Utah has world-class sports venues and exuberant local support for the Olympics. It has the know-how to run a Winter Games and, as of last December, the crucial backing of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
Add all that up — and combine it with major changes in how the International Olympic Committee picks its host cities — and it seems as though it is not “if” but “when” Salt Lake City will again take up the Olympic mantle.
And we could find out when as soon as next year.
Salt Lake City’s Olympic backers are dealing with an entirely new process and set of timelines for courting the IOC, the Swiss-based body that governs the Olympic movement, compared to the years leading up to the city’s last Games in 2002.
If the city does win another Olympic berth — aiming for 2030 or 2034 — there might not be a replay of Utah’s raucous public celebration in 1995, when then-IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch announced “the city of Salt Lake City” had beat out three others to host the 2002 Games.
It’s likely to be a different affair this time, with a winner but no losers.
More critically, a broad series of IOC reforms now openly favors less-expensive host cities with existing venues and strong public support — which Utah has in spades.
“It’s a very different conversation now. Everything’s wide open,” said former 2002 Salt Lake Organizing Committee chief operating officer Fraser Bullock.
Under IOC President Thomas Bach, a German lawyer and onetime Olympic fencer elected to the post in 2013, the powerful 105-member IOC has essentially blown up its longstanding approach for choosing host cities.
The reforms are part of what’s referred to as the “new norm” at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, and across the Olympic movement, an agenda of wide-ranging changes Bach has called “a revolution.”
Gone is the previous approach of pitting competing cities against one another to host the Olympics for a given year and then announcing the winner seven years in advance, often to wild cheers in the victorious city like those heard around Salt Lake City Hall.
Earlier this month, the IOC replaced that with two permanent panels of eight to 10 members that will screen potential Winter and Summer Games host cities in what the IOC calls “a continuous dialogue.”
The new system envisions the IOC collaborating with prospective countries and cities over time to develop and improve their chances for staging a successful Olympics, then bringing their bids forward when they are ripe for an up-or-down vote by the full committee.
The old bidding system created “too many losers” among rejected host cities, many of which never bid again, Bach has said. Competing bids also cost would-be hosts millions of dollars to sustain — whether they won or lost — and stretched out for years.
Bach and others at the IOC say the moves streamline the bidding process by decreasing the need for international travel and presentations, partly in hopes of encouraging more cities to apply.
New rules also limit IOC members’ direct interaction with host cities, with the potential to lessen the chances of bribery and influence peddling that have plagued several Olympic bids, including Utah’s leading up to 2002 — although observers differ on just how transparent the new process will be.
The past seven-year mold has been broken since late 2017, when the IOC simultaneously announced Paris would hold the 2024 Summer Games, followed by a Summer Games in Los Angeles in 2028.
So instead of waiting for years, Salt Lake City could get news of its bid relatively soon, according to some.
“The big change is that, where a candidate host city would wait until 2023 for an award for 2030, that award could happen at any time,” said Bullock, who is also a co-chairman of the city’s latest Olympic exploratory committee. “And in my mind, it could be as early as next year.”
Which year? Not clear.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee chose Salt Lake City last December over Denver as the American preference for a Winter Games bid — should it choose to pursue one. USOPC officials, who are already preparing for 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles, have yet to reveal just when they might put Salt Lake City’s name forward to the IOC.
“We have made the determination that if we decide to bid for a Winter Games — and we certainly would like to — that Salt Lake City will be our partner city,” USOPC spokesman Mark Jones said.
An IOC spokesman would say only that with the new host selection system, it “opens the door to interested cities, regions or countries” for what are “ongoing, noncommittal discussions” unrelated to a specific Olympic year.
Salt Lake City’s latest Olympic exploratory committee — formed in late 2017 — has filed an initial study with the IOC and USOPC that tentatively positions the city’s bid for 2030.
That timing is better, Utah Olympic backers contend, given the age and condition of its 2002 sports venues in Park City, Kearns and Midway. Officials say those skiing, snowboarding and sliding sites have been used steadily and are well-maintained — thanks to a $40 million endowment created after the 2002 Games — but they’d need upgrades for a Games past 2030.
The 2030 slot is also seen as better for Salt Lake City in terms of redeploying a host of local experts and consultants on everything, including Olympic ticketing, transportation, security, volunteer management and finances, who gained their initial experience in 2002.
But on the flip side, with the 2028 Summer Games already scheduled for Los Angeles, a Salt Lake City Games in 2030 would mean back-to-back Olympics in the U.S., which could get dicey when it comes to money.
Getting a nod from the IOC to host an Olympics brings with it a share of cash from lucrative licensing rights and domestic sponsorships tied to the Games, which in turn help host cities pay for putting on the competitions. Scheduling the Games two years apart could reduce cash flow for Los Angeles and Salt Lake City.
That factor could tilt the debate toward Salt Lake City hosting in 2034 instead, at least for the IOC and USOPC.
Backers of Salt Lake City’s bid, meanwhile, have vowed to arrange their efforts with the priority of ensuring financial success of the 2028 Summer Games. Utah officials are portraying the city as a low-cost Olympic option, economically feasible even with fewer sponsorship dollars.
“Fortunately, with its existing venues and experienced team, Utah could have a very attractive cost structure while still delivering great Games,” the city’s exploratory committee wrote in its 2018 report to the IOC.
Salt Lake City brings some clout in that regard. The 2002 Games remain one of the most successful in the history of the Winter Olympics, setting records on ticket sales, TV viewership and cash from sponsors, while also ending with a financial surplus.
‘Seat at the table’
Whatever the year, Salt Lake City would appear to have other major advantages as a future Olympic host under the IOC’s new norm.
Due in part to growing financial obstacles and shifting public sentiment toward the event, Olympic officials have seen a decline in cities willing and able to take on organizing and hosting a Games.
Climate change is expected to further winnow the number of viable Olympic cities worldwide — particularly for Winter Games that require sustained freezing temperatures in February and early March to maintain artificial snow on ski and snowboarding runs.
Salt Lake City’s close access to high-altitude, north-facing terrain in the Wasatch Mountain, on the other hand, is expected to keep its venues viable, even as many of the world’s past Winter Games cities are predicted to see their prospects of reliable winters disappear by 2050.
The new norm’s focus on cutting costs, boosting sustainability and reducing the environmental impact of the Olympics has also shifted the IOC’s preferences to cities with existing venues and a smaller overall footprint to trim transportation costs and enhance the experience of Olympic athletes.
Officials have continued to host major sporting competition events at Utah’s Olympic venues steadily since 2002, in what one said has been a way of keeping Salt Lake City part of the global Olympic conversation through the years.
“It’s easier to keep your seat at the table than to give it up and try to get it back again,” said Jeff Robbins, co-chairman of the exploratory committee and president of the Utah Sports Commission. “The world knows that Salt Lake City and Utah have continued to live the ideals of Olympism.”
Just as important, at least to the IOC, Utahns harbor record levels of enthusiasm for the Games, as measured by survey after survey — although the Olympics also have staunch Utah critics, too.
In June, the IOC chose the Italian cities of Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo to host the 2026 Winter Games. That joint bid beat out Stockholm in large part because of a relative lack of enthusiasm for the Games among Swedes, whose poll numbers in favor were about 28% below those of Italians.
“What was clear was the gap in public support,” Bach, the IOC president, said at the time.
In Utah, a poll in January showed 84% of registered voters either strongly or somewhat supported the idea of hosting a second Olympics.
“We have the people. We have the venues,” Bullock said. “But probably the most important element is, we have the support of the community.”