Sarah Wright was just getting Utah Clean Energy off the ground in 2002, the year Utah hosted its first Olympics. Suffice it to say, she wasn’t exactly counting down the days or holding her breath until they started.
“I was one of those folks,” she said. “And then I had the time of my life. And I just thought Utah blossomed in a way that was more welcoming. And that just stayed on afterward.”
Jumping ahead 20 years, Utah is making a play to bring back the Winter Games back in either 2030 or 2034. This time, Wright is not only on board, she believes related environmental initiatives could help Utahns breathe easier, and not just during the event but for years afterward.
That’s also the findings of a report released Thursday by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. It examined how demographic, social and environmental factors position Utah to host the Games as well as what effects hosting the Olympics could have in those sectors. The report found Utah “well positioned to host an environmentally positive Games.” Furthermore, it said the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games’ commitment “to a ‘climate positive’ Games demonstrates the high priority of environmental outcomes.”
The International Olympic Committee has increasingly required hosts to take a climate positive approach, particularly when it comes to the Winter Games. Last December, the effects of climate change came to roost with the IOC when it delayed announcing the host of the 2030 Olympics in part, it said, because it was concerned that many past and potential future sites might soon become too warm to host the Games.
A report published last year from England’s Loughborough University found that by 2050, fewer than half of previous Winter Olympics hosts would have enough snow to host again. Salt Lake City, it said, should have enough snowfall until at least 2080.
The SLC-Utah Olympic Committee wants to push that date back even further, and with good reason. Also at its meeting in December, the IOC proffered the idea of rotating the Winter Games among five or six sites as a way to keep the event sustainable and viable. Utah definitely wants to be in that conversation, according to SLC-Utah CEO Fraser Bullock.
At the moment, though, Bullock added, the group’s focus is on the upcoming host selection and what actions it can take to bolster its bid that would also benefit the community. The IOC is scheduled to discuss potential 2030 and 2034 Games hosts and the rotation idea at its general assembly meeting in October. It is anticipated that the IOC will announce the hosts of the 2030 and 2034 Olympics at its meeting prior to the start of the Paris Olympics in July 2024.
According to the Gardner report, 82% of Utahns support hosting a future Olympic Games.
The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee has stated it prefers to have Utah host the 2034 Games to allow for more breathing room between it and the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Catherine Raney-Norman, the local committee chair, said that will also give Utah Olympic organizers and local communities time to plot out and implement changes intended to lead to positive impacts, particularly in regards to the environment.
“We can be much more thoughtful, we can be much more impactful about what we’re doing,” Raney-Norman said while speaking at the unveiling of the report. “So it isn’t just that focus on those 17 days, right? It’s thinking about that living legacy, thinking about what it’s going to be afterward.”
That may sound like a lot of high-level talk, especially since government-led initiatives have traditionally moved slower than scientists say is necessary to stem climate change. That’s particularly true for Republican-controlled states. Wright, however, said the power of the Olympics is that it can take environmental policy out of the political realm.
“The big thing with climate is to have it be a conversation that moves beyond partisanship,” Wright said. “The science is there, we need to deal with it. And moving beyond partisanship is what the Olympics do on so many levels. I think we just have to embrace that.”
Wright, whose organization deals mostly with energy production, said Utah has already begun to make strides in that arena. She pointed to Rocky Mountain Power’s announcement that it plans to shut down most of its coal-fired power plants by 2030. She also pointed to plans to expand Trax and electrify buses and said the state has a plan to create a broader network of electric vehicle charging stations (though the legislature also just adopted a bill that would add a tax on EV stations while giving gas a tax break).
The Gardner report references a resolution passed by the Utah legislature in 2018 in which it resolves “to prioritize our understanding and use of sound science to address causes of a changing climate and support innovation and environmental stewardship in order to realize positive solutions.” It also highlights the 2020 establishment of the Utah Roadmap, which sets statewide goals and timelines for emissions reductions and other climate initiatives.
Hosting the Olympics could elevate that kind of work and bump Utah higher up in the pecking order for things like electric buses, Wright said. Perhaps more importantly, it sets a deadline.
“What we need to do and what I hope the Olympic committee will do as we look to a climate-positive Olympics is that we can bring it all together in a quilt that actually drives action for the entire state,” Wright said. “Because we need to take action on climate and we need to stay on a pace that we’ve never heard of. And so it’s bringing it all together and pushing it forward faster.”
Report also focuses on volunteerism, social factors, population and more
The report also highlights demographic and social factors that favor Utah hosting another successful Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
It takes thousands of volunteers to help run the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The games in Utah would need roughly 25,000 volunteers, said Nate Lloyd, the Gardner Institute’s director of economic research.
Volunteering is “in the DNA of Utah,” Bullock said.
In 2002, the committee put out an ad in the paper to find volunteers and got applications from around three times the amount of volunteers needed to help run the games, he said.
Between Sept. 2020 and Sept. 2021, nearly 1 million Utahns volunteered, according to a survey from AmeriCorps.
The state also had the highest rate of volunteerism during that time period, with 40.7% of Utah residents formally volunteering with an organization.
Volunteers helped make the 2002 games a success, Bullock said.
“They are the front line to the experience of the world, and they all had smiles on their faces,” he said.
Enthusiasm about the Olympics
Most people in Utah want the games to come back, according to a survey referenced in the report.
That survey found 82% of Utahs support the state hosting a future Winter Olympics. That’s up from 2002, when a different survey found 75% of people favored Salt Lake City hosting the games.
Social capital includes networks of relationships that enable a healthy functioning society, from family interaction and social supports to community health and philanthropy.
The U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project ranks Utah as the highest in the nation for social capital. Many Utah counties also rank highly.
Future Olympic and Paralympic Games would improve social connections as people “congregate to volunteer to welcome the world to Utah” or to watch the games or celebrate at coordinating events, the report reads.
The report highlights Utah’s population growth, including the state having the highest rate of growth between 2010 and 2020.
While the nation as a whole grew 7.4%, Utah saw an 18.4% increase. That’s the most growth of any state in that decade.
Utah’s population is expected to continue growing, the report shows, though the rate is likely to decrease in upcoming decades.
Utah’s strong economy and high quality of life attract new residents, the report says, and the state’s population is becoming more diverse and vibrant over time.
Winter sports, health, diversity, business development, and more
The report also highlights other factors that help make a future Winter Games a good fit for Salt Lake City, including:
World-class facilities and slopes: Utah has “ideal conditions” for Olympic athletes to train and has hosted dozens of elite athletic events since 2002, including the 2022 NCAA Skiing Championships and this year’s U.S. Championships & Junior Championships in Short Track.
Mental and physical well-being: Utah has the lowest spending per capita on health care and is the sixth healthiest state in America’s Health Rankings’ 2020 health outcomes category.
Equity, diversity and inclusion: State leaders have taken steps to improve social inclusion and committed themselves to anti-racism.
Business development opportunities: Skullcandy, Fusion Imaging and other companies can trace their roots back to the 2002 games, and companies like Amer Sports and Evo have benefited from strong economic conditions since then.
The full report is available at gardner.utah.edu/wp-content/uploads/OlySupplement-Apr2023.pdf?x71849.
Correction: April 27, 3:56 p.m. >> Sarah Wright is the executive director of Utah Clean Energy. Her name was incorrect in a previous version of this article.