Lighting the Olympic cauldron was meant to send a message of unity to Utahns

Several hundred people, including past and potentially future Olympians, gathered for the first public celebration of the state’s preferred status as the host of the 2034 Winter Games

From the shelter of Rice Eccles Stadium, Stephani Victor watched the 2002 Olympic and Paralympic cauldron catch fire. It was raining, she remembers. Stevie Wonder was the musical act and Muhammad Ali did the lighting.

Twenty years later, Victor felt her throat catch and her eyes well again up while witnessing another lighting of the cauldron. Friday night, the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games fired up the 2002 flame in a ceremony commemorating Wednesday’s announcement that the state has been named the “preferred host” for the 2034 Winter Olympics.

The lighting of the cauldron served as the first community celebration of the Games’ likely return. For Victor, the community was what made those 2002 Winter Games — the first of five Paralympics she would compete in as a para alpine skier — so special. And, she’s sure the community will be what will make Salt Lake City’s Olympics a success again in 2034.

“People have to remember we were in the wake of 9/11. And what Salt Lake did is they said, ‘Oh, no, our arms are wide open. Our hearts are wide open,’” said Victor, who won bronze in downhill in 2002 and followed that up with a gold medal in slalom in ‘06 and gold in combined in ‘10.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stephani Victor, third from righ, joins other Olympians and Paralympians from multiple different Games during the lighting of the Olympic Cauldron at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, in celebration of Salt Lake City being named the “preferred host” of the 2034 Winter Olympic Games.

“We are going to take generosity and spirit and just warm welcome to a whole other level.”

Several hundred people gathered at the cauldron plaza outside the stadium to watch the temporary lighting of the flame and glimpse Olympians past and possibly future. They chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A” as more than 25 athletes crowded onto the stage in front of the 107-foot-tall tower.

The athletes ranged from 9-year-old figure skater Annabelle Atkinson and 11-year-old alpine skier Sydney Ervin to Billy Demong, a five-time Olympian and gold and silver medalist in Nordic combined, and Ashley Caldwell, an aerial skier who took gold in the team event last year in Beijing. The athlete experience is a key focus of local bid organizers. In addition to getting more of them involved in the movement — including, it was announced at a board meeting prior to the ceremony, the addition of snowboarder Shaun White to the strategic board — they plan to create a special family village to house athletes’ loved ones during the Games.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall emphasized that the state has little else in terms of infrastructure to build, at least in the International Olympic Committee’s eyes. Should the IOC select it in July to host, the 2034 Games will use only existing or temporary venues. Mendenhall said that means the state can instead focus on its people.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Governor Spencer Cox expresses his enthusiasm during a lighting ceremony of the Olympic Cauldron at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, in celebration of Salt Lake City being named the “preferred host” of the 2034 Winter Olympic Games.

“What we’re going to be building is community,” she said. “We’re going to be building our own identity as Salt Lakers as Utahns even deeper into loving each other, celebrating each other so that when the world gets here, they know they’re a part [of something]. They feel like they’ve come home in a way just by landing here in Salt Lake City and feeling this welcoming spirit.”

Victor felt that warm embrace when she competed in 2002. More poignantly, she recalls Paralympians being treated as equals to Olympians, which gave her a sense of belonging she said she carries with her still today. Friday’s ceremony brought all those feelings back to the surface.

“If any community could rise up in an even more glorious way,” Victor said, “I’m confident it’s Salt Lake, and it’s evidenced by what’s here tonight.”