Soon to be a 2-time Olympic host city, Salt Lake City’s zest for the Games is now an outlier

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SALT LAKE CITY — Reminders of the 2002 Winter Olympics are nestled in every nook and cranny of Utah’s capital city, from a towering Olympic cauldron that overlooks the Salt Lake Valley to an Olympic emblem stamped on manhole covers downtown.

As visitors leave the airport, they are greeted with a can’t-miss Olympic arch amid snow-capped mountains in a message essential to Salt Lake City’s bid to host the Games again: You are entering an Olympic city.

Unlike so many other past hosts that have decided bringing back the Games isn’t worth the time, money or hassle, Salt Lake City remains one of the few places where Olympic fever still burns strong.

That enduring enthusiasm will be on full display Wednesday when members of the International Olympic Committee descend on northern Utah for their final site visits ahead of a formal announcement expected this July to name Salt Lake City the host for 2034.

In the more than two decades since Salt Lake City first opened its nearby slopes to the world’s top winter athletes, the pool of potential hosts has shrunk dramatically. The sporting spectacular is a notorious money pit, and climate change has curtailed the number of sites capable of hosting future winter competitions.

Meanwhile, Utah has spent millions to ensure its Olympic facilities didn’t fall into disrepair while also working to ensure residents preserve sentimental feelings about the Games themselves.

Even though Salt Lake City got caught in a bribery scandal that nearly derailed the 2002 Winter Olympics, it has worked its way back into the good graces of an Olympic committee increasingly reliant on enthusiastic communities as its options dwindle. The city is now a prime candidate if Olympic officials eventually form a permanent rotation of host cities.

The Olympic committee was left with only two bid cities for 2022 — Beijing, China, and Almaty, Kazakhstan — after financial, political and public concerns led several European contenders to drop out.

“The International Olympic Committee needs Salt Lake City a lot more than Salt Lake City needs the International Olympic Committee, or the Olympics,” said Jules Boykoff, a sports and politics professor at Pacific University.

For Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, securing the Olympic bid is central to his goal of cementing the state as North America’s winter sports capital.

Cox has continued a long-running push by state leaders to beckon professional sports leagues and welcome international events like last year’s NBA All-Star Game that could help burnish its image as a sports and tourism mecca, while chipping away at a lingering stigma that Utah is a bizarre, hyper-religious place.

About half of the state’s 3.4 million residents and the majority of state leaders belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church.

Dave Lunt, a historian at Southern Utah University who teaches about the Olympics, said the Games give members of that faith, and other residents, a chance to clear up misconceptions and share their values with the world.

“Latter-day Saints really just want to be liked. No disrespect or anything, that’s my community, but there’s this history of, we want to show that we fit in, we’re good Americans,” he said. “We’re happy to host the party at our house.”

The reputational revamp that resulted from the 2002 Winter Olympics — widely regarded as one of the most successful Games — brought rapid growth to the region. And state and federal funds given to the city ahead of its first Olympics left Salt Lake City with a light-rail system and world-class athletic facilities.

Utah leaders are now one step away from finalizing a bid built on the assertion that they can keep costs down by using most of the same venues they’ve kept operational since 2002.

“I promise you that if every country had the infrastructure that we had, they would see it as a smart investment,” Cox said at his March news conference, where he also touted public support for the bid.

Being one of the few cities still willing and able to host the Winter Games gives Salt Lake City leverage to dictate terms with the Olympic committee, Boykoff said, which can include operational funds, deadlines and even which sports are in the Games.

And with NBC’s multibillion-dollar broadcasting contract with the Olympic committee set to expire in 2032 — two years before Utah would host — the committee has a vested interest in selecting a U.S. city in a better time zone for live broadcasts to entice NBC and other U.S.-based broadcasting giants.

In recent years, the Olympic committee has begun issuing bids farther in advance and scrutinizing potential hosts more carefully to ensure they’re prepared, said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. Public support, he said, can make or break a bid.

Unlike many cities that submitted previous bids, Salt Lake City did not hold a formal vote for residents to decide whether they wanted another Games, even as local bid leaders say their polling shows more than 80% approval statewide.

Remnants of the 2002 Winter Games remind locals that the Olympics are part of the fabric of their city, and that being a host city is a point of pride. They’re part of a long-term strategy Utah leaders launched on the heels of their first Olympics to maintain local support so they could host again.

But Olympic historians say that enthusiasm can distract residents from the possible downsides seen in other host cities, such as gentrification, corruption, rising taxes or empty promises of environmental improvements.

So far, no opposition has formed in Utah.

“If we consider the Olympics a cultural institution,” Lunt said, “maybe it’s worth paying some money if the people of Utah decide that’s important to us, collectively.”

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