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Utah's Olympic Legacy: How Utah's Image has Evolved

Salt Lake City's 2002 Olympic mascots: Powder, the snowshoe hare, Coal, the black bear, and Copper, the coyote, at the ceremony to re-light the Olympic flame, 8 February 2012
Dan Bammes
Salt Lake City's 2002 Olympic mascots: Powder, the snowshoe hare, Coal, the black bear, and Copper, the coyote, at the ceremony to re-light the Olympic flame, 8 February 2012



Salt Lake City, Utah – In the early 90's, a tourist from Germany was riding a ski lift in Park City as he confidently proclaimed that Utah would never host the Winter Olympics. "Because of the Mormons," he said. Less than ten years later, Salt Lake City welcomed the world for the Games. In the process, the way the world sees Salt Lake City has changed. Just as important, the way Utahns see themselves as also evolved

While Mitt Romney saw his job as primarily to get the 2002 Winter Games on a sound financial footing, he was also challenged from time to time by a perception that he - and the organizing committee he led - was dominated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Romney tried to counter the perception that these would be the "Mo-lympics" with a glass of champagne. Actually, he was drinking orange juice, but sparkling wine filled every other glass at a news conference in March of 2001.

Romney proposed a toast. "I toast the Olympic winter games of 2002 in Salt Lake City. I toast the unity they represent in our community. And I toast also the contributions of the many faiths, the many ethnic groups and the many individuals which combined - will combine - to host great winter games in 2002."

There were reasons Romney needed to counter that perception, and not just prejudice or misunderstanding from outsiders. Candy Thomson, a sports reporter for the Baltimore Sun, visited Utah several times in the run-up to the games. She found herself being escorted on a press tour by a group calling itself the Utah Media Center, which turned out to have close ties to the church.

She says, "We were taken up to Rice-Eccles stadium but told we couldn't take any pictures of it. It was a very strange day and it became clear that we weren't going to get our venue tours or anything else. They wanted to take us all to Mormon businesses. And so the reporter and photographer for the Seattle Times and I literally got out at a street corner, got out of the bus, and said We're not going any further. Bye.'"

Later, Thomson says she got a call offering an apology from Mike Otterson, the media spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Otterson declined an interview for this story.

Thomson says her next bus tour of the city was very different. This time, the guide was Salt Lake City's maverick mayor, Rocky Anderson. "We went on a pub crawl," she says, acknowledging that she'd rented a bus for the occasion herself. "Rocky took us all over town and showed us that we could get a drink at a Mexican restaurant and at a dance club and he even made a stop where he put on tights and made a walk-on at the opera house in the production of Carmen, which was kind of interesting."

As the games got closer and the competition finally began, Thomson says the best ambassadors Utah ever had weren't the ones seen on TV. Instead, it was the army of volunteers who saw to the needs of athletes, spectators and reporters - doing everything from making photocopies to providing aspirin and Pepto-Bismol. And, she says, they stepped in on other occasions where they were needed.

"[There were] volunteers wearing buttons that said what language they spoke. I can tell you that, up at, I believe it was the bobsled run, we needed help with a translation and a volunteer stepped up and did a spot-on job. It was just fun to enjoy it with the volunteers"

The volunteers' reward for their service included a distinctive parka that became a trophy in the coming years. Sandy Kellogg was wearing hers when she came to the ceremony last week to re-light the Olympic flame at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Kellogg says she was excited to hear Governor Gary Herbert announce his plan to take a look at hosting the games a second time. "I'll never forget it. I mean, it's something that's just great to do, to be a part of something so prestigious and long-lived I just had a wonderful time. So yes, I would volunteer again."

First time or second time, though, the idea seems just plain dumb to Steve Pace. He lives in Utah because he likes to ski, and he was among the few voices in the community opposed to hosting the Winter Olympics.

Pace says there was no need to put Salt Lake on the map.' "I think that the putting Salt Lake on the map' argument is kind of a way of saying, Gee, we're so insecure about who we are and what we've got that we've gotta have somebody, maybe with an accent from another country, come in and tell us that we're real.' I'm not that insecure about this place. I think it's pretty nice as-is."

Whether Utahns feel good about themselves is less critical to the Utah Travel Council than the attitudes held by potential visitors. Director Leigh von der Esch says they've tried to quantify those perceptions in recent years "In 2005, we were hitting about, on a scale of 1 to 5, well below 3. And now, the people in our surveys about image, those numbers about Utah's exciting, Utah has cultural diversity, Utah has an entertainment scene, all are now over 4. So you can see that the image, just since the last six years has changed. But it was really teed up by the Olympics in 2002."

Von der Esch says T-V coverage of the Winter Olympics also influences millions of people who will never come to Utah. But some perceptions are just hard to shake, Mitt Romney's champagne toast notwithstanding.

"Y'know, the elephant in the room has always been the alcohol, can you get a drink," she says. "Having lived around the country myself, I feel we've been unfairly tarnished with more restrictive liquor laws than some other areas of the country. I think that's been unfair."

In the end, it's clear the perception of Utah is changing as a result of the 2002 Winter Olympics, though perhaps not as dramatically as it did for one man who didn't know Governor Mike Leavitt was standing right behind him as the fireworks went off.

Leavitt told his story to the crowd assembled to light the flame for the 10th anniversary of the games. "He stood up, threw his hands into the air and said, "Utah! Utah! Utah!" And then he turned around and, a little embarrassed, saw me. And he said, "Governor, I was against this and I was wrong."

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