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Volume 20 No. 46
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Utah looks at getting back into Olympic mix

Utah politicians and sports leaders naturally celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Salt Lake City Olympics this month, but their real focus is on hosting the Winter Games all over again.

While the American Olympic movement is putting its full efforts into Los Angeles’ bid for the 2024 Summer Games, a coalition of Utahans has positioned itself as a ready-made backup option for 2026 if it comes to that. The fate of the upcoming bid races is highly uncertain, but demand from potential host cities has withered in recent years and a willing, proven commodity might be in high demand.

In their eyes, the legacy of Salt Lake City 2002 is best demonstrated by noting how easy it would be to repeat a generation later. The ’02 Games, at first plagued by scandal and post-9/11 security fears, recovered to post a $100 million operating budget surplus and spurred a bona fide explosion in winter sports business in Utah.

Today, the 2002 Olympic sports venues are still in heavy use by both elite athletes and recreational enthusiasts, generating revenue that allows them to be kept up to code as many other Olympic venues around the world decay.

Utah is a regular host of world cups and other international sporting events, and both the competition and noncompetition infrastructure would need only limited upgrades to host the big prize again.

“Ready, willing and able” is the line Salt Lake City sports leaders use to signal their eagerness while acknowledging that only the U.S. Olympic Committee decides when and where to bid.

The bobsled track is one of the facilities that the city has maintained in hopes of another Winter Games bid.

If the USOC pulls the trigger on a winter bid, the groundwork has been laid for a swift response. A Utah exploratory committee in 2012 published a 36-page report saying exactly what work would need to be done.

“Our encouragement to the U.S. Olympic Committee is to bid whenever possible for upcoming Games,” said Colin Hilton, Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation president and CEO, speaking from his second-story desk at the center of the Olympic Park in Park City. Funded by the 2002 surplus, the foundation manages that endowment, and maintains and generates revenue from three sports venues.

“Right now, as it should be, the focus is on Los Angeles 2024. Whatever happens there, win or lose, we’re ready, willing and able,” Hilton continued. “But it’s a partnership with the USOC to decide when the time is right.”

The ability to react quickly normally would be paramount, because under past timelines, the International Olympic Committee would expect bidders to declare their interest for 2026 just a few weeks after a ’24 host is chosen in September. But last week, the IOC said the 2026 bid process would not start until mid-2018, giving potential bidders several additional months.

It’s hard to predict how the 2024 race will develop, and a Los Angeles win presumably would preclude a ’26 bid.

The USOC is not entertaining the notion. “The USOC is only bidding for the 2024 Olympic Games and would not consider a 2026 bid,” said USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky.

But that dynamic could change if there’s continued lack of interest from bidders for Winter Games. So far, groups in Calgary, Sweden and two in Switzerland are weighing bids for 2026, but it’s far from certain they will proceed.

Utah’s approach to staying in the mix for future Olympics is maintaining a robust sports culture for both residents and tourists, said Hilton and Jeff Robbins, president and CEO of the separate Utah Sports Commission. That means not limiting the venues to elite athlete development, and aggressively bidding for international sports events.

This month, Utah venues have already hosted an FIS Freestyle Ski World Cup event and the Nordic Junior World Championships. In 2019, the Salt Lake region will host the FIS Freestyle & Snowboard World Championships, the largest winter sports event outside the Olympics.

On a day-to-day basis, the 2002 speedskating venue, the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, is in use from 5 a.m. to midnight, with elite athletes training in the morning, followed by youth hockey practice and public skating in the afternoon and curling at night.

Fifteen miles away in Park City, scores of children arrived at the primary park in the afternoon for skiing and snowboarding lessons on a recent snowy day. At the same venue, bobsled rides on the Olympic course are sold for $175, and in the summer, aerial ski jumpers entertain crowds by practicing tricks and landing in a pool.

Landing the Olympics would be a civic pride victory, but it also would relieve budget strains.

As the venues approach their 20th years, the capital budget is steadily growing, with certain big-ticket projects on the horizon. A roof on the oval will cost $1.5 million to replace. A chiller for the bobsled track will cost $250,000, Hilton said.

“It used to be about a million bucks a year to maintain the capital budgets, but it’s been creeping up over the last eight to 10 years by a couple hundred thousand per year,” Hilton said. “Now it’s averaging $1.8 million per year to maintain our three Olympic venues.”

The Utah Sports Commission also has its roots in the run-up to the ’02 Games, when then-Gov. Mike Leavitt sought a strategy on how to leverage the Olympics for the long term. The commission sponsors and assists a wide range of sports, of all seasons, to draw attention and tourism to the state. “We’re not just doing this so we’re ready for the Olympics,” Robbins said, “but because it makes sense for the state of Utah.”

In 2012, an exploratory committee laid out exactly what would be required for a new Olympics. At the time, Hilton said, Denver and Reno/Lake Tahoe were weighing bids — talk of bidding also occasionally bubbles up out of Lake Placid, N.Y. — and Salt Lake wanted to emphasize its readiness.

“Our position is we don’t need more bobsled tracks and ski jumps,” Hilton said. “We have them existing here, and we’re excited to continue to use them.”

According to the committee’s final report, the only major work needed to host again would be improving bedroom capacity at the University of Utah for an athletes village.

Utah Olympic backers are doubly encouraged by the IOC’s recent emphasis on affordability. After appearing at a ceremony Feb. 4 marking the 2002 anniversary, organizing committee CEO Mitt Romney made a prediction: “I think they’ll be back. I just don’t know when.”