Olympic Dreams: Utah is ready, willing and waiting to welcome the world again

Just as the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games got off to a start, Utah’s own Olympic Exploratory Committee (OEC) released its years-in-the-making report about whether the Beehive State should once again bid to host the Winter Games. Their answer: a resounding yes.

And, it’s not just the OEC who’s excited about the prospect of hosting again. Days before the report was officially released, the Utah State Legislature advanced a concurrent resolution to back a future bid. And most Utahns support the idea, too—a Dan Jones poll found that 89 percent of respondents would like the state to host another round of the Winter Games.

But as Utah gets one step closer to launching its bid, some wonder: is the state really ready? And, with hosting costs on the rise (several cities have pulled their bids due to the climbing cost), is hosting the event financially responsible?

Despite these concerns, Utah is ready, willing and waiting to welcome the world again, says Fraser Bullock, OEC member and COO of the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games. “Utah has done everything possible to be a great choice to host again.”

Andy Beerman, Park City mayor and OEC member, agrees. “We have the advantage of having hosted the most successful winter Olympics of the modern era. We have maintained our venues, we have continued to improve our infrastructure, especially transportation, and our residents have an ongoing passion for winter sports.”

In excellent shape

Utah might be ready, willing and waiting to host the Winter Games, but one giant hurdle remains, says Bullock. “Our biggest issue is that L.A. is hosting the Summer Olympics in 2028 and the next two winter openings are 2026 and 2030—our focus is 2030. Hosting back-to-back Games in the United States has economic challenges, but we believe we have a strategy to address that concern.”

Hosting the Games has always been expensive, but the price tag has seen a significant increase during the last two decades. Utah spent just under $2.5 billion to prep for the 2002 event. Up to that point, $2.5 billion was the highest amount any host city had dedicated to the Games. A lot has changed in the past 16 years—Olympic budgets have soared. Russia, for example, spent an estimated $22 billion to prepare for the Sochi 2014 Winter Games. And that estimate doesn’t include infrastructure costs, which increases the estimate to a hefty $55 billion.

On top of the sky-rocketing costs associated with hosting the Games, Utah wouldn’t be able to pursue sponsorships until the 2028 L.A. Summer Games are over. Without sponsorships, the costs could fall heavily on Utahns’ shoulders.

But, as Bullock says, the OEC has prepared a strategy to address these financial concerns. In its report, the OEC estimates Salt Lake could host the event with a $1.3 billion budget, which would primarily be allocated toward ensuring the state’s venues and infrastructure are in pristine condition. The proposed $1.3 billion is 10 percent less than the 2002 budget.

The report attributes the relatively low budget to Utah’s commitment to maintaining its 2002 Olympic venues—a task that many host cities neglect. Since the 2002 Games came to an end, Utah has put those venues to good use by hosting numerous worldwide sporting events, opening the facilities up to the public, and encouraging professional athletes and Olympians to use the venues to train.

“Our venues were built with the intent that they would last about 20 years. They are still in great shape, but they need about $40 million of renovation work over the next 10 years,” Bullock says. “These venues are important to our economy regardless of hosting again and the legislature has expressed support to fund these needed improvements. These are ‘anyway’ costs that need to be regardless of hosting.”

Beyond Olympic venues, Utah’s on-going investment in infrastructure—such as roads and highways and the Salt Lake International Airport expansion—coupled with significant growth in hotels and restaurants, mean the state is in excellent shape to host again.

“One of our advantages is the fact that we already have the infrastructure in place. Utah is preparing for rapid growth with or without the Games,” says Beerman. “There is already a strong focus on building an effective public transportation network—but another Olympics would likely give this a push. Park City has plenty of lodging and could host another Games tomorrow. Salt Lake is in a similar situation and would be even better prepared after their airport expansion is complete.

“I would like to see Utah establish a new model for the winter Olympics,” Beerman adds. “In 2002, we hosted a compact and fiscally responsible games, while providing an authentic and enduring experience. Since then, hosting the Olympics has become a cost prohibitive, extravagant proposition with serious financial and environmental impacts to their host communities. In 2030, we could reset this model by showing it is still possible to host a compact, sustainable and responsible Games. We have done this once before, and could build upon our success the Olympic legacy.”

Good as gold

Though $1.3 billion is much less than what other countries have spent hosting the Games, it’s still a substantial price tag. But the OEC argues that the benefits far outweigh the costs. Consider the 2002 Winter Games: According to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, the state saw nearly $5 billion in sales, $1.5 billion in earnings and 35,000 additional jobs. Media value during the 16-day event was estimated to be $210 million. The Games launched a lasting tourism boost, especially within the ski industry. And Utah has seen significant growth in its outdoor products industry.

No matter how you look at it, hosting the 2002 Winter Games accelerated Utah’s brand as a leading outdoor sports destination and was a long-lasting boon to the state’s economy, says Bullock.

The benefits of hosting the Games again would be even more impactful, according to the OEC. Its report finds that the 2030 Olympic Winter Games would be approximately 8 to 15 percent larger than 2002 in terms of tickets sold and visitor spending. The report also expects to see TV viewership increase anywhere from 19 to 35 percent. The hospitality industry would also see a boost—according to the report, skier visits, national park recreation visits, accommodation taxable sales, airport passengers, and private leisure and hospitality employment would experience an approximate 25 to 60 percent growth in the 14 years following the 2030 Games.

The report reads: “Given these comparisons, we conservatively estimate the 2026/2030 Olympics will create at least as large an economic impact as the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.”

Despite the projected economic impact, Beerman recognizes that not everyone might be as enthusiastic about welcoming the world back to the Beehive State. “I would encourage them to keep an open mind. I was a little skeptical of the crowds and impacts when the Olympics came to Utah in 2002. Some of my Park City neighbors left town and rented their homes. My wife and I decided to stay and attend events. It was an amazing experience to have the world come to our doorsteps. Every night was an international party on Main Street and the events we attended were exhilarating. I get excited just thinking about it.”

Green Games

Andy Beerman, Park City mayor and member of Utah’s Olympic Exploratory Committee, doesn’t just want to show how Utah can host a cost-efficient Winter Games—he also wants to host the event in an environmentally sustainable way.

“Winter sport is in peril with the impacts of climate change. Warming global temperatures and increasing weather extremes threaten winter sport and mountain climates,” Beerman says. “The 2030 Games is an opportunity to show our concern and create a new model. We hope to offset our carbon impacts by utilizing renewable energy, to improve our air quality by employing an all-electric transit fleet, and to host a zero waste Games.

“Park City and Salt Lake City are already moving in this direction, so the Olympics would be another catalyst,” he adds. “Whereas the last Olympics accelerated our infrastructure growth, the next Olympics could accelerate our move toward more sustainable communities. Air quality and carbon reduction are issues Utah desperately needs to address. An ‘Olympic effort’ to do so would be timely and would create a new and meaningful legacy for future generations.”

Utah’s Enduring Olympic Legacy

The 2002 Winter Games left a lasting legacy in Utah in the form of world-class venues that are still in use today. The venues host major championships, serve as training facilities for elite athletes and offer recreational opportunities to Utahns and visitors to the state.

Utah Olympic Park–Located in Park City, the multi-use venue is home to a sliding track, six Nordic ski jumps and a 2002 Winter Games museum. The park is an official USOC training site.

Utah Olympic Oval–Located in Kearns, the venue encompasses a 400-meter speed skating oval, two international-sized ice sheets, and a state-of-the-art four-lane 442-meter running track.

Soldier Hollow Nordic Center–Located near Midway, Soldier Hollow hosts major events including the U.S. Cross Country Skiing Championships and the annual Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championships. Recreationists and world-class athletes use the venue throughout the year.

Olympic Cauldron photos by Steve Greenwood; Utah Olympic Park freestyle event photo by Hage Photo.