The Olympic spirit can be elusive for some, and I was squarely among the skeptics as Salt Lake City prepared to host the 2002 Games.
For all the rosy promises and projections from the bid cheerleaders, there were so many reasons to wonder if we could pull it off and, even if we did, whether it would be worth it.
They were going to be expensive and Utah might not even break even. We were going to throw millions and millions of dollars at building a bobsled and luge run, a handful of ski jumps and then who knew if they’d be needed again? There were bound to be ecological and environmental impacts. And, yes, the games were going to bring global attention to our little spot in the world, but do we really even want that?
It was a lot of money — $1.35 billion at the end of the day. And the Games had a big potential downside, with what seemed to be a few weeks of potential benefits — if they ever actually materialized.
In hindsight, my skepticism was misplaced. It was worth it. The Games didn’t just break even, they turned a $101 million profit. Utah emerged as one of the premier winter sports locales on earth. And countless young people — everyone from gold medalist Nathan Chen to those we’ll never know — were given inspiration and opportunities to compete in winter sports.
Now, in the thick of a bid to host the Winter Olympics in 2030, the case for the Games is even more compelling.
There are, of course, the promised economic benefits. A study released Wednesday by the University of Utah’s Kem Gardner Policy Institute estimated that the 2030 Olympics and Paralympics would give a $3.9 billion boost to the economy and create thousands of jobs. And it requires less of an up-front commitment because most of the venues are built and most are ready to go.
“[While that’s a] negative to the economic impact side, it’s a very big boost to our bid because all of the infrastructure is in place,” Fraser Bullock, who is leading the bid committee, said on a call with reporters last week.
The Gardner study estimated that about $23 million would be needed to get a few venues Olympic-ready. Most of that, $15 million, would be used to make improvements to the sliding track, Nordic lifts and parking at the Olympic Park. Compare that to the $480 million (in inflation-adjusted dollars) that was spent building those venues for 2002.
And we can leverage the 2030 Games to drive major investment in a greener infrastructure. Remember how Utah got funding to build its first light rail line accelerated so it would be ready to transport Olympic visitors? Think how the run-up to the 2030 Games could drive an even more aggressive investment in much-needed capital projects.
As of last year, the International Olympic Committee has mandated that, beginning in 2030, every Olympic Games will have to be carbon-neutral or carbon-negative (when carbon offsets are factored into the equation). So the run-up to hosting the Games in 2030 could serve as a major catalyst to significantly expand cleaner public transit, accelerate the build-out of electric vehicle charging stations, implement aggressive efficiency standards for new construction and enact meaningful water conservation efforts.
All of those are things we should be doing anyway, but with the urgency of a 2030 deadline — not to mention a lot of money — the lasting legacy of the Olympics could be that of a greener, more sustainable city years earlier than otherwise might be the case.
And, of course, there’s the feel-good stuff: A community coming together with a shared sense of pride at being at the center of the global stage.
This is not to say there won’t be challenges — increased growth pressure, escalated housing costs, drought and the potential lack of snow.
But the fact remains that Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front are far better equipped to host the Games now than two decades ago, and likely better situated to make the Olympics a success than any other city on the planet.
It makes sense, as a community, to go for that gold, and reap the considerable benefits of hosting the world — and then start preparing to do it all again in 2058.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.