Olympic Flame Still Burning Bright: Utah celebrates 15 years since the 2002 Winter Games

On June 15, 1995, thousands of people gathered in Hungary or remotely around their televisions as the next Olympic city was announced. The competition was tough. The cities vying to host the 2002 Winter Games were Oestersund, Sweden; Sion, Switzerland; Quebec City, Canada; and Salt Lake City, Utah—a city many had never heard of. Still, cheers erupted when Salt Lake was officially named the host city. It was an announcement that would put Salt Lake, and the entire state of Utah, on a different trajectory. From nearly the moment the announcement was made, the greater Salt Lake area began evolving into Olympic city.

Nearly $2 billion was injected into the state during the next several years to prepare for the games. From airport renovations to massive highway improvements and mass transit developments, to the magnificent Olympic venues that still stand today, the nearly $2 billion investment was at that time the largest amount in Olympic history.

After the games, Utah felt an immediate economic impact. The state saw $4.8 billion in sales, $1.5 billion in earnings and 35,000 jobs, all of which added up to a $1.25 billion direct economic impact, according to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget.

But as the event faded to a memory, many wondered if the dollars injected into the state would have a lasting impact. Would Utah see a return on the investment? This February marks the 15th anniversary of the 2002 Winter Games, and though many years have passed, it’s clear that Utah’s Olympic legacy is still burning bright.

Olympic Medals Plaza_Steve Greenwood001An international infomercial

On February 8, 2002, Utah kicked off the XIX Olympic Winter Games and opened its doors to the world. While thousands flocked to the Beehive State to watch, volunteer or participate in the games, an estimated 2 billion people from across the globe watched the games from afar, many who were likely unfamiliar with Salt Lake or Utah. But for the next 16 days, they would get to know the humble state. The immediate media value was estimated to be $210 million.

Fraser Bullock, who served as COO of the Utah Winter Olympics, says the games sparked attention and interest in Utah—attention and interest that has strengthened during the past 15 years. “Around the world, Utah was relatively unknown, and Salt Lake was relatively unknown. I would travel the world frequently before the games and say, ‘I’m from Utah,’ and in other countries, people would say, ‘Where is that?’ Many people hadn’t heard of Utah. After the games, when I say I’m from Utah or Salt Lake, they say, ‘Oh, Utah put on an amazing Olympic Games.’”

“It was a 16-day infomercial for tourism, skiing and snowboarding,” says Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah. “We did an awareness study to see what people thought of our state from a tourism perspective. The study showed people pictures of our landscape—our snow-covered mountains and our red rock. People said, ‘I love Colorado,’ or, ‘Oh, Arizona, that’s a beautiful spot.’ It wasn’t that Utah had a bad level of awareness—there was no level of awareness. [During the Olympics], it was like we finally placed our product in a grocery store at eye level. It was a very good product before, but the Olympics raised our profile dramatically. If you look at our skier-day numbers, we took a very sharp spike after the games and we haven’t come down.”

Skier-day numbers have steadily increased since the games, agrees Bullock. “If you look at the year 2000 just before our games, we averaged 3.04 million skier days per year. And then if you look at the five years post-Olympics, from 2000 to 2007, you see skier days at 3.72 million, which is up 22 percent. And then if you look at the 10-year period, entering 2012, you’re at 4.07 million, which is up 34 percent from the five years before the Olympics.”

In the 2015-16 winter season, the state had nearly 4.5 million skier days, according to Ski Utah.

If you build it…

While brand recognition may seem like an obvious benefit from hosting the Winter Games, the recognition Utah garnered during the event has had a snowballing effect during the past 15 years. By the games’ closing ceremony, Utah had officially staked its claim as the country’s premier winter sports destination—a reputation that would only grow stronger as more and more tourists and athletes would venture to the state to test the Greatest Snow on Earth.

Rafferty credits the infrastructure built in preparation for the games as vital to the state’s ability to continue attracting visitors. From the Olympic Village at the University of Utah to the Utah Olympic Park in Summit County to the Olympic Oval in Kearns, the games’ venues truly set the state apart from other winter outdoor destinations. But key to keeping the momentum going during the past 15 years has been the continued effort to maintain the quality of those structures.

Unlike many Olympic venues that go wasted following the games, Utah used a $76 million endowment fund to create the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation, which maintains the Olympic Park and Olympic Oval.

“If all we had done is host the games, and no one followed through with upkeep, we wouldn’t have what we have today,” says Lane Beattie, Salt Lake Chamber president and CEO. “You can compare it to Japan, which built a huge, huge stadium for their Olympics. Their stadium is now a flea market.”

Many of Utah’s Olympic sites are open to the public, with activities like zip lines, the Alpine slide and ice skating attracting Utahns and tourists alike. The sites are also home to several athletic teams, including the U.S. Speedskating Association, which is headquartered at the Olympic Oval in Kearns, and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, headquartered in Park City.

“Some of the teams spend a good chunk of time here training. And athletes move here on a full-time basis—especially to Park City,” says Rafferty. “There are other places that they can train around the country, but they choose to spend their time here.”

Utah has also put the Olympic infrastructure to good use by hosting major sporting events, like world championships, the Dew Tour, XTERRA championship and several other events. Hosting these events has accelerated Utah’s brand as a leading outdoor sports destination, says Rafferty.

But what really excites Rafferty is watching Utah’s youth grow up with so many recreation opportunities at their fingertips. “One of the biggest benefits of the Olympics was the legacy infrastructure that it left, which created ski jumps, the luge track, an ice sheet. Fifteen years later, we are now seeing athletes who were 8 years old when the games were here, and they’re calling their names [to compete],” he says. “A 14-year-old kid in Salt Lake, Ogden, Park City can learn to skeleton, Nordic jump or speed skate—it’s so unique. And it’s not just infrastructure that’s standing there, but all the programs that go along with it. It benefits our state and our recreation.”

Winter Olympics Cauldron at Rice Eccles Stadium_Steve Greenwood002Business boon

The Olympics left a legacy far beyond enhancing the state’s recreation opportunities and tourism industry. According to Beattie, it’s not a stretch to say that hosting the games helped bolster Utah’s broader business community.

Beattie recalls a downtown Salt Lake that was much different from what it is today. “The year before the Olympics, about one-third of retail space in downtown Salt Lake was boarded up. A lot of the offices were full, but retail was doing very, very poor. People were starting to wonder what was going to happen to our inner city. It was in decline in a major way and truly struggling from a business standpoint. And not just in Salt Lake, but in all of our metro areas, like Ogden and Provo.”

The Olympics, Beattie says, sparked a downtown economic resurgence unmatched in Utah’s history. “Following the Olympics, there was a notable change—there was a newfound pride in Utah. A year or two later, the LDS Church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) made an announcement that they were going to be very involved in downtown. They purchased Crossroads Mall and started plans for major redevelopment, which is now City Creek. After the Olympics, people wanted to see Salt Lake become something, and with the investment of the LDS Church, Salt Lake became known as a vibrant downtown city in America.

“After the Olympics and the investment in downtown, we had companies like Goldman Sachs moving here,” Beattie adds. “We also saw great entrepreneurs, like in the medical device industry, come here. You can’t say that because of the Olympics we got the medical device industry, but it grew here because we were able to attract the great businesspeople who wanted to come here and share in what we built.”

One industry the Olympics did play a key role in launching is the state’s robust outdoor products industry, says Bullock. “I like to refer to Utah now as the winter sports capital of the United States. Look at the companies that have moved here for our outdoor rec—Amer Sports, Wilson, Rossignol. These are huge companies that have their headquarters here in Utah.”

Bullock adds that the Olympics helped Utah’s tech industry recover from the recession it was in the midst of just prior to the games. “If you look back at 2000, we had a tech recession back then that Utah was trying to find its way out of. Then we have this world-class event, where we hosted the world in a superb way and we become really well known. We had heads of states from 40 countries and technology leaders from around the world, like Bill Gates—there were all kinds of visitors here. They came to know our community, saw our fabulous volunteers, our beautiful surroundings, and many of them became very enamored with Utah. It was just one more element that helped prop the state up.

“Entrepreneurs can go to Silicon Valley, Austin, Seattle, if they want to be in technology—we have to be able to compete against those centers,” Bullock adds.  “But we can compete not just because of our economy. There’s a special attraction to our outdoor recreation. That is a huge magnet.”

The outdoor sports destination

To say the Olympics put Utah’s ski and snowboarding industry on the map is true, but it’s also an understatement—the 16-day event bolstered Utah’s entire outdoor rec industry. Today’s tourists aren’t just flocking to the ski slopes, they’re biking Moab’s red rock country. They’re canyoneering in Zion. They’re visiting Bryce, Arches and Canyonlands in record numbers. From north to south, winter through summer, Utah is no longer a fly-over state—it has become the destination.

“Since the Olympics, we’ve seen very strong visitation numbers statewide,” says Rafferty. “[Tourism] is an $8 billion business. A lot of people wonder, ‘What does that mean to me?’ It means $1,200 that every citizen doesn’t pay in taxes because we host all these tourists.”

Rafferty adds that the number of conventions and conferences Utah hosts has also seen a steady rise. “When people are considering going to a conference for business, some of them ask, ‘What’s on the agenda?’ but everyone asks, ‘Where is it at?’ Now most people have heard great things about Utah, and it’s a destination people want to come to.”

“We have seen a tremendous increase in out-of-state expenditures from $704 million in 2002 to $1.2 billion back in 2011,” adds Bullock. “We have seen that growth continue and all of a sudden we see not just new hotels, but Vail Resorts and other world-class organizations, and we have expansion on the mountain.”

Utah’s success has been so widespread that many want to host another Winter Olympics. In February 2012, the 10th anniversary of the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympics, the Utah Olympic Exploratory Committee was launched to evaluate the pros and cons of bidding for another Winter Games. And during last year’s Utah State Legislative Session, a resolution was passed declaring Utah “ready, willing and able” to host the games again.

“Salt Lake is the best place in the world to host winter Olympic Games, and the games will come back—it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when” says Bullock. “We are ready, willing and able to host the games anytime when we are selected by the U.S. Olympic Committee and then the International Committee. The opportunity is before us.”