Gehrke: There are plenty of good reasons Salt Lake should go for Olympic gold one more time

The Olympic flag is brought in during opening ceremonies at Rice Eccles Stadium Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune

I wasn’t living in Utah for the 2002 Winter Olympics and, even though I promised to practice really, really hard and pay for my own skate rental, the U.S. Men’s Speedskating Team opted to “go another direction” — picking a team made up entirely of people who knew how to ice skate.

So I missed out on the 17-day extravaganza. But I hear you all threw quite a bash and now there’s talk of doing it again, in either 2026 or 2030.

It’s an exciting prospect, and not just because it might be my last, best shot to win that elusive Olympic gold medal.

It’s exciting because the 2002 Olympics helped put Utah on the map as a premier winter sports destination. Last year, we saw a record 4.5 million skier days. Three of the top 10 resorts in North America are in the state, according to ratings by Zrankings, a ski vacation website. And the state has hosted dozens of international speed skating, snow boarding, ski jumping, cross country and other winter sports competitions.

There have been concerns voiced about the amount of money, much of it from taxpayers, needed to stage the event — concerns that are valid.

Currently, it’s projected that it would cost about $40 million over the next decade to get the venues in shape. But those are “anyway costs,” as House Speaker Greg Hughes put it, money that would have to be spent to keep the venues operating at an elite level, whether or not there is another Olympic bid.

Of course, $40 million is a lot of money, and there are a lot of things that money could be spent on. But compare that amount to the $600 million that was spent on infrastructure in the run-up to the 2002 Games and $2.1 billion in total Olympic spending, and you can see it’s a drop in the bucket.

And despite setbacks and complications — like the bribery scandal and the 2001 terrorist attacks — leading up to the Olympics, the Salt Lake Games still ended up generating more money than it cost.

Economists calculated a total of $4.8 billion in output and sales resulting from the 2002 Games. Employment surged as well, peaking at 25,000 Olympic-related jobs.

Now, the benefits were not as widely spread as you might think. A 2008 study by economists at the University of South Florida and Miami University found that, while hotels and restaurants, for example, saw money rolling in — in part because room rates tripled in some cases — overall retail spending actually went down.

And once the torch went out, the economic Olympic fever faded quickly. By 2003, Olympic-related jobs dipped to an estimated 250.

More than dollars and cents, though, the best reasons for Salt Lake to make another bid are some of the less quantifiable benefits, like the Olympic energy and civic pride that brought out 26,000 volunteers to make the Games a success.

Or there’s the growing up the adolescent city did when it had to play host to 250,000 visitors, many from foreign countries, opening doors and opening minds — including offering some temporary sanity to the state’s liquor laws.

Or there’s the legacy it has provided to young Utahns who got to witness the pinnacle of winter sports and then went on to compete themselves and may even stand atop the medal platform if the Games come back to town.

Who knows, it might even foster a discussion about climate change and it’s threat to the sustainability of our winter recreation economy.

The Olympic Exploratory Committee created last week has until Feb. 1, 2018, to make its recommendation on whether to vie for the 2026 or 2030 Winter Games — either of which may be complicated by Los Angeles hosting the 2028 Summer Olympics.

But if you read the tea leaves and look at the power players lining up behind the bid movement, I predict we’ll see Salt Lake in the mix and there’s a good chance we’ll end up hosting another Olympic Games — which is why I need to get started on my ice skating lessons.

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