When the globe’s spotlight shifted to Utah twenty years ago on February 8, 2002 for the Opening Ceremony of the XIX Olympic Winter Games, I’ll never forget the pride many Utahans felt...
Twenty years after the torch was extinguished at the 2002 Closing Ceremony, we look back to reflect on the profound impact of the games on Utah. For years we’d worked tirelessly to build venues, improve roads, create public transit and organize the complex flow of events and people. It was admittedly surreal, after so much time, when the games finally did arrive.
It was Utah's moment to meet the world. I was just 15 years old when the thunder of multiple pyrotechnic displays reverberated throughout the valley during the Opening Ceremony, welcoming the world to my doorstep. After all the hard work, it wasn't until this moment that it began to dawn on all of us Utahns what a spectacular place we call home.
The prodigious snow and relatively mild climate Utah enjoys had long been appreciated by local skiers and winter enthusiasts but the world had yet to discover what Utah could offer. After four unsuccessful attempts, Salt Lake City secured a bid to host the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. In June of 1995, over 50,000 people gathered outside the Salt Lake Mayor’s office to learn of the result of the bid. The city was electric that night and I recall my grandparents attending an Olympic Bid celebration party.
Fourteen venues were constructed or revamped over the course of the seven years leading up to the games. These included the Utah Olympic Oval, Utah Olympic Park, an ice rink in Ogden, Soldier Hollow at Wasatch Mountain State Park, the E-Center in West Valley City and the Peaks Ice Arena in Provo. The looming games brought about a huge infusion of cash to improve local infrastructure and we actually have the Olympics to thank for our UTA TRAX light rail system. Ongoing construction and developments around the games were a constant source of news in all our local outlets.
As a child, the year 2002 seemed eons away, but as the years ticked by, I entered my teens alongside the rapidly changing face of Salt Lake City. The year before the games, volunteers were heavily recruited. My mom, Marci, joined the volunteer Medical Staff at the Media HQ downtown in the Salt Palace. She attended regular training sessions and became one of 18,000 core volunteers to assist with the successful execution of the games. Meanwhile, all my friends involved in dance or music nervously competed in tryouts for a coveted role in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Event tickets went up for sale in a frenzy and the electric energy and anticipation seemed to build each day that brought the games closer.
As the city wrapped up its last construction projects, enormous banners were draped across the largest buildings. The Olympic torch, lit in Athens slowly snaked its way across the entire state, arriving in Salt Lake City just a few days before the games. My entire neighborhood dressed in togas to greet the torch on its journey down Emigration Canyon. This is the final canyon where the Mormon pioneers traversed through in 1847 before they arrived at their final destination in the Salt Lake Valley. It was a fitting path for the next chapter of Utah's unusual story.
I’d never seen the city look so beautiful and we all waited in agonizing anticipation to see if Mother Nature would decide to attend in her finest regalia. She arrived in grand fashion the day before the Opening Ceremony, coating the foothills and mountains in sparkling white and fashioning a picture-perfect backdrop for Utah’s debut on the world’s stage.
With all the pomp, fanfare and ceremony you could imagine, a cast of 10,180 actors and volunteers infused the life and spirit of Utah into the Opening Ceremony. Utah’s rich history welcomed a crowd, agog with appreciation for the diversity of the state’s landscape, the history of our native people and the opportunity to come together to ‘Light the Fire Within.’
The horrific events of the terrorist attack on 9-11 were still a fresh and gaping wound in the psyche of all Americans. An honor guard escorted a tattered American flag extracted from the wreckage of the World Trade Center into the stadium for the National Anthem reverently sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Utter silence reigned and you could have heard a pin drop in the stadium packed with 50,000 spectators as the world stopped to mourn this tragedy alongside Americans. It brings tears to my eyes even now, thinking about the weight and power of this moment. This Opening Ceremony was one of the best to date in Olympic history and it perfectly melded patriotism with a poignant hope for global unity.
The games themselves were a blur. The familiar cadence of hope, heartbreak, astounding victory, surprises and breakthrough stars kept the newsrooms whirring. Traveling downtown, I’ll never forget the electric vibe and the enthusiasm of our global guests. The city was alive and Utahans brimmed with pride to show off our home and its high mountain peaks.
I don’t think my family turned off the television for an entire two weeks! The people of Utah had been so doggedly preparing for the games for so many years, I don’t believe any of us realized how transformative the games would be and how their energy would invigorate the city for decades to come. Even now, as I recall these memories, my heart swells with pride and my eyes well up to know that I was there and witnessed my city extend heartfelt hospitality to the entire world. It was a magical thing for Utah.
The legacy of the Winter Olympic Games is difficult to quantify and for the first time, Utah was understood to be a worthy winter destination across the globe. Following the games, Utah became home to two National Governing Bodies of sport, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard and the U.S. Olympic Speed Skating Team. The direct revenue from visiting skiers and snowboarders exploded to over 1 billion dollars by 2010. The Salt Lake Olympic Games are considered one of the most successful in history, setting records in viewership and posting a surplus of $40 million. The remaining funds were used to create the Utah Athletic Foundation which maintains the Olympic facilities today.
By the time the Closing Ceremony commemorated the spirit and triumph of the games, I think every citizen of Utah realized how worthy their city and state had become. Over the course of that two weeks, Utah grew up. Cemented in history and stamped with a global seal of approval, Utah made a lasting mark. So few cities can boast of such an accomplishment and Utahans showed up in full force to make the games a reality.
Salt Lake is one of the few host cities that continues to utilize and enjoy the majority of its Olympic venues. In 2017, a committee was formed to explore the possibility of a future bid to host the games again. With local leaders largely in support of welcoming the world back to Salt Lake City, talks are already underway to formalize a bid for 2030 or 2034.
Having experienced the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City firsthand and witnessing how much good the games did for our identity, infrastructure and spirits, it would be an incredible boon to see the best athletes in the world return to The Greatest Snow on Earth®. If you're looking for ways to celebrate the 2002 Olympics, check out this list of events throughout the month of February!
hero photo of the opening ceremonies courtesy of Kathy Hunter Photo Collection via the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation
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