SALT LAKE CITY -- Salt Lake City has nearly five years before the 2002 Winter Olympics come to town, but banners already herald the event. Stores stock Olympic souvenirs. And bobsledders train on the icy-fast course where they will vie for the gold.
For the Utah capital, playing host to the Games has been a 30-year quest. But such courting has come with a price: As civic pride builds, there are also hints of a backlash, fueled by concern over how the Games might affect the city.
To get a glimpse of their future, residents and organizers paid close attention to last year's Summer Games in Atlanta. Many Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee staffers attended events and shadowed their Atlanta counterparts.
They ended up with a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of the Games -- and a desire not to repeat Atlanta's mistakes.
"This is an endurance race," says Tom Welch, president and chief executive officer of the Salt Lake committee.
"You can't rest and look back at your last shot very long. You have the bobsled open, then you're on to the speed skating oval or the cross-country course. That's the exhilarating thing. It's a tempo you don't find in any other endeavor."
Welch himself sets the pace. A ruddy-faced man who was an executive with a food-and-drug store chain, he races back from a Rotary Club lunch and then dashes to a Las Vegas skiing event. In between, he gulps downs a Diet Coke and says: "Every day there's a hill to climb."
'Timing the buildup'
"The challenge is timing the buildup for the Games," he says.
Although nearly five years may seem like an eternity, if you're planning an Olympics, life can already seem rushed. A button posted in one office describes the occasional harried mood: "Is it 2003 yet?"
City officials have a similar get-it-done mentality. There are plans get light rail up and running, beautify Main Street and do lTC major construction before February 2002.
The committee's posh offices are Olympic central. The Olympic logo is emblazoned on the elevator doors and picked up in the carpet and splashed across the conference rooms, which go by Olympic-themed names such as the Curling Room or Biathlon Room.
Organizers are quick to point out that there are differences in scale between the Atlanta Summer Games and the Salt Lake Winter Games. Atlanta had 11,000 athletes; Salt Lake is expecting 2,000. Atlanta sold more than 8.5 million tickets; Salt Lake is preparing to sell 2 million. And 197 countries were represented in Atlanta, while about 85 will be in Salt Lake.
But there are issues such as sponsorship, lodging and, most of all, security that at times bedeviled Atlanta and from which Salt Lake hopes to learn.
Explosion killed two
"The event was marred by the bombing," Welch says of the explosion in July that left two dead and 111 injured. "There were information problems. Technology wasn't where it should have been. Transportation was a challenge."
"And yet aside from all those, I can remember the Saturday before the closing, I was down at the Olympic Park. You wouldn't put pigs in a cage as tight as everybody was packed in there. I looked around and I couldn't find one person who wasn't smiling, who wasn't enjoying themselves."
For Salt Lake City Mayor Deedee Corradini, attending the Atlanta Games allowed her to refine her ideas for a Centennial-type park in Utah. She's unfazed by the fact that the Atlanta park was the site of the bombing.
"Something awful can happen anywhere," she says. "You can't let that stop you from doing something wonderful. And that park was really a gathering place. If you wanted to be in the center of the action, that was the place to go."
Supporters hope to replicate that esprit de corps.
Such a feeling has had plenty of time to build. The city made its first run for the Olympics in 1966, but the '72 Winter Games went to Sapporo, Japan. Salt Lake tried unsuccessfully three more times. In 1995, Salt Lake City came up a winner -- earning 54 of 89 votes by the International Olympic Committee -- the biggest margin in the history of the Winter Olympics voting.
Even before the Games were a sure thing, residents approved a referendum to raise $59 million for facilities. Preparations these days make front-page news in the local papers.
And runs on the bobsled course, which opened this winter, sold out within weeks: Roughly 450 sports enthusiasts paid $100 each for a pre-Olympic ride that lasts less than a minute.
A professional bobsledder practicing on the course gives it high marks. "It's like your favorite roller coaster times 10," says Todd Hayes, 27, a member of the U.S. National Bobsledding Team. "It's the best in the world. It's real smooth with short curves and long ones that let you accelerate all the way down."
Such words are a relief to Welch.
"One of the scary moments was the night before we opened that bobsled," he recalls. "I remember back in 1989 when we said we're going to build a ski jump and a bobsled run. I didn't know what a bobsled was. With all the excitement, the night before that opened I thought, 'Geez, what if it doesn't work?' "
Pre-event jitters hint at what's ahead. Nearly all the venues are complete or under construction, and the goal is to have everything ready for testing at least a year before the Games. But when you're dealing with a budget of $920 million, an expected news media horde of 12,000 and events that run over 17 days, things are bound to go awry.
Some residents are already bracing for the worst. Bumper stickers that play off Mormon leader Brigham Young's refrain upon discovering Utah -- "This is the place" -- have started turning up on cars. They proclaim: "2002: This is not the place."
Locals are worried
"Tourists are more excited," says Mike Draper, a sales associate with an Olympic store in town. "Locals are more worried about traffic and construction and the inconvenience.
"They're scared. Salt Lake is almost like an unknown place. They like the ski resorts the way they are. They don't want everyone to know about us."
The Utah Sierra Club opposed the Games, protesting the growth they would bring. "We feel like we're on the road to California-type growth," says Ann Wechsler, the club's chair.
"Since California hasn't done so well, we feel we'll encounter the same problems."
One controversial environmental decision was a land swap between the U.S. Forest Service and the Snowbasin resort where the downhill and other races will be held.
"It's prime public land," she says. "This can be a precedent for other ski resorts in the future."
But environmentalists have scored one victory so far. The venue for cross-country skiing is being reconsidered because of their concerns.
"I didn't want the Olympics," says Wechsler, "but it was an engine with so much steam that I thought, 'We might as well participate to do as much damage control as we could.' "
The mayor acknowledges that not everyone has caught the Olympic spirit.
"No major public-policy issue ever has 100 percent support," Corradini says. "You just have to deal with it and hope that over time people will catch some of the sentiment and get excited."
Pub Date: 4/14/97