When the World Came to Salt Lake

A random Facebook post this afternoon reminded me that the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, which were held right here in little ol’ Salt Lake City, opened 20 years ago today. Hard to believe so much time has passed already. The Olympics were perhaps the biggest thing that’s happened to this place — which I’ve always thought of in very similar terms to Luke Skywalker’s description of Tatooine — since the Mormons first arrived here in 1847. The stakes were impossibly high. The bidding process that landed us the Games had been tainted by allegations of bribery, and there were budgetary shortfalls on the order of several hundred million dollars. Mitt Romney — yes, that Mitt Romney, the future governor of Massachusetts and current US Senator from Utah — was brought in to assume control of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and get things back on track. Local scions like the Eccles family contributed money to help, as did the federal government, and a crash program was implemented to build venues and infrastructure, including the TRAX light-rail transit system connecting downtown Salt Lake to the southern end of the Salt Lake Valley and an ambitious expansion of I-15. In the end, much to the surprise of… well, everyone, I think… we pulled it off. The 2002 Winter Games were a financial success, ending with a surplus of $40 million. Moreover, the Games were a cultural success, viewed by some two billion people around the world (according to IOC estimates) and putting Salt Lake on the map, as it were. In my travels prior to 2002, nobody ever knew where I was talking about when I said I was from Salt Lake; afterwards, everyone responded, “Where the Olympics were held?”

It’s funny to me that I’m thinking about all of this with such nostalgia now, because in the beginning, I was solidly opposed to the whole damned thing. When Salt Lake was awarded the bid in 1995, I imagined that hosting the Games would be nothing more than a nuisance. Ungodly traffic jams and a small handful of hustlers, er, entrepreneurs getting rich while the rest of us got stuck with the bill. Later, as the event grew near, I became concerned about security (remember, the Games took place only a few months after 9/11), not to mention the very real possibility that my parochial little home — then one of the least diverse places in the United States, whose greatest culinary highlights were fry sauce and funeral potatoes, and whose religious, unworldly citizens prided themselves on being “a peculiar people” — would fall on its face in front of the entire world. I didn’t know how Salt Lake would fall on its face, but I just didn’t think the city or its people were up to such an enormous undertaking, and I didn’t want to face the collective humiliation that certainly awaited. Or the traffic. I hadn’t forgotten the traffic. To be honest, I gave serious thought to planningĀ a vacation to coincide with those two weeks.

In spite of all my big curmudgeonly talk, though, I stayed in town after all. And before it was all said and done, I couldn’t resist making a few treks downtown to experience everything that was going on. I was pretty oblivious to the actual sporting events — you know, the whole reason for hosting the Olympics! — but the Games had also attracted a lot of ancillary cultural offerings, many of them limited-time things that had never visited Utah before and, for all we knew, would never come again. Anne and I saw Savion Glover dance and took in an exhibition of glass artist Dale Chihuly’s work. (I knew about Chihuly from a PBS documentary I’d seen, but this was the first time we’d encountered his work in person, and we both became fans almost instantly.) As I recall, we attended a couple of special film screenings. And most of all we were just there, soaking in the atmosphere. There was an irresistible crackle in the air, the electricity of something big and novel and seemingly historic.

For two weeks, this boring, buttoned-down, beige-stucco’d outpost of conformity on the edge of a vast desert wasteland felt… important. Not only that, it felt different. More diverse, more active, freer, somehow more grown-up. Cosmopolitan. As impressive as the Chihulys and Glover’s tapping were, the thing I most remember is just walking around downtown, marveling at familiar skyscrapers transformed by those giant banners you can see in the photo above, immersed in a stew of different languages and accents from all over the world.

The first trip I took anywhere as an adult was to San Francisco, way back in 1991 when I was a mere babe of 21 years old. I remember experiencing a bit of culture shock at suddenly being surrounded by so many different kinds of faces and languages after coming from such a whitebread place as Utah. It was exotic and it was exhilarating. And for two weeks, I got to experience that same feeling right here in my own back yard. That’s what the 2002 Winter Games were for me. I can’t tell you who medalled or in what sport. But for two weeks, Salt Lake was an exciting place to be.

According to various think pieces I’ve read, Salt Lake City has become surprisingly progressive in recent years, at least relative to the rest of the state. It’s now home to a vibrant LGBTQ community and you see a lot more people of color in downtown than you used to. And SLC is now a political outlier, too, a pocket of Democratic blue in a red, red state. I don’t know if these changes have anything to do with the city hosting the Games or if they would’ve happened organically over time anyhow. But the one thing I do know is that Salt Lake is no longer invisible to the rest of the country, or the world. It’s no longer “the planet farthest from the bright center of the universe.” And I am relatively certain that that, at least, is the legacy of the 2002 Olympics.

There’s talk about Salt Lake bidding to host the Games again. I don’t know how I feel about that. On the one hand, we’re in a much better position now to do it. The venues are already in place and have been maintained. We know what to expect. But somehow I just can’t imagine that it would be as much fun as it was the first time. No matter what happens with another Games, though, I still get a warm glow whenever I glimpse Salt Lake’s very own Chihuly installation — originally just a loaner that became a permanent fixture — through the windows of Abravanel Hall. And I still have my Roots beret, too.