Liz Haigh and her family nearly didn’t escape what she now calls “our grumpy zone.” Nearly 17 years ago, as the 2002 Winter Olympics were set to descend on Salt Lake City, Haigh said they were dreading it. All of it. The anticipated traffic, the crowded city.
Then something changed. Haigh, like so many Utahns, got swept away in the Olympic spirit, floored by seeing all the hype and pageantry leading up to 2½ weeks of the best winter athletes around the globe competing for gold.
“The hassles I thought we were going to experience,” Haigh said reminiscing, “it just didn’t happen.”
All these years later, is she ready for a redux?
“Hell, yeah,” she said.
Haigh is part of the vast majority of Utahns, who’ve said yes, they’d love for an Olympic sequel. Polls have had numbers as high as 89 percent of Utahns would be in favor of another Games. Before choosing Salt Lake City as its bid city for the 2030 Winter Olympics last Friday, the United States Olympic Committee’s independent poll found that 82 percent of residents favor hosting another Games.
So why do the other 18 percent oppose Salt Lake City’s latest Olympic bid?
The Salt Lake Tribune asked readers to weigh in. And while many offered support for another bid, it’s evident that there are counter voices. Among the dissenters are those who say that the Games would not serve Utahns, that say there are bigger, more pressing issues to deal with. Many worry the Games would only exacerbate Utah’s environmental concerns — chiefly air quality.
Others were skeptical of the funding, despite Salt Lake City officials saying these Games will be funded entirely by the private sector, with the exception of security provided by the federal government. Some don’t want to experience further gridlock on highways and roads, while others say the city and state are losing the luster of being a hidden gem as the population continues to soar. Some responses mentioned the cost of living is already rising too high.
Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City councilwoman during the 2002 Games, says she remains an Olympic skeptic, mainly because she’s seen it before. She opposed the Games coming last time, and her stance hasn’t shifted. Seed is suspicious of the anticipated costs. The budget for the 2030 Games is estimated at nearly $1.4 billion.
“People should have one eyebrow raised, because it’s a really low number, and I know they’re counting on using existing venues, but they’re still going to have to be building,” Seed said. “It just hasn’t been thought out. I think people are just excited. I saw this last time. ‘We’ll be the center of global attention.’ And they don’t think through all of the consequences.”
Seed vows she hasn’t forgotten the Salt Lake City Olympic bribery scandal, either, when bid officials paid off members of the International Olympic Committee. And that scandal is a reason why there’s a sense of mistrust that lingers for not only her, but also other local doubters. That, coupled with the air quality concerns that arrive every winter as smog clouds hover over the city for days and days, is reason enough for Seed to say she needs more proof that another Games is a good idea.
The former councilwoman also has security worries after former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson pushed a lawsuit alleging that in the wake of Sept. 11 terror attacks, U.S. intelligence agencies, with cooperation from phone companies and internet service providers, conducted widespread illegal surveillance on Utahns and visitors during the 2002 Games.
“It isn’t all roses and gold medals,” Seed said. “It’s a complex endeavor.”
John Allen Shaw, an accountant who lives in Salt Lake City, said the 2002 Games did not benefit the lower and middle classes. Shaw said he received free curling tickets in Ogden, but the glow of the Games ended there for him. He said the 2002 Olympics allowed for the state to expand light rail, which was positive. But Shaw believes money that would go to an Olympic bid should be spent on Utahns, not on a worldwide event that lasts less than a month.
“Whatever economic gain was ethereal,” Shaw said. “It was ghostlike.”
Fraser Bullock, chief operating officer for the 2002 Games now back pushing a potential 2030 bid, said some assume that another Games means taxpayer money pipelined straight toward the Olympics themselves.
Bullock reiterated that should Salt Lake City win the right to host the 2030 Games — a decision the International Olympic Committee is expected to make in 2023 — the IOC contributes $650 million to the host city. Couple that with an estimated $300 million in ticket revenue plus domestic sponsorships, Bullock explained, and Salt Lake City would be close to breaking even.
Earlier this week, Jules Boykoff, a Pacific University professor who has long researched and studied the Olympics, told The Associated Press that he believes an Olympics could not be held on that small of a budget.
“Almost inevitably the price tag tends to go up,” Boykoff told the AP.
With regards to the environmental issues plaguing Utah — particularly dwindling snowpack and harmful air quality — Bullock said organizers would like to use these potential Games as a platform to improve the problems.
“Over the next 10 years, could we be part of a dialogue, part of an effort that not only addresses the issue during the Games, but looks at it from a permanent point of view?” Bullock said. “Many times something like the Olympics can help coalesce focus and effort around a particular cause, and we’d love to see that be the case here.”
He said a focus on the environment “will be a fundamental element of our effort.”
Carl Fisher worked at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort during the 2002 Games. A lifelong Utahn, the outdoors have kept him from ever looking to move elsewhere. The versatility of the state’s outdoor recreation scene is what Fisher, the executive director of Save Our Canyons, never wants those who live here to lose sight of. Another Olympics, he believes, would only further bottleneck roads to and from the nearby mountains and allow more expansion into the state’s wildlands and pristine backcountry.
“[Utahns] like to play host,” Fisher said. “So, of course, there’s no better party to host. It’s the Olympics or the World Cup. ... I think oftentimes we’re blind and we compromise some of our other values; stewardship of the land and solitude, being a once rural Western state and now we’re very urbanized. I think my concerns are more to do with the unintended consequences than bringing the Games here, than the Games themselves.”
Haigh, the onetime 2002 skeptic-turned-convert, would love nothing more than to once again revel in another Olympics a few miles from her home. But she also has reservations regarding the potential environmental impact. Like Bullock, she said she hopes an Olympic return could serve as a catalyst to take action.
“I would encourage the Olympic committees locally to really take that on — Winter Olympics, snow and climate,” she said. “Build some political will and bring awareness to it. They shouldn’t hide from it.”