Even though Salt Lake City is nearing the end of a four-year, privately financed, $7 million quest to host the Winter Olympic Games for 2002, the subject has barely surfaced in Utah. Yet a decision is imminent: On June 16 the International Olympic Committee will select from four cities, and Salt Lake and Quebec appear to be the front runners.


"It concerns us, but not enough to enlist us to the cause," says Michael Matz of the usually outspoken Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. The Utah Wilderness Association is also sitting this one out. "We're limited in what we can do," George Nickas says, adding that with limited resources, the focus is on Utah's contentious BLM wilderness designation process.


Only one major Utah environmental organization has belatedly entered the debate. The 10,000 members of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club last month received a letter and petition asking for help in getting enough signatures to put an Olympics-related referendum on the ballot next fall. That referendum movement is also promoted by Utahns for Responsible Public Spending, which attacks the games on economic, not environmental, grounds.


"The tree-huggers got snookered," says the group's Steven Pace. "The Sierra Club has been a big help, but it would have helped if they'd come out sooner."


Environmental passivity has its roots in 1984, when civic boosters and government leaders conducted a feasibility study to see if Utah should seek another Olympic bid. The city had bid two previous times.


The 1984 study recommended that Salt Lake City seek the games, while pledging to stay away from Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, home of ski resorts Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude. The canyons are zealously protected by Salt Lake-area watchdog groups such as Save Our Canyons and the Wasatch Mountain Club, which are concerned about development in the narrow, avalanche-prone canyons. Pace, a frequent backcountry user of the canyons, says environmentalists were so shocked by victory over the canyons "that they were too dumbfounded to ask for any real concessions."


Back in the mid-1980s, games advocates said the Olympic bid process itself would bring attention to the state, then mired in an economic depression. But since the mid-'80s slump, Salt Lake City has become hot. Its computer software businesses rank second only to California's Silicon Valley for employment, and growth is so rapid the biggest headache for city and state planners is coping with success - keeping traffic flowing on crowded roads, trying to cut air pollution and building schools fast enough.


Now, instead of emphasizing the economic value of the Olympics, Olympic boosters talk about inspiring Utah's youth to catch the "Olympic spirit."


An example can be seen in a lower-income neighborhood in the suburb of Kearns. There, eager kids from Beehive Elementary School gather around a 16-time Polish speed-skating champion who now works for the U.S. Olympic Committee. Stanislaw Klotkowski is visiting because next door to the school, construction workers are finishing work on an Olympic speed-skating oval. The oval, along with a ski-jumping complex and bobsled and luge track near the resort town of Park City, are legacies of the Olympic bid, whether it is successful or not. In order to get the U.S. rights to try for the games, the U.S. Olympic Committee required Salt Lake to build Olympic venues years ahead. A 1989 statewide referendum approved the diversion of $59 million in sales tax revenue to build the facilities, which are nearly complete.


"Look what's happening already," marvels Mike Korologos, communications director for the bid committee. "Those kids are hooking their dreams to Stan. They'll be ice skating instead of painting graffiti on overpasses."


The Olympic spirit argument may have replaced economic development as a goal of Salt Lake City's bid, but it hasn't blinded critics to the fact that hosting the games in Salt Lake will focus more attention on the area and encourage growth. That's why the Sierra Club recently jumped into the fray.


Utah Sierra Chairman Rudy Lukez says the Sierra Club is writing a report it plans to deliver to each of the 93 members of the International Olympic Committee before their June vote.


"No one's sat down and had a vision as to where we are going with all this growth," Lukez says.


John Hoagland, a winter sports specialist for the Forest Service, says he hopes the concern about growth impacts forces the bid committee to put more of an environmental spin on the games. Hoagland went to Lillehammer as an agency observer and came away impressed with the town's incorporation of environmental issues into every facet of their games.


The bid committee's Korologos says concern for the environment is already central to the bid. He points to the exclusion of the Cottonwood canyons as one example, and says the 1.7 million ticket holders expected will be required to take natural gas-powered buses to events.


The Salt Lake City Olympic Bid Committee can be reached at 215 South State, Suite 2002, Salt Lake City, UT 84111 (801/322-2002). The Utah Sierra Club Chapter can be reached at 2273 South Highland Drive, Salt Lake City, UT 84106 (801/467-9297). Utahns For Responsible Public Spending can be reached at 181 B Street, Salt Lake City, UT 84103 (801/363-8190).


* Larry Warren





Reporter Larry Warren covers the environment and Olympics beats for KUTV in Salt Lake City.