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Olympics: Is Salt Lake ready to host another Olympic Games?

Published July 4, 2014 1:00 pm

Utah's existing and well-maintained facilities could spark a bid for 2026.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The rumble is one of anticipation.

It still blares at the Utah Olympic Park, the sound of an approaching bobsled whipping turns around the same chutes that produced gilded moments on frigid nights in Park City more than 12 years ago. The same can be said a few miles southeast in the shadow of towering Mount Timpanogos, as cross-country skiers crowd the snowy lanes at Soldier Hollow, digging skis into the ground, pushing toward gaining momentum. Ditto for the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, which continues to be a training center for a number of Olympic speedskaters.

The term legacy is often used to describe Utah and its continued presence in outdoor recreation, specifically when it comes to those involved in and passionate about winter sports. It's a catchphrase when describing the lasting impact of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games based in Salt Lake City, a 17-day affair that put Utah on the map.

"It was a two-week celebration where the world got together peacefully and happily," said Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. "One of the more memorable times in my 40 years living in Salt Lake."

In the years since, the lasting memories of the Olympics haven't dissipated. The torch still stands outside Rice-Eccles Stadium, while artwork of winter athletes is carved into places along freeways around the valley. Though perhaps a direct correlation can't be cemented, some consider it no coincidence that 12 years later the state continues to produce myriad Olympians and gold medalists, with the likes of Sage Kotsenburg, Joss Christensen and Sarah Hendrickson joining mainstays like Ted Ligety, Steve Holcomb and Noelle Pikus-Pace.

"You expose thousands and thousands of kids that are entering that sport, who have a budding interest in that sport to the Olympics," said Tiger Shaw, CEO of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA). "Some of them, sooner or later, have that seminal moment and say, 'You know what? That's what I want to do.' It usually takes about 10 years to gestate."

A point of emphasis has been made to follow that legacy with another bid and another chance to expose the world to Utah's offerings with a future Olympic Winter Games. But what will it take?

The waiting game • In December 2012, the state formulated a plan to bid on the 2026 Olympic Winter Games, assuming the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) decided to endorse a city and throw a hat in the ring. It's a process that is several decades in the making. To start, two key steps need to be taken: first, approval by the USOC to put forward a bid; and second, a vote by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to actually host an Olympic Games.

It's not as simple as it seems. The USOC decided not to bid on the 2022 Winter Games in favor of holding out for a bid for the 2024 Summer Games. The last time the U.S. hosted any Olympiad was Salt Lake's 2002 Games, so it's understandable that the USOC wanted to change things up. Fraser Bullock, former chief operating officer for the Salt Lake Olympic Committee, said the USOC went through a yearlong evaluation process to come up with viable candidates for that 2024 bid. More than 30 cities were considered initially, and the list has now been narrowed down to six.

But which American city is ready to pony up $5 billion to host?

"I think there's a reasonable chance there will be no city to step forward," Bullock said. "Even if one does, there's a very good chance that city doesn't win. There's a long line to bid on the Summer Games. Even if the U.S. then bids and doesn't win the bid, there's still a chance to pursue 2026."

An Olympics is awarded seven years in advance by the IOC, so the decision on 2024 will be handed down in 2017. The possibility of Utah bidding or hosting in 2026 is contingent on several factors, including, most importantly, who the USOC wants to give the green light to should the 2024 bid falter.

"I think our real ability to make a decision on 2024 is going to come to fruition only after we've done all the due diligence in depth on the short-list cities," Scott Blackmun, chief executive officer for the USOC, said in a conference call on June 10. "I don't think this makes it more likely that we will not bid for 2026."

Infrastructures galore • Would Utah support another Olympic Games? Are communities along the Wasatch Front and the Wasatch Back ready? Though the 2026 cycle is still 12 years away, and 24 years removed from the time the state last hosted, nearly every necessary infrastructure is still in place — unlike other 2026 possibilities such as Denver, Reno/Tahoe or even Lake Placid.

Beyond that, the existing facilities are up and running and still hosting world-class competitions on an annual basis. Does that give the Beehive State a leg up on possible domestic — and even international — competition?

"Without question," Becker said. "The fact that we have virtually all of the facilities that are needed for a Winter Olympics and we have maintained them and kept them in use is unique. We have all of that in place, literally saving billions of dollars in trying to host another Olympics. … It makes a huge difference."

The Utah Olympic Park continues to host bobsled and luge and skeleton World Cups, while the ski jumps remain part of international competitions, as well. The Olympic Oval in Kearns has hosted World Cups and Olympic qualifiers as well. The lone elephant in the room, however, is where the Downhill Center would end up. In Pyeongchang, South Korea, where the games will be hosted in 2018, downhill is the last piece to the puzzle.

"What one would need to look at in that situation [of bidding] is: How current are all the venues?" said Tom Kelly, vice president of communications for USSA. "Fortunately here, the infrastructures have been maintained since and events have been used on them."

"We could put on another Games that at least would break even if not be profitable, where other cities would be facing deficits," Bullock said. "We are the poster child for what should happen after an Olympics."

Building on the legacy • Collective minds have made it a point of emphasis to turn the concept of legacy and make it endure longer than a 21/2-week spectacle on worldwide television. It's clearly worked, as the state continues to produce world-class athletes who shine on the world's stage. Having roughly $76 million dollars after 2002 going into an endowment to maintain venues helped, too.

"All along, what we wanted to do is put on our Games, have a lasting, enduring long-term legacy that would allow our children to participate in these great sports and get out there and be active and have these great venues with the potential hope we would host again someday," Bullock said.

Shaw, a two-time Olympian himself, said it ultimately comes down to the USOC and where they want to bid and when exactly. The 2024 Summer Games will have an interesting domino effect on what happens with the potential of Olympics back in the U.S.

"It's dramatically logical that the Olympics would come back here soon," Shaw said.

Becker said an analysis pieced together in late 2012 scanned the public's interest in perhaps hosting another Olympiad, of what it would take financially to qualify Salt Lake City as another potential host.

"I think what we learned in that process is that there's no reason we couldn't do it again," Becker said, adding that the study and analysis would need to be updated once again.

ckamrani@sltrib.com

Twitter: @chriskamrani