Why Salt Lake City’s Winter Olympics fate hangs in the balance this week

Expert says to “bet the house on Salt Lake City” landing a bid for 2030 or 2034.

When the International Olympic Committee gave Salt Lake City the nod to host the 2002 Olympics back in 1995, ending 30 years of attempts to bring the Winter Games to Utah, bid officials, state politicians and many community members exulted.

Any fanfare Wednesday will be considerably more subdued — outwardly anyway.

Cutting through the bureaucracy and politics, Salt Lake City could, for all intents and purposes, be singled out Wednesday as the future host of either the 2030 or 2034 Winter Olympics. Yet those behind the bid will have to wait to pop the Martinelli’s. Under the IOC’s new host selection process, which is wrapped in red tape, few things are that clear-cut.

While France, Sweden and Switzerland are known to also have interest in hosting, the IOC no longer is pitting countries against one another. Instead, as a way to encourage more countries to bid and to save face amid prevalent corruption, the organization adopted a new, less-suspenseful way of selecting hosts. Since it has been applied only once before — in the selection of Brisbane, Australia, to host the 2032 Summer Games — though, exactly how the new process will play out is unclear.

What is clear is that the IOC’s executive board is scheduled to meet with the organization’s Future Host Commission to be briefed on which sites are best prepared to stage the 2030 or 2034 Winter Games. The board is then expected to enter into “targeted dialogue” with at least one site per edition. Under “targeted dialogue,” that site will have a lock on hosting the Games unless it can’t fulfill certain obligations and government contracts required by the IOC. Those forms are due in March. If everything is in order, the host will almost certainly be confirmed by the IOC’s general membership during its meeting before the Paris 2024 Olympics in July.

Will Salt Lake City’s strategy pay off?

The IOC confirmed last month that Salt Lake City is the only bid group to have already gathered all the necessary assurances. Fraser Bullock, president and CEO of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games, said at the time he felt that bolstered Utah’s bid.

“Our strategy of being ahead of the bid process, by having all of the government guarantees in place,” Bullock said, “offers the IOC a very relaxed, reliable, stable candidate in the face of an uncertain world.”

In addition, Salt Lake City offers the most compact footprint of the potential sites, will not have to build any new permanent structures and, according to one poll, has a nearly 80% public approval rate. What’s more, organizers say the $2.2 billion to $2.4 billion price tag of putting on the Games will be entirely privately funded.

“So,” wrote Robert Livingstone, who has been following the process for the site GamesBids.com, “bet the house on Salt Lake City.”

Even if Utah’s capital is a shoo-in to host a Winter Games, plenty of mystery remains in the process.

The big question: 2030 or 2034?

There is the possibility, for instance, that the IOC won’t select any sites for targeted dialogue this week. That’s the move it pulled at this time last year, when Salt Lake City was contending with shaky bids by Vancouver, Canada, and Sapporo, Japan, to host the 2030 Games. Instead of foisting the Games on Salt Lake City, which had made clear it would prefer hosting in 2034 to distance itself and its sponsors from the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles, the IOC executive board delayed the decision. That gave other potential hosts more time to pull together bids while Sapporo and Vancouver ultimately dropped their 2030 pursuits.

Also unknown is which edition of the Games the IOC will pin on Salt Lake City.

As mentioned, Utah is the only one of four known contenders that already has all the pieces in place for the Games. Therefore, it would seem most prudent for the IOC to put the 2030 Games in Salt Lake City and give other potential hosts more time to get their papers in order. After all, by the time the host of the 2030 Games is finalized next July, the winner will have only 5½ years to pull everything together, far less than the standard seven years. Plus, Bullock has said numerous times that his group will be “ready and willing” to host the Games whenever called upon.

Salt Lake City’s preference for the 2034 Games clouds that scenario, however. Blurring things even more is the fact that NBC’s broadcast rights expire in 2032. Broadcasting a Games in the United States, which has one of the highest Olympic viewerships, might make for a nice carrot during the next round of contract negotiations.

For his part, Livingstone predicted the IOC will pick two or maybe three of the other sites for targeted dialogue for 2030. He said he believes Sweden, a country where winter sports are wildly popular but which has never hosted a Winter Games, would be option 1a. Switzerland, he said, would be 1b and France likely 1c. That still opens a slim window for Salt Lake City to step in as Plan B if those countries fail to fulfill all their contractual obligations.

So go ahead and bet on Salt Lake City to host a future Olympics, but expect Utah organizers to keep the cork in the bubbly for a few more months. If there’s exultation this week, you can bet it’ll happen behind closed doors.