20 years later, what is the lasting legacy of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics?

For better or worse, the 2002 Games ushered in an era of change for Utah

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Olympics Medals Plaza during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Feb. 9, 2002.

The stories came at Holly Mullen faster than a slider down the skeleton track. Figure skating scandals involving a French judge and possibly the Russian mafia. A Team USA sweep of men’s halfpipe snowboarding. The “lucky loonie” hiding in the ice that was credited for lifting the Canadian hockey teams to victory.

Around 2 a.m. one morning, bleary-eyed from reading the copy for the next day’s Salt Lake Tribune, the sports editor finally pushed open the outside doors and stepped onto Main Street. Anytime after 7 p.m., she usually had the sidewalk to herself, but not this night. It was packed and raucous.

“All of downtown was just alive,” Mullen recalled. “People were curious. All the clubs for the countries. All of that energy and feeling safe out on the street. No security concerns. It was just really, really fun.”

It’s been 20 years since Salt Lake City hosted the Olympics. The anniversary of the opening ceremony is Feb. 8. Yet Mullen isn’t the only one who remembers them vividly, if not fondly. Even two decades later — a period spanning four presidents, a housing collapse and a pandemic — the memories come pouring out at the mere mention of the Winter Games.

They haven’t entirely faded into the past, however. Hosting the 2002 Olympics made a lasting impact on the entire state — for better or for worse. Here are five ways those Winter Games changed life in Utah.

The Olympics introduced the world to a different side of Utah

Utah certainly had a reputation before the Olympics came to town, and it wasn’t as the life of the party.

The same awkward scene used to play out night after night at bars throughout Utah. Some buddies would walk in looking to slake their thirst. But before they could try to catch the eye of the bartender, they’d have to catch one of a complete stranger and then ask that person to vouch for them.

The 2002 Olympics changed that. As with many sporting events, drinking and the Games went hand in hand. But the difficulty — or at least perceived difficulty — fans, celebrating athletes and exhausted journalists had in gathering together over a glass of beer sparked change. A year after hosting the Games, state leaders passed a bill doing away with memberships to bars and clubs.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ukraine's Dmitri Dmitrenko skates during the men's free skate at the Salt Lake Ice Center.

No, Utah’s liquor laws haven’t quite swung as wide open as, say, Nevada’s, in the years since. Still, with the addition of alcohol sales in grocery stores, the increase in grocery-store ABV to 5% and the sale of beer at breweries on Sundays, they’re also no longer the butt of too many jokes.

Mullen, who was one of those exhausted journalists as the Tribune’s sports editor in 2002, said the greater impact of the liquor law changes can’t be overstated.

“Liquor laws started to evolve in pretty practical ways,” Mullen said. “Good or bad — the dominant culture may or may not think that was the right thing to do, but it was a really big deal. But it broke Utah open more, it did certainly evolve. You can’t put too fine a point on it.”

Not as trackable, but equally as image shaking was the introduction of the world to Salt Lake City’s thriving, but little known, LGBTQ+ community.

In the 1970s, the city had as many as 10 gay or lesbian bars. That number had diminished some by the time SLC took the world stage, but the LGBTQ+ presence in the area is on the rebound. And that’s something Emily Walker, the volunteer engagement manager for the Utah Pride Center, said can be tied directly to the Olympics.

“What I have witnessed over the past 10-15 years and working with the community, being in the community and especially my work with the Pride Center: It just seems like we’ve hit the major strides when it comes to equality here in Utah in just the past 15-ish years.”

Walker said she even mentioned the state’s success in hosting the Olympics while making a successful pitch to bring a North American Gay Athletic Alliance softball tournament to the area later this year.

“For Utah, it’s kind of opened some doors for us,” she said.

They created a foundation for a thriving sports scene

In 1989, Utahns took a leap of faith in the future of sports in the state. That year, they passed a referendum that would provide $59 million to build sports complexes, such as the Utah Olympic Oval ice skating rink in Kearns and the ski jumps, sliding tracks and aerials pool at the Utah Olympic Park complex in Kimball Junction. At the time, hosting the Winter Games was hardly more than a hope.

(Danny La | The Salt Lake Tribune) The colorful suit of South Korea's Sang-Yeop Yeo blurs by in a turn men's 1500 meter speedskating at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns.

The Olympics came and went, but those sports venues became rooted in their communities and rarely sat idle. Maintained through a $74 million endowment set aside for that purpose after the Games, they now host rec league games, lessons and tours, among other events.

“We hoped that following the games, Salt Lake and Utah would be the center in North America for winter sport and that the venues we built would be maintained and not allowed to fall into disrepair,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said. “And that American athletes would come from all over the country to Utah to train on these facilities. And that by having built these facilities, our athletes would be able to perform even better on the world stage.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mitt Romney at the 15th anniversary of the 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017.

That’s just what will be playing out in the coming weeks. Team USA will put 223 athletes at the starting line and in the starting gates to compete in the Beijing 2022 Games. A full third of those either grew up in, currently live in or went to school in Utah — more than hail from any other state. That’s not counting another couple handfuls of athletes who will compete for other countries, either. Fraser Bullock, the president of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games, said that representation is a reverberation of the 2002 Games, perpetuated by the facilities that were built for the Olympics and the kids – now in their mid-20s and 30s — who were inspired by those who competed in them.

It wasn’t just kids, either. Entire communities took inspiration from the Olympics, or at least from Salt Lake City’s ability to successfully host such a large-scale event.

Kevin Lewis, the director of the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office, said a good example of that is St. George. Lewis, who was living in Southern Utah during the 2002 Games, said the excitement around them felt closer to the epicenter didn’t exactly billow in down south. The sentiment might best be described as spectacle-adjacent.

“It was easier to ignore the southern part of the state before,” Lewis said.

Not anymore. St. George has blossomed into a hub for endurance sports. Later this year it will host the Ironman World Championships — the first time in 40 years the legendary triathlon has been held outside of Hawaii — as well as its second straight Ironman 70.3 World Championship. Lewis said the opportunity to bring in those events is directly tied to business leaders inside and outside of the area taking note of the state’s ability to host large-scale sporting events. With the backing of the Utah Sports Commission, the state last year alone saw such events as Tony Hawk’s first Vert Alert and the return of Travis Pastrana’s Nitro Rally and it will host the Junior Olympic fencing championships later this month.

They let out the secret about Utah’s ski and snowboard scene

Ski Utah, the marketing arm of the Utah Ski and Snowboard Association, trademarked the phrase “The Greatest Snow on Earth” in 1975, long before the Olympics landed in Utah. Still it became more than a catchy slogan when, just in time for the Feb. 8 opening ceremony at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the flakes started falling. From their place in the temporary stands or in front of the TV, the world got to see that Utah can be a real winter wonderland.

That translated into good business for the state’s ski areas that until that point had a reputation as the poor man’s Colorado. They enjoyed a 37% bump in skier visits in the five seasons following Salt Lake City’s Games, according to Ski Utah’s data. To be fair, though, the upward trend extended to resorts around the country.

Of the ski areas that got a Winter Games bump, though, none benefitted more than Snowbasin Resort. Driven by the Olympic deadline and espousing fears they wouldn’t have a site for the marquee downhill and giant slalom ski races, legislators urged the United States Forest Service into accepting a land swap it had previously rejected. By the time it was done, Snowbasin owner R. Earl Holding had given the USFS more than 11,000 acres of land and in return had received 1,378 acres at the base of his resort as well as a check for a little more than $100,000 to cover the difference in land value.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stands after the men's downhill competition at Snowbasin, Feb. 9, 2002.

Soon after, one of Utah’s sleepiest ski areas became one of its sleekest. The fans who rolled in to watch the best skiers in the world slice down the Grizzly and Wildflower runs at upwards of 64 mph also got treated to chandeliers made of blown glass from Italy and some of the swankiest bathrooms ever to grace a ski lodge. They also arrived on a new road built by the state, despite unfulfilled promises by Holding that he would pay for it.

Davy Ratchford, who has been Snowbasin’s general manager for the past four years, said he doesn’t know much about the history of the land swap. Still, he believes the resort inevitably would have been built up, be it by Holding ahead of the 2002 Games or by someone else into possibly something much more sprawling 10 years later.

“I use the word inevitable sparingly,” Ratchford said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the mountain. And the mountain is one of the best skiing experiences in all of America. It is just an incredible ski experience.

“With all the lifts that have come in and with all the infrastructure being put into it, I think at some point somebody would have seen the opportunity to access that terrain and take advantage of it. And without [the infrastructure], it definitely would have been some kind of ski experience.”

In the coming years, Snowbasin — which this year dropped in at No. 8 on Ski Magazine’s readers choice rating of the top ski resorts in North America — will expand even further. It plans to add its first hotel, a Club Med, as well as more lifts and condominiums.

Ratchford pointed out that if he was really trying to capitalize on the Olympic effect, Holding would have approved that kind of growth 20 years ago.

“We don’t just throw anything out to the wind and see what happens,” said Ratchford, noting that plans for the expansion began to take shape in 2011, before plans to try to bring the Olympics back to Utah in 2030 or 2034 were in place. “We really think through the right way about going about things and the right cadence. So I mean, the overwhelming thought I get from people is, well, you know, it’s just a matter of time. … think what’s different about what we’ve done is we’ve been very patient and very thoughtful.”

The Olympics brought more people to the state

Utah had the most growth of any state in the U.S. from 2010 to 2020, but can the responsibility for Utah’s population boom can be pinned on the Olympics? It depends on who you ask.

“Yes, the Olympics were an accelerant, but it’s just one of many things that have made [Park City] popular,” former Park City mayor Andy Beerman wrote in an email. “Our mountains, open space, trails, amenities, culture, mild climate, Sundance, proximity to a city and airport, historic character and low taxes all make us highly desirable.

“Every resort town in the world is facing over-tourism right now. Jackson, Tahoe, Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge, etc. never hosted an Olympics, yet they’re all reeling from growth.”

(Tribune file photo) A crowd celebrates at Washington Square in 1995 after it was announced that Salt Lake City would host the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.

Romney said the Olympics changed the perception of what Utah is and who Utahns are. In doing so, it caused businesses and workers to rethink whether they would consider moving to the state.

“I think for people around the world, they may not have even heard of Utah, but if they have, they may think of people in long black coats with black hats, as inaccurate as that may be,” he said. “And they come to Utah and see extraordinary beauty. They see very friendly people who, in some respects, are exceptional. And in many ways I think it opened the eyes of many people who thought about building businesses in Utah. Or who thought about moving to our state and thought about vacationing in our state. So it just acquainted people with a place they didn’t know very well.”

In addition, the Olympics pushed infrastructure projects to the top of the priority list. Reworking I-15 to better connect with Ogden and Provo spurred the development of Silicon Slopes. Similarly, the installation of TRAX made downtown more accessible and $16 million in airport upgrades no doubt appealed to business travelers.

Matthew Burbank, a University of Utah professor who wrote the book “Olympic Dreams: The Impact of Mega events on Local Politics” noted, however, that those projects likely would have happened eventually anyway. What the Olympics did, he argues, is allow pet projects to receive funding cities and counties might have opted to use to address more pressing issues, such as on homeless services or park upgrades.

Cities also end up spending more on police overtime and services tangential to having thousands of spectators flood the town for three weeks, without much compensation, Burbank said.

“It tends to be very misleading about what are actually going to be the benefits of doing this?” he said. “The people who are holding the party aren’t paying the bill for it, right? They’re kind of, you know, [asking your neighbors to pay it].”

Lewis, of the Greater Zion tourism office, counters that communities benefit from the lingering cache that is part and parcel of successfully hosting an event as big as the Olympics. It’s the kind of thing that catches the eye of decision makers.

“It’s not just on the events side,” Lewis said. “I can speak from experience on our end that when we announced that we’re hosting the Ironman World Championship, we started getting inquiries and communication from other markets and other businesses. So what I think has happened is they see the capabilities and they say, ‘Well, what in the world are they doing there? Something good must be going on there.’ And so they start looking. They start investigating. And, you know, so I think the economic impact of these things goes deeper than just more sporting events. …

Yes the Olympics were an accelerant, but it’s just one of many things that have made PC popular. Our mountains, open space, trails, amenities, culture, mild climate, Sundance, proximity to a City and airport, historic character and low taxes all make us highly desirable. EVERY resort town in the world is facing over-tourism right now. Jackson, Tahoe, Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge, etc. never hosted an Olympics, yet they’re all reeling from growth.

They brought Utahns together — until they didn’t

Utah hosted its Games during a turbulent time. A bribery scandal cast a pall on the International Olympic Committee. The atrocities of 9/11 had shaken the world’s trust in humanity and, as a causality, the stock market had fallen into a deep slump.

Instead of folding up its tents, the Salt Lake City Olympic Organizing Committee pushed forward through the turmoil with no real certainty countries would even come to their sporting event. With some coaxing, they came. Then they experienced what NBC producer Dick Ebersol called the best Winter Olympics to date.

The magic behind the masterpiece was the volunteers, Romney said. The local Olympic committee put out the call for 25,000 of them, thinking it would be a strain to make its goal. Within a day or two, however, nearly twice that many had enlisted.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Thousands of fans and athletes celebrate the end of the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics at the Closing Ceremony at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

They came from a variety of backgrounds but worked together with the common purpose of showing Utah off in the best light possible.

“It created bridges of understanding that had not existed before,” he said. He added, “We were a different people in the months and few years that followed the Olympic Games.”

If any of that commonality still exists, it must only be in wisps. Like the rest of the United States, and even the world, Utahns have become increasingly tribalistic and distrustful of one another in recent years.

It’s for that reason, more than any infrastructure needs or attention grabs or societal changes that might be bandied about in a list 20 years from now, that the senator said he’s pushing to get another Olympics in Utah.

It’s for that reason, said Mullen, the former Tribune editor, that the state — heck, the world needs another Utah Olympics about now.

“It was a really kind moment in Salt Lake City and Utah. People were really kind. I would just love to see that come back,” Mullen said. “I don’t know if the Olympics is the only tool for doing that, but it was a way for people to feel connected. We really could use something, even an Olympics, like that to put us on a common cause and social contract.”