Beyond Tik Tok: Utah Olympic organizers say technology will tether fans to future Games

Silicon Slopes could be key to making the games more engaging

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erin Jackson (USA) celebrates winning the gold medal in the speedskating women's 500m at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing on Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022.

When Nathan Chen won the gold medal in men’s figure skating last year, COVID-19 restrictions kept his parents from being in Beijing to watch him. Yet his mother was among the first to greet the Salt Lake City skater after the medal was draped over his neck.

The video calls instituted at the finish lines came about as a way to placate families frustrated they couldn’t be there in person. But ask Catherine Raney-Norman, the chair of the group putting together Utah’s next Olympic bid, and those video calls are the future of the Games — at least for the next minute or two. With technology consistently evolving, and becoming more central to the daily lives of fans and athletes alike, local Olympic organizers have already begun looking into how they can harness it to make their own Winter Games even better ... whenever Utah ends up hosting.

Not that they have any idea what technology will look like by 2030 or 2034. Not even the industry leaders gathered in Salt Lake City this week for Qualtrics’ X4 Summit know that. That includes Qualtrics founder Ryan Smith, who is a member of the board of directors for the SLC-Utah Committee for the Games and invited Raney-Norman and CEO Fraser Bullock to speak to executive session attendees Wednesday at the Grand America Hotel.

“Can you show me what tech is going to be in 10 or 20 years?” Smith said. “If so, I want to model that.”

Smith founded Qualtrics, a consumer experience company, in 2002, the same year Utah hosted its first Olympics. That was also the year Friendster was launched. Suffice it to say, social media has come a long way and become much more intertwined in people’s daily lives since then.

Bullock, who was the COO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee in 2002, said the group’s budget for technology back then was between $300 million-$400 million. Most of that was focused on producing and distributing the Games around the globe via television. Ten years from now, it’s unclear whether people will still be watching sports on traditional TVs.

Organizers will need their eyeballs, however. And the key to those, Bullock said, will be finding ways for people to interact with the Game, making them more participatory and less static.

“I think the one that is the big opportunity that will evolve between now and the Games is just the engagement with people,” Bullock said. “I mean, where was Tik Tok three years ago? So these things can pop up and we’re going to see that continual evolution. We need to make sure that a few years out we are deeply engaged with the latest” technology and strategies.

Utah has not yet learned if, or as Bullock says, when, it will host another Winter Games. The International Olympic Committee has put off selecting a host for the 2030 Olympics to allow more potential hosts to come forward. It is not expected to name a host for those Games until 2024, at which time it may also decide where the 2034 Games will be held. Utah has said it would prefer to host in 2034 but would be open to hosting in 2030 if called upon.

When its time comes, the committee plans to lean heavily on the minds of Silicon Slopes for guidance when it comes to technology. Until Utah is named as a host, the group cannot sell sponsorships to companies, but Bullock is hopeful that will come out of the partnership as well.

Interactive video calls might be one avenue for getting people more involved. Or, it could be something no one has even thought about yet.

“We’re making sure that we’re communicating to people in the way that they want to be communicated with. That it’s compelling,” Raney-Norman said. “And it’s a way to continually bring the world closer together instead of pushing us further apart.”