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(Tribune file photo) Dancers rehearse "Light of the World, the Mormon church's theatrical offering during the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics.
Remembering the ‘Mormon’ Olympics that weren’t

Volunteers carried the day as LDS Church reached a new high by keeping a lower profile.

First Published Feb 17 2012 07:26 am • Last Updated Feb 17 2012 09:38 pm

Before California’s Prop 8, HBO’s "Big Love," "American Idol" David Archuleta, two presidential candidates and "The Book of Mormon" musical, there was the first "Mormon moment" ­­— the 2002 Winter Games.

The Salt Lake City Olympics were like "a coming-out party for Mormons," says Hank Stuever, who covered the Games as a feature writer for The Washington Post, "that gave people a vernacular about Mormonism they didn’t have before, and that [interest] has sustained itself in pop culture."

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What they wrote

The Mormon Tabernacle reminded me of so many other good places I have been, places where people share their faith, and try to find some way better than the hurly-burly of the world. For me, in sporting terms, this was like going to Yankee Stadium and meeting solid citizens like Jeter and Rivera and Williams in the clubhouse, knowing it is as awesome up close as it is from a distance. No disillusionment. No bad vibes.”

George Vecsey

The New York Times

There were images of Mormons taking over the flavor of the Games, of church members spreading their beliefs on every street corner. But on the bustling sidewalks of this wide-avenued city, as throngs of parka-wearing sports fans from around the country and world make their way to events, restaurants and shops, there is very little in-your-face religion. Many say the Mormons have been gracious hosts and these Olympics have been a chance for a little more understanding.”

Jenn Menendez

Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine

The Mormon church kept its pledge to keep missionaries from spreading the word among Olympic visitors. In return it got a public relations bonanza from journalists who found a church that didn’t seem as weird as they had believed.”

Tim Dahlberg

Associated Press article published in Los Angeles Times

Source: mormonnewsroom.org

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Before the first torch was lighted, many from around the globe feared that the international sporting event, dubbed the "Mormon Olympics," would be dominated by boozeless parties, name-tag-wearing missionaries in dark suits and sappy Osmond-like tunes accompanied by lame choreography during the Opening Ceremony. Some imagined they would find gingham-dressed Mormons handing out literature on street corners, extolling the joys of polygamy. Others thought the LDS hierarchy would be a smothering presence, using the occasion to promote the faith at every venue.

What most participants and observers found instead during those 17 memorable days was an absence of Mormon missionaries, a surprisingly urbane and diverse city, free-flowing beer, breathtaking views and venues and at least one wet T-shirt contest.

"I remember being in that public area by the Medals Plaza, encountering break dancing on the street," recalls National Public Radio’s Howard Berkes, who is headquartered in Utah and has covered seven Olympics. "I haven’t seen that in Utah before [the 2002 Games] or since."

Plus, Mormon leaders sent out the edict that there would be no proselytizing, no pamphleteering, no handing out copies of the Book of Mormon away from, say, Temple Square. LDS volunteers were trained in how not to share their faith.

Riffing off the Games’ "Light the Fire Within" theme, Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Kirby described the LDS Church’s strategy as "contain the fire within."

The Salt Lake City Games also provided an infinitely patient and unfailingly polite volunteer corps, many of whom were former Mormon missionaries speaking multiple languages and all of whom eagerly responded to requests for help.

"I talked to a lot of reporters after the Games," Berkes says, "and not a single one of them said it felt like a Mormon Olympics."

Make no mistake, though, Mormon fingerprints were all over the Games — from the shot of the Salt Lake LDS Temple as a permanent television backdrop to the giant skater banner draped over the Church Office Building, from comments about the half-pipe competition by then-91-year-old church President Gordon B. Hinckley to the self-deprecating collector pins depicting green Jell-O and multiple wives. Prominent Mormon businessman Mitt Romney took charge after a bribery scandal, which gave the future Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate — and his church — a place on the world stage.

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Wrote Stuever back then: "The Mormon Tabernacle Choir shared top billing with the celebrities; Temple Square got almost as much TV time as Bob Costas. The very theme of the Games — ‘Light the Fire Within’ — is straight out of a more self-determined, Oprah-affirmative modern Mormon theology."

For the Utah-based faith, the Games’ success in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were a triumphant moment — made all the sweeter by the religion’s downplayed role.

Coming to Zion » The LDS Church saw the Olympics as an opportunity and a threat, says NPR’s Berkes, a chance to explain itself — and some of its history and beliefs — to the world’s press but without power to control the message.

Either way, the world was coming and the church planned to take advantage.

It offered extensive and high-tech media services in its own press center in downtown Salt Lake City and produced a nightly show, "Light of the World," in the giant Conference Center that offered a mix of Mormon beliefs and cultural music and dances (though few published accounts of the Games mentioned it).

The church orchestrated a public-relations blitz that included distributing miniature faux leather briefcases, with the LDS Olympic logo, to visiting journalists. It provided a list of "great story ideas about Mormonism" and essays about the church’s welfare and humanitarian projects, its health code and its missionary programs.

It also handed out "Glimpses of Utah" calendars, wrote Jan Shipps in a 2002 issue of Religion in the News, "in which nine of the 15 images and well over half the accompanying text dealt with Mormon themes."

Those efforts apparently paid off.

Michael Otterson, who became the church’s primary spokesman during the Games, told Shipps that "an overwhelming majority — perhaps 95 percent — of the stories featuring Mormonism and/or the LDS Church were either ‘positive or fair.’ "

Berkes believes the early criticism of the church helped it prepare for the coming media onslaught.

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