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Remembering the ‘Mormon’ Olympics that weren’t

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

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"The church really benefited by being ready to respond to whatever reporters would throw at them, and they were able to positively affect the kinds of stories written," Berkes says. "It would have been far worse if the church had behaved the way it typically did [in the past], having a bunker mentality and not being available or open."

Candy Thomson, a Baltimore Sun reporter who had covered numerous Olympics, came to Utah before the Games and found herself on a "Utah Media Tour" taking reporters to the venues, but which turned out to be a Mormon bus that went only to LDS businesses. As soon as she realized that, she bailed at the next stop.

At a glance

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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To the church’s credit, she says now, "it didn’t happen again."

Thomson was familiar with Mormonism and had been to Utah frequently to hike and camp, so she wondered how her "German and Italian friends who like to drink and party would find the [Utah] locals and vice versa."

But she didn’t worry about how Utahns, many of whom had served international Mormon missions, would deal with foreigners. And the Salt Lake City Olympics’ welcoming hospitality proved her right.

In the aftermath » Before the Games, LDS media officials received more than 2,000 phone calls as reporters from across the globe scrambled to produce at least one "Mormon" story, Bruce Olsen, then director of LDS public affairs, said a month after the Olympics.

During the competitions, Olsen noted, the LDS Church registered 1,324 accredited reporters at its media center. The church was mentioned in about 100 stories a day in Germany alone.

The most frequent topic was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, followed by the church’s genealogy program, Olsen said. Besides writing about the Family History Library, about 200 journalists asked the church "to do their genealogy for them."

Others looked into the church’s welfare and humanitarian services and its female missionaries at Temple Square.

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Many reported the church’s decision not to proselytize in Salt Lake City during the Games and Mormons’ need for acceptance and understanding, he said. A few took up questions about polygamy (which the faith hasn’t practiced for more than a century), gay marriage, even LDS humor.

The Post’s Stuever poked affectionate fun at Salt Lake City as the "capital of nice," a place "where nice is being slathered on top of nice, and the result is the nicest ever." He described the LDS Church’s film about the Book of Mormon as "a big-budget saga, with special effects, and white actors in skin bronzer ... [and the] cutest Jesus you ever saw [who] comes down from the sky on a shaft of light and lands on a quasi-Mayan pyramid."

Still, the writer was largely complimentary about the LDS element.

"The subtle approach, in the end, was a brilliant move by the church," he wrote at the time. "The only religious shenanigans and Bible-thumping at the Winter Games came courtesy of angry other denominations, whose members circled Temple Square with anti-Mormon signs and pamphlets and posters."

Everyone "looked nutty except the Mormons, who looked golden," Stuever wrote. "Underneath, the Molympics rang true and warm."

To Thomson, that positive perception was partly due to the extraordinary volunteers — 25,000 recruited by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and 5,000 assembled by the LDS Church to work at the church’s sites, including its own media center at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

In a way, the many LDS volunteers became the face of the faith to outsiders. They were in-person precursors of the current "I’m a Mormon" ad campaign. They interacted one on one with reporters, athletes and visitors, telling their stories without preaching, showing their humanity and normalcy.

"The Salt Lake Games were better than the Turin Games by a lot and better than the Athens Games," Thomson says. "And the difference was the volunteers. [Utah’s] were amazing."

A lasting legacy? » As Hinckley and members of his family watched the final Olympic fireworks light up the sky over the Salt Lake Valley, writes Romney in Turnaround, his book about the Games, tears ran down the Mormon prophet’s cheeks.

"Over one and a half centuries before, his predecessor Brigham Young and thousands of weary, impoverished travelers entered this same valley," the GOP presidential contender writes. "Now, their descendants and neighbors had welcomed the world to their mountain home. President [Brigham] Young had said that one day the flags of the world would come to Salt Lake; indeed they had."

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