedskater who competed in the Nagano and Salt Lake Games, along with the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy and the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada, is focused on what another Olympics in Utah could do for athletes at all skill levels.

“I was so fortunate to compete in ’02, and I to this day say that was my most favorite, most memorable Games. It’s also really unique and special for an American athlete to compete in an Olympics in the United States,” she said, calling it “one of the most amazing, kind of magical experiences as an athlete to compete in your home country.”

As the co-chairwoman of the bid committee’s Athletes Advisory Council with Paralympian Chris Waddell, Raney Norman said another Olympics would be an opportunity “to pay it forward to the next generation” by inspiring their involvement in sport.

She tells the story of a severely overweight 12-year-old boy who joined a learn-to-skate program at the oval in Kearns years ago and lost over 100 pounds. Now a nurse treating COVID-19 patients, Raney Norman said he credits the power of sport for his transformation and still enjoys speedskating.

Utah’s Olympic facilities continue to attract the world’s best winter sports athletes to the state for training and competitions, but also offer programs for novices. Another Winter Games would hopefully leave behind a profit to boost the endowment from 2002 used to keep them operating.

“You don’t necessarily see that out of other host cities,” said Raney Norman, who’s also vice-chairwoman of the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation that runs the former venues. “Utah has really made a purposeful focus on legacy. They really have. Other cities at times have really been overrun by expenses.”

‘Very competitive’

Utah’s bid does stand out, but it’s a real race because the other cities that have expressed interest in 2030 have also hosted Olympics in the past, said Ed Hula, editor and founder of “Around the Rings,” an Atlanta-based online Olympic news source with an international following.

Of those cities, only Sapporo, Japan, host of the 1972 Winter Games, is still actively bidding. Vancouver, Canada, host of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and Barcelona, Spain, host of the 1992 Summer Games but bidding with Pyrenees Mountain winter sports venues, have put their bids on hold for now due to the pandemic.

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All of those cities “have experience, know-how, government backing, support of the people, modest venue and construction plans, all that, that Salt Lake City is offering. So it’s, at this stage, very competitive,” Hula said. “Those are among the places equipped to do this.”

Salt Lake City’s appeal is that it offers big-city amenities in terms of hotels and restaurants but is compact enough that visitors arriving at the airport are just minutes from downtown and “not too much farther” from the mountain ski resorts and venues, he said.

“There seems to be a good vibe about the place. It’s in a beautiful setting,” Hula said. “You see the mountains, you see the city spread out in the valley before you. It’s not a huge place. It’s not dwarfed by skyscrapers. Sure, the sprawl is there, but it’s not the same scale you find in other big cities. ... There’s a comfortable scale to it.”

Utah also has “a proven track record of partnership with the IOC,” he said, delivering a Winter Games in 2002 that was declared “superb” by then-IOC President Jacques Rogge during the closing ceremonies at the University of Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium despite the bribery scandal surrounding Salt Lake City’s bid.

“The IOC wasn’t sure at one time how it felt about going to Salt Lake City, but once it was all done and dusted, I think they were satisfied,” Hula said. “That’s in the past. Things are better. The IOC is so much different than it was. ... It’s a whole new crowd.”

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Now, the Switzerland-based IOC is “being put through the wringer” by the impact of COVID-19 on what is now the 2021 Summer Games in Tokyo, he said, adding that it’s accelerated the effort to streamline efforts to make sure too much isn’t being asked of Olympic cities.

The deadly virus has heightened the stakes for the world’s largest sporting event.

“I think it’s been a humbling experience for the world. As such, we’re going to recalibrate, recalculate, how we do things,” Hula said, adding that if Tokyo “is able to pull this off next summer, if they’re able to have people there, if they’re able to have athletes there, and go on successfully, it really will be billed as a comeback for the world.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Catherine Raney Norman as a three-time Olympian. She has competed in four Olympics, and also does not hyphenate her name.

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