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The next step for Utah’s Olympic bid is submitting assurances. What does that mean?

The Olympic rings at the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Cauldron Park at Rice-Eccles Stadium on the campus of the University of Utah, March 27, 2024.
Jim Hill
The Olympic rings at the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Cauldron Park at Rice-Eccles Stadium on the campus of the University of Utah, March 27, 2024.

The Salt Lake City-Utah bid to host the 2034 Winter Olympics is hurtling toward the finish line. With no one else vying for the games, it’s likely a gold medal effort.

The International Olympic Committee will vote on July 24 in Paris on whether the bid is successful. Ahead of that deciding moment, the Olympic Future Host Commission will visit the state in April to tour facilities and make final recommendations to the IOC on Utah’s bid.

In the run-up to both, the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games must submit guarantees to the IOC by March 29. It's not clear what guarantees are being made, but in past Olympics, assurances include Venue Use Agreements and a Venue financing and venue delivery guarantee. Those assurances, which have yet to be made public, come as the Vancouver-Whistler bid to host the 2030 Winter Olympics was scuttled last year due to costs and prohibitive liability risks.

Like Utah, they hosted the Winter Olympics before. The games were held in 2010 and, according to a 2022 IOC report, the venues are still in use. However, the Province of British Columbia decided not to back the bid.

At the time, Lisa Beare, the minister of tourism, arts and culture, said, “there are billions of dollars in direct costs and potential guarantee and indemnity liability risks on this project that could jeopardize our government’s ability to address pressures facing British Columbians right now.”

Utah does not share those concerns. At his March 21 monthly news conference, Gov. Spencer Cox was emphatic about the economic and social benefits the 2034 Winter Games would bring.

“I promise you that if every country had the infrastructure that we had, they would see it as a smart investment. The reason that some countries have decided not to do it is because they have to build all of these venues, and that's very expensive.”

Clues as to what assurances the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games submitted to the IOC may lie in House Bill 430 which was signed by the governor in 2023. University of Utah law professor Christopher Peterson said it spells out what taxpayers could be in for.

It gives assurances that ultimately it'll be the state of Utah that's on the hook for potential cost overruns associated with running the Olympics.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Pamela McCall: What about that 2023 Olympic-backing bill stood out to you?

Christopher Peterson: One is a program where venues that are going to host competitions during the Olympics can get grants from the Utah state government. And those grants potentially include taxpayer funds. These grants haven't been given out yet, and we don't know who's going to get them and we don't know exactly what they'll be used for. But, the law allows them to be used to construct venues, to repair venues, and to essentially get ready for the Olympic Games. How much that's going to cost and how much of those funds are going to be paid by taxpayers, that's all to be determined down the road.

PM: So this bill says the buck stops with Utah? 

CP: It gives assurances that ultimately it'll be the state of Utah that's on the hook for potential cost overruns associated with running the Olympics. That's not to say that there are going to be cost overruns or that anything is unusual or untoward about this. But, there's at least the potential that even though we all have the best of intentions, that things could get out of hand. There have been a lot of Olympic hosts in recent years, think of Athens [or] Brazil, who incurred a lot of public liability for unexpected costs associated with hosting Olympic Games. I think we all should be realistic and open-minded about this. I think a lot of people, including me, are excited about hosting the Olympics. But, we're going to have to be careful and make sure that there is transparency and accountability in the way that we go forward.

PM: Utah organizers say the games will be funded by, “sponsorship, broadcast rights, ticketing, donations and other revenue,” but no direct federal, state or local tax revenue. Does that statement dovetail with House Bill 430? 

CP: A budget is what your plans are and what you're hoping for. But the House bill we're discussing that's law and is not necessarily the same thing as a budget. People's budgets don't work out all the time. Companies go broke, people declare bankruptcy, things don't always work out according to plans. So, we may have a budget that doesn't expect any public funds to be used. But, the law allows public funds to be spent if nobody else is going to cover the cost.

PM: Part of Utah’s pitch is that all of the facilities are already here. But, you say this bill allows for construction. Could you elaborate on that?

CP: What I can tell from reading the law is that venues can apply for grants, and that taxpayer funds can be spent on those grants. Now, we already know that some taxpayer funds are likely going to be spent on new stadiums. Does that mean that they're going to be used for the Olympics and will the Olympics provide another mechanism to provide additional public funding for those venues? It's not 100% clear to me that the law prevents that from happening. The bottom line is that it's not clear how all this is going to ultimately play out. I think what we need to have is transparency and some vigilance and community input on how we're going to move forward.

Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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