Utah, Salt Lake City will form joint committee to help propel state’s Winter Olympics bid

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fraser Bullock, president and CEO of Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games, makes a few comments about Utah's next steps towards an Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020.

The Olympic torch won’t burn again in Utah for at least another decade, but legislators have begun to put gas in the line.

Gov. Gary Herbert and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall on Wednesday announced they would form a committee to guide the Salt Lake City-Utah bid for an Olympic Games.

The group, officially named the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games, will be led by Fraser Bullock and include Utah Sports Commission president and CEO Jeff Robbins. Both helped orchestrate Utah’s successful hosting of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

“I refer to that sometimes as Utah’s coming out party,” Herbert said. “People saw Utah with a different perspective, different eyes and recognized the sophistication we have in Utah and our great landscape for winter sports. It behooves us when opportunity knocks to be ready, to be prepared.”

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has not yet determined when it will submit a bid for a Winter Games. Local organizers hope to host another Olympics as soon as 2030. However, concerns over that date being too close to the U.S.-Canada-Mexico-hosted 2026 World Cup and the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles could push the next Utah-hosted Olympics back to 2034 or later.

Competition for the bid

Bullock said Wednesday’s announcement had partially been prompted by the late-January word from the Japanese Olympic Committee that it had given Sapporo permission to become the first city to formally bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics. Sapporo hosted the Winter Games in 1972. The Japanese city was also recently chosen to host this summer’s Olympic marathons and other races after concerns surfaced over the heat in Tokyo, 500 miles to the south.

The Utah committee’s formation also comes after the International Olympic Committee, the Switzerland-based governing body of the Olympics, unveiled a major streamlining of its Olympic bidding process last June. The new process hinges on one-on-one talks between the IOC and prospective bid cities instead of competition between cities, as has long been Olympic tradition.

While encouraging more cities to bid to host the games, the IOC’s new policies openly favor less-expensive host cities with existing venues and strong public support — both of which are Utah strengths.

An Olympic exploratory committee estimated the Salt Lake City area could host the games for $1.3 billion (compared with an estimated $6.4 billion for Vancouver in 2010 and close to $13 billion for PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018). In addition, a poll commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics found that 84% of Utah voters strongly or somewhat support the idea of the state hosting the Games in 2030.

Mendenhall, who took office as mayor last month, said the state’s public support would translate into thousands of new Olympic volunteers for a future Games. Utah’s capital city, she said, has also seen major upgrades to support facilities.

Since 2002, the city has expanded its mass transit system and launched a billion-dollar expansion at Salt Lake City International Airport. In addition, many of the state’s legacy Olympic venues — Rice Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah, the Salt Palace Convention Center and Vivint Smart Home Arena — have also seen major overhauls, the mayor said.

“Our city really treasures its Olympic heritage," Mendenhall said, "and we welcome the opportunity to show the world how we’ve grown.”

Need for action

In addition to Sapporo’s impending bid, a catalyst for the formation of the committee likely came from another element of the IOC’s site-selection revisions. In effect, the IOC has done away with an old system of selecting Olympic cities one at a time as well as with announcing bid winners seven years prior to each Games. They now could be announced at any time.

“When [IOC President] Thomas Bach said this could happen quickly, I think we all recognize that this new process is now upon us today,” Bullock said.

As its first task, Bullock said, the new city-state committee will carefully analyze the pros and cons of Utah hosting a Games in 2030 versus 2034.

The initial thinking, he said, is that either year could be viable, although 2030 raises questions about revenue sharing with L.A. and the viability of back-to-back U.S. Games.

By 2034, though, Utah’s Olympic venues would require additional maintenance.

“There’s a ton of work to do,” Bullock said. “But we’re not going to do any of that until we answer this.”

Once the committee decides on the year, the panel will work with the USOPC to develop a joint plan. USOPC representatives will be in town this week and are said to be planning to meet with committee members, though Bullock said he doesn’t expect the committee to make a decision until later this year.

Only then will the USOPC approach the IOC with an official bid, he said.

The first step, however, was to form the committee. In addition to Bullock and Robbins, it includes Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation CEO Colin Hilton, Speaker of the House Brad Wilson, Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, Mendenhall and Herbert. Cindy Crane, a retired CEO and president of Rocky Mountain Power, was named the committee chairwoman.

Crane said the creation of the city-state panel demonstrates that “we are committed for when the timing is right and we will seize that opportunity.”

Staying prepared

One of the attractions the Salt Lake City-Utah bid offers is the ability to repurpose venues built to host the 2002 Games. Hilton said those venues are now busier than ever.

“Arguably, no one in their right mind would look at the operating dynamics of Olympic Winter Games venues and think that not only could we run them, but they would be four times busier in their use today than they were right after the Winter Games,” he said.

The Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation (UOLF) is charged with keeping many of those venues up to date. To that end, it has requested one-time funding of $3 million for infrastructure improvements for the venues it oversees, including the Utah Olympic Oval, Soldier Hollow and Utah Olympic Park.

The UOLF expects to ask for $7 million in one-time funds over the next three years, its legislative request showed. That is in addition to $3.5 million it requested to renovate a building at Soldier Hollow that houses the Nordic skiing and event operations. A committee on Utah’s Capitol Hill considered funding for those projects Tuesday.

Other necessary improvements pinpointed by the UOLF includes a new roof for the Oval, new snowmaking infrastructure for Soldier Hollow and replacing the walls of the luge and bobsled tracks at the Olympic Park.

The Legislature also granted $6 million to the foundation in 2018.

Those costs are minimal compared to the building new venues and are diminished even less when compared to the economic benefit hosting another Olympics could bring to the area, according to Utah House Speaker Wilson. He said Utah had not only seen great economic benefits from the 2002 Winter Games — estimated by some at more than $2.5 billion over the years — but also other more subtle gains.

Being a host city had brought “great passion and joy to the residents of this state,” Wilson said, “including supporting the Olympic movement across the world, welcoming visitors since the Olympics to our great state, as well as supporting athletes as they train and as they compete here.”

Bringing that feeling back to Utah is the intent of the committee.

“Salt Lake City and Utah are not only willing, ready and able to host the world,” Crane said, “but we are America’s choice.”