In four years, thousands of reporters and spectators will crowd hillsides and stadiums around Salt Lake City to watch the world's top skiers, skaters, bobsledders and other athletes muscle for medals in the world's biggest winter sporting event. Competition will be fierce, but in some ways, the games will be pale imitations of the intense struggle that brought the Olympics to Utah.
That struggle ignited in 1984, as Salt
Lake City warmed up for its fifth attempt at winning the Winter
Olympics. Unlike previous modest efforts to bring the games to
town, this push was urgent. Utah was at the center of a regionwide
recession. Jobs were scarce, bankruptcy rampant and young people
were fleeing the state in search of work. The average Utahn made
less in a year than residents of any other state except
desperate," recalls Ted Wilson, who was Salt Lake City's mayor from
1976 to 1985. "There was a tremendous lack of confidence. It was
almost an inferiority complex. The Olympics were a way to buy our
way out of that."
Among those looking for a
cure were politicians, state and city planners, Mormon church
leaders and Utah's ski industry. The Olympics also had great appeal
for many Salt Lakers who have long disliked the city's home-by-6:00
reputation, best expressed by the baseball cap that read, "Eat,
drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may be in Utah." The games
would be a chance to show the world Utah knows how to
Alexis Kelner, one of Salt Lake's
pre-eminent environmental gadflies, was one of the first to suggest
that the Olympics were not what Utah needed. Since the early days
of Salt Lake's courtship with the games, Kelner and an energetic
band of activists had plastered the town with bumper stickers
reading, "SAVE OUR CANYONS" and "UTAH YES - OLYMPICS
Now, they doubled their efforts, trying to
convince politicians, land managers and the general public that the
games would leave the Wasatch Mountains forever
Nonetheless, in 1985, Mayor Wilson took
Salt Lake's proposal for the 1990 games to the U.S. Olympic
Committee, which turned it down in favor of Anchorage, Alaska. The
International Olympic Committee then rejected Anchorage in favor of
The rejection only made
Utah's Olympic fever hotter. In 1989, to please the U.S. Olympic
Committee, Olympic boosters asked Utah voters to spend $59 million
in tax money up front on ski jumps, bobsled and luge tracks, ice
skating rinks and other facilities.
his cue from Denver Olympic opponents, who had convinced Colorado
voters to turn down the 1976 winter games. He joined forces with an
equally outspoken group of tax protesters who argued that the
Olympics were a financial boondoggle that would benefit the rich,
while leaving Utah with the tab.
stickers appeared: "NO TAX $$$ FOR ," and, "HAVE WE GOT A LUGE FOR
YOU!" Kelner even wrote a critical book, Utah's Olympic Circus, and
mailed a copy to every member of the U.S. Olympic
But Utah's Olympic fever proved too
much for opponents. By 57 percent to 43 percent, the voters opted
to put $59 million down. Two years later, Gov. Norm Bangerter
stepped behind the games, pledging that the state would share any
deficit with Salt Lake City.
Under Ted Wilson's
successor, Palmer DePaulis, the city tried for the 1998 Olympics,
but those games went to Nagano, Japan.
in 1995, a decade of hard work and the $59 million gamble paid off
when the International Olympic Committee decided Salt Lake City
would be the place in 2002.
But the 1995 decision did not have
the economic meaning it would have had in 1985; Utah's desperate
days were over. By the early 1990s, state and local incentives had
brought enough software and electronics companies to the Salt Lake
area to earn it the title, "the second Silicon Valley." Utah's ski
industry also picked up speed, service jobs multiplied, and baby
boomers flocked to the Wasatch Front for its rugged backdrop and
easy access to the mountains.
The growth pushed
an already sprawling city even further. Salt Lake City flowed west
toward the Great Salt Lake and up the foothills to the east.
Suburbs brushed elbows with Ogden to the north and Provo to the
south, forming a nearly continuous metropolis stretching almost 100
miles along the base of the Wasatch Mountains.
Today, the greater Wasatch area is home to 80 percent of the
state's population, 1.6 million people. Thanks in large part to the
state's high birth rate, that number is rising at twice the
Population growth has brought
more smog, gridlock and crime, while squeezing water supplies, open
space and farmland.
starting to look like L.A.," says Ted Wilson, gazing down on Salt
Lake City from his office at the University of Utah's Hinckley
Institute of Politics.
Wilson now wonders if the
Olympics were such a good idea. "When I see the growth and the
impacts it's having, I'm not sure we need any more promotion," he
says. "It's not like we need to go out and sell Utah any more.
People know about us. Our biggest problem is trying to fit them all
He is not the only one having second
thoughts. With the Olympics just four years off, the Wasatch
Front's frenzied growth has hit its highest pitch yet. The rush to
get ready for 2002 has already thrown some tough questions - and a
harsh glimpse of the future - squarely in Utah's
Life in the slow
Interstate 15 is where the ongoing growth
and the Olympics collide. The six-lane speedway runs north-south
through the heart of the Salt Lake Valley, tying the metropolitan
area together. It was built in the early 1960s, and was soon
congested. In the early 1990s, the Utah Department of
Transportation came up with a plan to expand the road section by
section over at least 10 years.
Then came the
promise of the Olympics, and the 10-year timetable was compressed
into five years. The 17-mile expressway will be completely rebuilt
and widened at the breathtaking cost of $1.6 billion. Suddenly,
Utah has the biggest public-works project under construction
anywhere in America.
multimillion-dollar early-completion bonuses, highway contractors
are moving with extraordinary, and disruptive, speed. Overnight,
bridges are demolished, interchanges closed. Westbound Interstate
80 comes to a dead halt at Salt Lake's State Street. Signs warn
"Freeway closed ahead," and rows of orange barrels shunt all
traffic onto surface streets. "Closed" signs are plastered over
exits promising routes to Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Idaho.
Traffic accidents are way up. Hospital medical
helicopters are doing one-third more business than a year ago,
flying over traffic snarls to pluck victims from
construction-spawned wrecks. Road rage has become so epidemic that
the Utah Highway Patrol has launched a courteous driving
To compound difficulties, the Utah
Transit Authority is tearing out more roads to build a light-rail
system, and the Utah Transportation Department has been working at
the last minute to widen some key arterial side streets as
One frustrated motorist, Bob
Cameron from Calgary, Alberta, wrote the Salt Lake Tribune last
summer, "I guess we should be satisfied we escaped with our lives.
The highway more resembles the deck of an aircraft carrier
launching jets than a freeway with a speed limit."
Though Utah's representatives continue to use
the Olympics as bait for federal highway money, Olympic organizers
are quick to draw a distinction. "Let's not confuse I-15
construction with the Olympics," cautions Salt Lake Organizing
Committee President Frank Joklik. "That's a popular misconception."
Joklik is partly right. The road work was going
to be done eventually. But the Olympics sped up the process, and
drew in more funds to get the job done.
in an immense construction zone has made many Utahns realize that,
whatever its source, unrestricted growth is taking a toll on the
Wasatch Front's laid-back way of life, says Wendy Fisher, executive
director of Utah Open Lands, a Park City-based land trust. "People
are sitting in their cars saying, "This is ridiculous. This is not
what I moved to Utah for." "
A wake-up call?
There's more growth on the way,
according to Philip Emmi, a professor of urban and regional
planning at the University of Utah. While the Olympics will have
only a small effect on Utah's overall growth, the games will have a
large impact on what that growth will look
infrastructure to meet the needs of the Olympics," says Emmi, "we
are making important decisions with respect to the future direction
of growth." By building up freeways and other roads, he says, the
state is encouraging the metro area to sprawl out through the Salt
Lake Valley and into the mountains to the east. Subdivisions will
devour wildlife habitat and inundate small
If Utah continues along this track, by
2050 the Wasatch Front will see 5 million people - a population
facing longer commutes and more pea-soup smog - according to
Envision Utah, a group of government planners, business leaders and
citizen groups. Cities and suburbs, expected to quadruple from 320
square miles to 1,350 square miles, will swallow more than half the
"Utah needs to learn
to say when," says Wendy Fisher, but "it's tough to go from "growth
is good" to "maybe growth is really painful and addictive."
Making that switch is particularly difficult
in a state enamored of local government, private property rights,
large families and market-based decisions. Utah's Republican-run
state Legislature routinely shoots down any initiatives for
statewide planning, zoning or conservation.
the rush to get ready for the Olympics may give Utah a kick in the
pants. "Planning isn't something you've got to get done tomorrow,"
says Brad Barber with the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget.
"It's easy to put planning on the back burner. But the games create
Barber is working with Envision
Utah to explore the state's alternatives. Armed with $2.5 million
and veteran planners from Berkeley, Calif., and Portland, Ore., the
group will spend two years studying possible futures for the
Wasatch Front. Barber hopes that Envision Utah's cooperative
approach will be more fruitful than working from the state level
"We're doing just about
all we can do," he says. "There's more planning going on today than
any time in the past few decades."
is also hopeful. While the state Legislature languishes, the public
is starting to catch on, she says. "The majority of Utah does want
open space and does want to preserve their way of life."
Whose games are
But preparing for the long haul is not at
the front of most Utahns' minds. The Olympics have raised more
pressing questions: Who pays for the games, and who
From the beginning, Salt Lake Olympic
organizers have promised to use media royalties and private
donations to repay the $59 million taxpayers put into sports
facilities, and to ask for no more public money. But that pledge
looks less and less likely to be fulfilled. In 1989, when Utahns
made the initial investment, the Organizing Committee said the
games would probably cost $456 million. Within months of the
referendum, the estimate was $950 million; guesses now range from
$1.2 billion to $1.5 billion.
Leavitt roused fears in February while visiting the Olympics in
Nagano, Japan. He told the Deseret News Utah would have to put more
tax money into supporting the games.
comments drew a heated response from the Utah Legislature, where
Rep. Bill Hickman of Saint George seethed, "I'd hate to be the one
(that the Organizing Committee) sends up here with his hand out.
He'll be shot full of arrows."
Utah's congressional delegation was talking about asking the nation
to share the Olympic tab. Awed by the $13 billion Nagano spent on
bullet trains, skating rinks and the rest of the Olympic
production, Rep. Merrill Cook, a newly elected conservative
Republican, told the Salt Lake Tribune, "It's very important for
Congress to understand that the Salt Lake City Olympics are truly
American games." Cook and Utah Sen. Robert Bennett promised to ask
Congress for funding to help with security and
The cost revelations came as no
surprise to long-time Olympic opponents like Stephen Pace, who
helped start the "truth posse" Utahns for Responsible Public
Spending during the 1989 referendum. He puts a cynical twist on
former Colorado Rep. Richard Lamm's phrase that persuaded his state
to ban public spending on the 1976 winter Olympics: "These are rich
men's games paid for by poor men's taxes."
"The Olympics always play out
on the same script," says Pace. "You've got the big-time media
which sells professional athletes to advertisers. Then you have
pretentious ne'er-do-wells on the International Olympic Committee
and local rip-off artists who suck up the money. And naive
star-struck politicians write a blank check to pay off the Olympics
when they run out of money - which they always do."
It's true. Every winter Olympics in the
last 50 years has either run into the red, or been subsidized or
bailed out by taxpayers. Meanwhile, the International Olympic
Committee, which owns the Olympic trademark - five intertwined
rings - makes out like a bandit.
takes a large percentage of the television royalties right off the
top. Its 118 members are hand-picked by president Juan Antonio
Samaranch, who was a longtime official under Spain's former fascist
leader Francisco Franco. Bob Simon of 60 Minutes recently called
the group "a smattering of royals and nobles, sporting czars,
Olympians, businessmen, directors of Coca-Cola, Visa, Samsung,
which also happen to be sponsors of the Games." The group's
meetings and books, he added, are closed.
Salt Lake City, the Organizing Committee's 32-member Board of
Directors reads like a "who's who" of the power elite of Utah. The
board's president, Frank Joklik, is the former chief of Utah's
giant Kennecott Copper company. Also on the list are bankers, ski
industry higher-ups, industrial bigwigs and sports advocates,
including ski racer Picabo Street. While there have been some
efforts to include community groups, the committee's executive
board consists exclusively of politicians, international and U.S.
Olympic Committee members and businessmen.
no secret that some of these officials are using the games to pad
their pocketbooks. Alan Layton, the contractor rebuilding the
University of Utah's football stadium for the opening ceremonies,
sits on the board. So do Nicholas Badami and Gordon Strachan, both
associated with Park City Mountain Resort, which will contract for
Olympic ski races.
The most striking example is
Earl Holding, owner of Sinclair Oil, Little America hotels and Sun
Valley Ski Resort, who sits on the board's executive committee. In
1994, under the Olympic banner, Holding worked a lucrative land
trade at his Snowbasin Ski Resort.
lengthy public process and much compromise, the Forest Service had
offered to trade Holding 700 acres at the resort's base. But with
Salt Lake Olympic organizers eying Snowbasin for the downhill ski
races, Holding simply went to the U.S. Congress, where Utah
Republican Rep. James Hansen helped him sidestep environmental laws
and accrue 1,350 acres for a four-season resort (HCN,
Then last spring, Holding hired Gray
Reynolds to run Snowbasin. As a top official with the U.S. Forest
Service, Reynolds had testified at congressional hearings that the
land swap had the Clinton administration's blessing. And while
Reynolds bristles at claims that his new job has any connection to
his congressional testimony, it doesn't look
Now, Utah congressmen are asking for $15
million in federal money to build a new road to Snowbasin, a
project Holding had promised to fund himself. And in 2002, the
Organizing Committee will pay Holding $13.8 million to rent
Snowbasin for the downhill races and lease his land in downtown
Meanwhile, executive committee
meetings are held behind closed doors, and though organizers have
been promising an up-to-date budget since last fall, nothing has
All this has some community
leaders feeling used. "The citizens approved the $60 million to
help get the bid and promote the Olympics," says John Cushing,
mayor of Bountiful and president of the Utah Association of Cities
and Towns. Olympic organizers "have a responsibility to let the
public be a part of the process."
It's Utah's move
Lake Organizing Committee's Frank Joklik denies that the Olympics
are a moneymaking scheme for corporate interests. "The inspiration
of the Olympics for our young people can't be measured," says the
self-described "Olympic nut."
"They'll bring incredible
economic activity and increased tax levies," he adds. "No one need
fear they'll be shortchanged."
Salt Lake City
Olympic Coordinator Renee Tanner is also optimistic. "The Olympics
are a great lever to help get funding for projects we need over the
long term," she says, pointing to federal money that is paying to
rebuild I-15, a new light-rail system and the city's "Gateway
District." She also expects the games to boost the state's tourism
Former Salt Lake City mayor Ted Wilson
acknowledges that Utah has played its cards well. "The community
has used the games quite skillfully. There's been a lot of money
that's come into Utah because of the games."
Still, he says, if the state wants to avoid a political crisis,
Olympic organizers and Salt Lake City officials will have to mend
the schism that has formed between the Olympic movement and the
people. As an Olympic booster in the 1980s, Wilson saw the games as
a way for Utah to help itself out of tough times. The state's
taxpayers believed in that when they put $59 million into sports
But the chaos in the Salt Lake
Valley and Olympic organizers' aloof, secretive manner show that
the games have become less about Utah and more about two weeks in
the spotlight and a few extra bucks for those who already have
With four years to go, Many of the major
decisions have been made. But Utah can still insist that its tax
dollars be spent to benefit the state in the long run, rather than
simply to make the Olympics work.
Unless Utah as
a whole takes the Olympics in hand - something it has not yet done
- it will be left in the dust as the Olympic elite take their party
to the next town. And unless the state decides what it wants the
future to look like, others will make that decision, and the
Wasatch Front will continue to stumble toward more smog, sprawl and
scarred mountainsides. Says Wilson, "The cities and towns will have
to step up to the plate."
Larry Warren, a Park City-based freelancer, contributed to this
story. Assistant editor Greg Hanscom grew up in Park City,
You can contact
* The Salt Lake Organizing Committee at
801/322-2002, or find it on the Web at
* Stephen Pace with Utahns for
Responsible Public Spending at 801/363-8190;
Brad Barber with the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget at
* the Save Our Canyons' Web page