Utah lawmakers pass Olympics bills that put support — and potentially money — behind another Salt Lake bid

Similar assurances have been obstacles for Sapporo, Vancouver’s 2030 Winter Games bids.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fraser Bullock, the president and CEO of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games, left, speaks with House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox as they attend the lighting of the cauldron on the 20-year anniversary of the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Opening Ceremony at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.

Before Fraser Bullock could leave the Senate floor at the Utah state capitol Thursday, longtime Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, had a gift for him. It was an Olympic pin given to state senators prior to Utah hosting the 2002 Winter Games.

Despite its rarity, the pin might have been the second-best present Bullock got that day. Just before the exchange, Utah’s legislators gifted the president and CEO of the bid committee working to bring an Olympics back to Utah its unwavering support.

With unanimous votes in both the House and the Senate, lawmakers passed two Olympics-related bills Thursday. One, HCR8, is a public statement in support of Utah’s efforts to host another Olympics, either in 2030 or 2034. The other, HB430, authorizes the governor to “sign agreements and make other assurances” that would put Utah and its taxpayers on the hook for overrun expenses if the state is chosen to host another Games.

Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, sponsored both bills and Sen. Michael McKell, R-Spanish Fork, represented them on the Senate floor. United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland and chairman Gene Sykes were on the floor for the votes in both chambers.

“Today feels like Olympic Day,” Bullock said.

“We got our two bills that needed to be passed to enable us to take the next step in our journey to hosting the Games,” he added. “We’ve met with legislative leadership on both sides, the Democrat side and the Republican side, everybody’s unified. Everybody wants to host the Games again. And we’re so excited with this step forward in our journey to once again bring the games back to Utah.”

Gov. Spencer Cox called the financial agreements “old news” in his monthly news conference Thursday, noting they have not changed much since 2002.

(Julie Jag/The Salt Lake Tribune) United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee Chairperson Gene Sykes, right, and CEO Sarah Hirshland, second from right, join Fraser Bullock, fourth from right, and other members of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games on the Senate floor on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023, as Senate President Stuart Adams congratulates them on the passage of a pair of bills in support of Utah's bid to host another Winter Olympics.

Recently, however, convincing governments and taxpayers to accept liability for the Games has become a major stumbling block for bidders. In fact, both of Utah’s closest challengers for the 2030 Games have been derailed by the issue.

Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympics in 2010 and is the only winter site aside from Salt Lake City that is still using all of its venues. However, its potential as a host was thrown into doubt in October when British Columbia refused to support the cost and the risks.

“The current bid is cost-estimated at $1.2 billion and an additional billion dollars in risk,” Lisa Beare, the minister of tourism, arts, culture and sport for the province, said in a news conference. “And when we measured that against our government’s priorities, we believe we need to focus on people.”

The financial risks a host takes on are a very real concern for the people of Japan and organizers of the Sapporo bid as well. Citizens were already wary after being made to pay for much of the estimated $25 billion price tag for hosting the 2020 Tokyo Olympics during the pandemic — which they couldn’t attend because spectators were banned. Recent revelations that those Games also were plagued by bribery and corruption have eroded public support even further. In December, Sapporo’s mayor and the Japanese Olympic Committee announced they were pausing their bid efforts.

The 2020 Olympics illustrated the risks to cities and countries that host an Olympics, University of Oxford professor Bent Flyvbjerg told the Washington Post.

“This is like having a tiger by the tail, you know, when you say yes to hosting the Games. You actually have very limited possibilities of stripping down cost” because the majority of the business decisions are made by the IOC and international athletics organizations, said Flyvbjerg, who studies the economics of the Olympics. “Even under the best circumstances, putting on the Olympics is quite a burden financially.”

Neither Vancouver nor Sapporo’s bid is out of the running, though.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ukraine's Dmitri Dmitrenko skates during the Men's Free Skate Thursday at the Salt Lake Ice Center during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

While the International Olympic Committee had been expected to select at least the 2030 host and possibly the 2034 host in December, it tabled that decision until at least 2024. It said at the time that it wanted to take a closer look at the impacts of climate change on the Winter Games sites. That its options were dwindling, though, was undeniable.

Cox said he has no concerns about committing the state to foot the bill if something goes wrong the next time Utah hosts the Games.

“We actually feel more confident than we did when Gov. [Mike] Leavitt signed these agreements 20 years ago, much more confident,” Cox said, “because at that time we did not have all of these facilities. There were significant investments and there was a lot of risk to the public 20 years ago. That risk 30 years post our last Olympics is very, very minor.”

Bullock and the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games estimate it will cost $2.2 billion to host the 2030 event. They estimate closer to $2.4 billion for the 2034 Games to account for additional upgrades to aging facilities. The committee and the USOPC prefer the latter because it allows for more separation from the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028.

Organizers have promised those costs will be privately funded and not borne by taxpayers, whenever the Games return to Salt Lake City. Bullock said the bills passed by the legislature and the governor’s ability to sign assurances won’t change that.

“Many of [the assurances] include that the state will provide security, that transportation will be available, power will be available. And ultimately they’re also the financial backstop in case something goes wrong,” Bullock said. “But in Utah, we have a different business model. Our business model is that we don’t use any local taxpayer money. We stand alone on our own. And so even though we have that backstop there, we don’t ever intend to use it, but it has to be there as part of our bid.”

During discussion on the House floor, representatives also expressed little concern about the potential negative financial ramifications. Rep. Brett Garner, D-West Valley City, said he wanted to ensure Utah’s bid wasn’t stained by scandal as it was in the run-up to the 2002 Games. Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, meanwhile, extolled the ways hosting the Olympics benefited Utah’s infrastructure. Others shared memories about the 2002 Games.

The bills were not discussed on the Senate floor.

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