It was February 2002. Skies over the Wasatch were blue nearly every day. Puffy clouds drifted over powder-covered peaks. Each day was a postcard, and Park City locals grinned ear to ear, knowing the biggest winter sporting event in the world was in their backyard and going off splendidly. The Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics were an unqualified success—feel-good Games coming so soon after the shock of 9/11 the previous September. Eighteen years later, they’re still held in high regard among the Olympic family as one of, if not the best ever, Winter Olympics.
And they may be coming back.
“We’re ready, willing, and able—in fact, we’ve remained ready, willing, and able for 18 years now,” Jeff Robbins of the Utah Sports Commission says. Robbins and 2002 Games COO Fraser Bullock co-chair the Olympic Exploratory Committee. They’re quietly campaigning for the very real possibility of the Games returning as early as 2030, with Park City venues once again a major selling point.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) control Utah’s destiny. The IOC, burned by the bribery scandal that marred the run-up to 2002, threw out its old playbook for selecting host cities, in which every IOC member had a vote—and enough cast their votes for whichever city bribed the most, hence skewing the results.
Changing the Game
“It’s more of a backchannel, quiet process now,” observes Olympic journalist Ed Hula, who founded and edits the authoritative insider newsletter Around the Rings. “Now you don’t engage in slick advertising or lobby aggressively.”
When the IOC looked for a way to eliminate the costly and corrupt bidding process, it came up with Agenda 2020, a set of 40 principles to guide the Olympics going forward. For starters, it took the decision of which city to choose away from IOC members and placed it with two IOC commissions, one for summer and one for winter.
The selection is now more of a dance than a campaign between potential cities and the IOC. Cities express interest and the two parties talk, probing for strengths and weaknesses. The IOC now even pays the cities—ones it deems as potential Games hosts—to hire experts and write a report spelling out their plan.
“A committee of the IOC will do a lot of the work determining which cities should have the bid,” Robbins explains, “moving away from the things that obviously used to take place.”
In addition to sidestepping corruption, Agenda 2020 reform emphasizes sustainability. Stories abound of carried-away cities that spent lavishly on facilities and infrastructure for the two-week Olympic run, only to let them fall into disrepair immediately after closing ceremonies. Past Olympic cities with no after-use plans simply let venues deteriorate, abandoned. Not so in Utah.
Why SLC Stands a Shot at an Olympic Return
“There are few places in the world like Salt Lake City that are as equipped in terms of transportation, accommodations, and an airport just 25 miles from the slopes.” Hula says.
“I don’t see how the IOC can say no very long.”
Utah’s Olympic Exploratory Committee has already cleared one hurdle. In a low-key competition between Denver and Salt Lake, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee selected Salt Lake as “America’s Choice,” the only city it would enter for a future bid. The USOPC, however, has not indicated when it will next put in a bid. Since 2002, it has refrained from a winter bid, instead landing the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Games.
“Right now there’s not a bid. It’s up to the USOPC, which hasn’t decided. But when a US city is put forward, it will be Salt Lake,” Robbins stresses.
Utah’s strongest selling point is exactly what the IOC wants—sustainable legacy venues that will live far beyond the length of the Games. Utah started prebuilding Olympic venues in the 1980s, even before winning the 2002 bid. That was a USOPC requirement inspired by Park City–based Howard Peterson, then CEO of US Skiing. He was tired of the poor results of US winter athletes, who lacked venues for serious training. His idea carried the day among his US Olympic colleagues and set Salt Lake City bidders on their successful trajectory.
With a requirement to prebuild, Utah taxpayers passed a tax diversion that built Utah Olympic Park near Kimball Junction, a speedskating oval in the Salt Lake suburb of Kearns, and the cross-country ski venue near Heber City. Those venues, now operating as the state’s Olympic Legacy Foundation, remain in use year-round, churning out elite athletes.
“The vision to push for legacy venues continues to serve athletes today,” says Tiger Shaw, the CEO of Park City–based US Ski & Snowboard. “Salt Lake City has a unique opportunity to host a future Olympics, with nearly every 2002 venue still in active use by athletes.”
The results are self-evident. “Kids” born and raised in Park City can now start in elementary school and progress to elite athlete status and stand on championship podiums. Native sons and daughters, from skier Ted Ligety to Nordic jumper Sarah Hendrickson, have topped podiums, while others—like freestyle athletes Nikki Stone, Eric Bergoust, and Joe Pack—won Olympic gold and silver after moving here as young athletes specifically to train at Utah Olympic Park.
The Park is the busiest of legacy venues. It hosted Olympic ski jumping, bobsled, and luge competitions in 2002. Today, with ever-expanding facilities, it accommodates training for skiers, snowboarders, jumpers, bobsledders, and lugers—in both summer and winter. A new housing complex below the jumps just opened to provide low-cost, on-site beds for visiting athletes (and Park employees). And the ambitious Mountain Expansion is now under construction at the Park, poised to develop unused mountain terrain west of the existing facilities into chairlift-served training runs for skiers and snowboarders.
Not If, But When
With every competition venue in place, Salt Lake makes a compelling case. Thomas Bach, the IOC president who spearheaded Agenda 2020, said upon unveiling its key points, “I would question whether moving to a different city every four years is a model that makes sense in today’s world.”
Potential Olympic bid cities are losing their enthusiasm for hosting the Games. Only Paris and Los Angeles even bid for the 2028 Summer Games. Beijing lost $43 billion hosting the 2008 Summer Games, and Sochi ran up bills of $51 billion for the 2014 Winter Olympics, among the latest in a long list of cities left with big financial hangovers.
Olympic observer Ed Hula says the IOC is willing to bend to attract bid cities today. “They’re looking to cut budgets—to make the Olympics fit the city and not the other way around.”
In Salt Lake and Park City, the venues are used daily, polls show overwhelming approval, and the ability to pull off spectacular Games is proven. It’s up to the USOPC to decide when to put America’s Choice up for bid—2030 or perhaps 2034.
Park City Mayor Andy Beerman says the time is right to advance the bid. “In 2002 the Olympics were about economic development and putting Park City and Utah on the map. We’ve been there and done that. Now it’s about carrying that legacy forward to a new generation that didn’t experience all the fun we had!”
Salt Lake City bids for 1976 Olympics after host city Denver drops out due to citizen opposition. Salt Lake rejected in favor of Innsbruck, Austria.
Groundbreaking for construction of Utah Olympic Park
Salt Lake City bids for 1998 Winter Games but loses to Nagano, Japan, by four votes.
Salt Lake City bids for 2002 Winter Games and is selected as host city.
Salt Lake City and Park City host Olympic Winter Games. Worldwide TV audience is estimated at two billion viewers.
2002 Post Olympics
Salt Lake City games profit of nearly $60 million to be used as endowment to support Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) scraps bidding process by adopting Agenda 2020.
Salt Lake City forms Olympic Exploratory Committee.
US Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) selects Salt Lake City as America’s Choice.
Timeframe when USOPC will submit Salt Lake City for an Olympic bid
Beijing, China, will host Olympic Winter Games.
IOC may award 2030 Winter Games, but it no longer strictly adheres to previous policy to award games seven years out.
Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, will host Olympic Winter Games.
Olympic Winter Games (host city not yet named)