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The 2002 Winter Olympics

The American flag recovered from the 9/11 World Trade Center is carried across the stage during the Opening Ceremony

Late on the evening of February 24, 2002, I stood with three of my children in the crystalline air of a Salt Lake City winter, high in the southwest corner of Rice-Eccles Stadium, for the closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. 

The Olympic flame whipped orange hot above the icicle-shaped, glass-and-steel cauldron at the south end of the stadium. On the foothills to the northeast, the five giant white Olympic rings placed mountainside above the city electrified the darkness as if they hovered in the air. The Utah Symphony played and the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square sang, interspersed with rock bands and musical acts ranging from Kiss and Bon Jovi to Willie Nelson and Gloria Estefan. Down on the field, hundreds of brightly costumed pageant participants danced and skated to the music, including 780 children in Eskimo parkas carrying lanterns. 

The millions of television viewers around the world could not have possibly felt the overload of senses experienced by the 45,000 people in the stadium, who were on their feet for a fireworks finale like no other. A pyrotechnic barrage erupted from eleven launch sites at canyon entrances and other sites across the city—ten thousand shells in a million-dollar display that lit up the night sky and reverberated across the Salt Lake Valley. 

At the end, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge declared the games “unforgettable and inspiring.” “People of America, Utah, and Salt Lake City, you have given the world superb games,” he intoned. 

The New York Times summed it up: “After 17 days, 234 medals and all the theater and human majesty in between, Utah bade farewell to the sporting event it wanted so desperately. The state and its people were rewarded with a reinvigoration of the Winter Games—and by a closing ceremony collage of colors, music and harmony.”(1)

A man three rows in front of us lifted his arms to the heavens and screamed, “Utah! Utah! Utah!” giving voice to a universal sense of pride, satisfaction, and relief every citizen of Utah felt that night. He turned and noticed me. Perhaps a bit embarrassed by the spontaneity of his shouts, he said, “Governor, I was against having the Olympics here—and I was wrong. I am so proud of our state.” 

That moment marked for me the culmination of years of intensity. The Olympics had finally come here, the result of great vision, civic commitment, risk and reward, success and failure, pride, and humility. They had come just five months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, requiring a higher level of security than ever before provided for the games. And they had been executed, for seventeen days, nearly flawlessly. “An American renaissance for the Winter Games,” as The New York Times put it.

Because others have also written histories of the games, I will not attempt to write a comprehensive history, but rather describe the Olympics from my perspective. Like standing in the corner of the stadium on the final night, I had the privilege to see this monumental event up close in an unvarnished way. I share in the successes of the games, but I also own part of the mistakes and lessons that need to be learned from the experience. 

Early 2002 Winter Olympic Dreams

The Olympics were a defining moment not only for the state of Utah but also for my service. If the Olympic Games were a failure, no other good work on my part as governor could have removed the historic shadow of it—which is symptomatic of the role governors play. They get more credit than they deserve when things go well; likewise, history assigns disproportionate blame when things go poorly. So, for me, as governor of Utah during the 2002 Olympic Games, the stakes were high. 

The Utah Olympic story began before my time, when Utah boldly attempted to become the United States Olympic Committee’s bid city in the 1960s. It was, for the most part, an attempt to put Utah’s nascent ski industry on the map. While the effort was not a success, it planted a seed that would regenerate later. 

Then in 1972, Denver rejected the award as U.S. candidate city for the 1976 Winter Olympics and withdrew from the process. Salt Lake City and the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce briefly entertained stepping into the opportunity vacuum created by the withdrawal. That effort also proved unsuccessful but again made the Olympic community aware of Utah. 

In 1984, the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce revived the idea of bidding for the 1992 Winter Olympics. Governor Scott Matheson and Ted Wilson, the mayor of Salt Lake City, developed a bid committee. Tom Welch, general counsel of the Smith’s Food and Drug regional supermarket chain, was asked to chair the committee. 

Winning an Olympic bid in the U.S. is a two-step process: a city must first win the right from the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) to represent the United States, and then, once the U.S. nomination is secured, the American candidate competes with various countries for selection by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to host the games. 

Once again, Utah’s efforts to host the 1992 games were unsuccessful, and Alaska was awarded the U.S. nomination. At the time, I was merely aware of these efforts, as I had not been involved in any of them personally. However, that soon changed when I began to enter into the political realm. 

During the 1989 legislative session, Utah’s Olympic bid committee, led now by Tom Welch and Dave Johnson, determined once again to seek the U.S. nomination. However, this time, they had a bold new approach: they proposed to the United States Olympic Committee that they would build new Olympic-quality facilities in advance of getting the hosting bid if the USOC would make Salt Lake the nominee city for the 1998 games and, if unsuccessful that year, the 2002 games. 

What if Utah doesn't win the 1998 or 2002 Bids?

It was a brilliant idea, and I’m confident this was the brainchild of bid chairman Tom Welch. Tom had emerged as a major player in Utah business circles. He was smart, bold, and rumored to have political ambitions. His wife Alma was stylish and flamboyant. They lived in a magnificent east bench home that had been built by Blaine Huntsman as a twin to the home his brother Jon Huntsman Sr. had built at the same time.  

Legislative Action

The package for the facilities was estimated at $56 million, and the only way it could be built was if the legislature agreed to underwrite bonds. Knowing that it would be virtually impossible to get a conservative legislature to use debt that way, the bid committee agreed that if the state built the facilities and Utah won the games, the entire $56 million would be paid back out of Olympic funds. 

The legislature was skeptical. So, the bid committee pivoted to put the measure on the ballot during the municipal elections in November 1989. A statewide ballot referendum proposed diverting 1/32nd of a cent in existing sales tax revenues to pay for the facilities. The vote was not binding, but the legislature had agreed to follow the wishes of the people. The Salt Lake Winter Games Organizing Committee was confident that the people of Utah would embrace the opportunity.(2)

By that point in time, not much happened in Utah elections that I wasn’t involved in, and the 1988 election season had been a rigorous one for me. I led a statewide campaign to oppose a tax initiative that was on the ballot and also became very heavily involved in Governor Norm Bangerter and Senator Orrin Hatch’s reelection campaigns. I was burned out and in need of relief. My family duties and business responsibilities were also in need of focused attention. So, when the bid committee asked me to lead the effort, I declined. However, I agreed to help them informally, and that process introduced me to the arguments for and against having the Olympic Games in Utah. 

A group called Utahns for Responsible Public Spending opposed the Olympic bid, arguing it was a monumental gamble with public funds that would result in a tax increase for Utahns if the games did not make money. The organization, as best I could tell, was almost entirely the alter ego of activist Steve Pace, a very bright guy who, as I recall, had economics training and may have even taught at the University of Utah. He seemed to relish playing the antagonist role, always dressing casually, almost deliberately sloppily, with bushy hair and a mustache, both unkempt. He co-chaired the group with a man named Alexis Kelner. 

I’m confident that Steve Pace sincerely believed his position, but even after his concerns had been demonstrated to be unfounded, he stayed in character. His anti-Olympic profile endured throughout the Olympic process and for years afterward. To this day, if local or international media need an anti-Olympic voice, Steve’s the man. He is like a bit character who found a character niche, enjoyed the work, and just stayed at it. 

The primary question critics regularly asked was about risk: “What if Utah doesn’t win the 1998 or 2002 bids? Where will we get the money back to pay for the facilities?”

Proponents replied that the sale of worldwide television broadcast rights would generate additional money back to the state and municipalities. And Utah would become a winter sports capital, with Olympic facilities that could be used for athlete training and a myriad of large sporting events. An economic study showed the facilities would make Utah the best place in America to hold winter sport competitions, as well as attract additional economic activity. The tourism dollars associated with these events, and the attention Utah’s ski industry would get, would pay for the bonds.

On election night in November 1989, the Olympic facilities measure prevailed, winning 57 percent of the vote to 43 percent.(3) With that victory, the Utah bid for the Olympic games was legitimized. And the USOC in turn agreed to make Utah its nominee for both the 1998 and 2002 games. 

The Bid Process 

The worldwide governing body of the Olympics is the International Olympic Committee (IOC) headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland. The IOC is a private organization that has developed and legally protected virtually every vestige of a brand we call The Olympics. At the root of the Olympic movement are some powerful and noble values, and the IOC describes Olympism as “a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind.”(4) The Olympic movement celebrates and attempts to symbolize friendship, respect, and excellence. 

I believe noble values are promoted and successfully imparted by the Olympic movement. But human nature nearly always takes over in situations where money, prestige, and power are abundant. The politics get thick, and the scent of ambition and greed becomes palpable. Despite that, most of the IOC members I met and interacted with wanted to do good. They also wanted to be treated good—and believe me, they were. 

Members of the International Olympic Committee are elected by national Olympic committees, which are also private organizations with complicated politics of their own. None of them have government involvement. Typically, members of the IOC are royalty, accomplished former Olympic athletes, or leaders of various athletic federations that oversee specific sports. The number seems to vary from year to year, but generally there are about one hundred IOC members. 

Cities bid to host the summer or winter games by first becoming their country’s nominee and then competing with the nominees from other nations. The bid process generally starts twelve years before that bid’s games begin, and then about five years after starting the process, the games are awarded. Consequently, the bid cycles for multiple Olympic games are happening in parallel processes. Typically, four to seven cities are in competition to host each Olympic year. If there are four bid processes going on at any given moment and an average of five cities in each, there are twenty cities someplace in the world that are aggressively courting the same one hundred people. 

The word fierce does not adequately describe the intensity of the competition to win a majority of those one hundred IOC votes, and ultimately the Olympic bid. My experience in presidential elections has acquainted me with the fervor of high stakes competition, but the Olympic selection processes have a unique blood-sport quality all their own. It’s an elixir with special ingredients: national pride, billions of dollars, and fame. 

Because of the bid scandal that erupted around the Salt Lake City bid, which I detail later in this chapter, the IOC has put a much more disciplined set of rules around the bidding process. However, until it did, just envision being a member of a club where you could travel free of charge to any of twenty cities around the world and be coddled and feted like an elite celebrity—or like the royalty that many of them were. It was an atmosphere of entitlement in the extreme, unrestrained by any public scrutiny.

The 1998 Bid

Utah’s preparation for the 1998 bid competition was much more sophisticated than previous efforts. However, competition was intense with five serious contenders: Nagano, Japan; Östersund, Sweden; Jaca, Spain; Sochi, Russia; and Aosta, Italy. 

Not long after Utah got the USOC nod for the Winter games, the IOC selected the host city for the 1996 Summer Olympics, and to everyone’s surprise, Atlanta was chosen. This significantly impaired Utah’s chances for 1998 because of world resistance to awarding sequential games to two American cities. However, the Utah bid committee soldiered on.

It became evident that the competition was between Salt Lake City and Nagano, Japan. This competition demonstrated one dynamic that disadvantaged Utah as a bidder: most of the countries made their bids a national effort, and bid cities received substantial support from their national governments. Often the country’s head of state would be involved directly. In Salt Lake’s case, it was essentially just the state of Utah. 

Japan’s national government was resolved not to lose the bid because they saw it as a matter of national honor. Consequently, they were extremely aggressive. Time magazine later characterized their actions this way: 

Competition between the two cities was so intense that the Japanese press dubbed it the yen-dollar war. Salt Lake City had superior facilities, more convenient venues—and better snow. But Nagano outgunned them. Fumes Kim Warren, an international-relations coordinator for the Salt Lake Olympic Bid Committee: We were giving out saltwater taffy and cowboy hats, and they were giving out computers. IOC members who came to inspect Nagano were put up in ritzy hot-spring resorts, where they washed down expensive sushi with sake poured by kimono-clad geisha. They went home laden with souvenir gifts and expensive paintings.(5)

Yet another unique characteristic of the Olympic bid process is the way the voting occurs. In each successive round of voting, the city with the lowest vote is eliminated. IOC members engage in strategic voting, often committing to different cities in different rounds as a means of staying relevant with all the candidate cities. This structure always seemed suspicious to me. 

The complexity of the system is demonstrated by the voting results on bid day, June 15, 1991. Salt Lake City was nearly eliminated on the first vote. Then on the second round it received the top vote. The third and fourth ballots also demonstrated how fluid the votes were. Finally, on the fifth vote, it was down to Nagano and Salt Lake City. 

I remember the bid day explicitly. I was at home in Salt Lake and my family had been monitoring the progression of the bid. I was mowing the backyard lawn when one of the kids ran out to tell me that the final results were about to be announced. We huddled around the television, anxiously awaiting the announcement. When the chair of the IOC announced Nagano won the final vote forty-six to forty-two, it was like the entire state deflated several notches. 

Olympic Cauldron Park. Photo courtesy of Utah Tourism. Photographer, Steve Greenwood.
Olympic Cauldron Park

Even at that time, many believed Japan had overcome a technically inferior bid by buying their way through the process. Though many suspect Japan overspent for the bid—perhaps as much as $66 million—we can’t know for sure.(6) Japan later acknowledged that they immediately burned the records of their bid to assure that the conduct of no IOC member could be questioned. Though at the time no one was aware of corruption, this was only a hint of what was about to come to light. 

Around this same time in June 1991, I had begun to seriously think about running for governor. Thus, the loss of the Olympics had a direct implication for me. I knew from the moment of the announcement that the question of Utah bidding again would become a significant issue in the 1992 election. And indeed it was. Merrill Cook, the Independent candidate, took a strong position against the Olympics. One of his most memorable political ads appeared to show Merrill—a large, rather rotund man—figure skating. I, however, maintained a position of strong support. 

Utah’s Head of State

There was little question that the Salt Lake Olympic Bid Committee would be back to bid again after their defeat on the 1998 games. By the time I was elected in November 1992 the campaign effort had been reignited and recalibrated for June 1995, when the 2002 games would be awarded. 

Even though Utah was representing the United States, we were pretty much on our own when it came to the bid. No senior federal officer was going to become involved. Consequently, as governor, even though I was not a member of the bid committee, it was important that I be available to represent the state of Utah. IOC members needed to know that Utah supported the bid at the highest level. So, as the bid committee brought IOC delegates to Utah, it was expected that I would greet them at my office in the Capitol, and possibly other settings. We would chat, take pictures, and impart diplomatic gifts. I’m not sure how many such meetings like this I did, but it had to be close to one hundred in number. 

While in Utah, IOC members wined and dined with extravagance and were shown every possible courtesy. The bid committee paid for IOC members’ travel to and from Utah, and every expense was covered while they were here. The IOC members left with nice gifts, many of which were presented in my office. Some members, particularly those from undeveloped nations, were provided with health care. The bid committee kept a file on each IOC member with information about their interests, family members, and information related to current inclinations. 

All four other candidate cities were doing the same thing. This bid process unofficially seemed to be a three-part tournament: technical grounds (who could put on the best games); interpersonal relationships (who could make the most friends); and politics (favoritism toward various regions). 

Again, it is important to underscore that the IOC members were being courted all the time by numerous winter and summer candidate cities, all of whom were willing to do whatever it took to leave a lasting impression and create strong bonds. Therefore, these were not easy people to impress. 

To continuously keep Utah in the IOC’s collective mind during the process, the bid committee needed to have a presence at significant Olympic gatherings. I often became that presence. For example, when the winter games were held in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994, I was asked to attend in order to meet with Olympic delegates. Jackie could not go, so my mother traveled with me. Later, I also made a trip to Paris for a world congress meeting of the IOC. I believe it turned out well; during the process, I became acquainted with nearly all of the IOC members and officers. 

Bid officials had a constant running tally of who they believed they could count on for support and who they couldn’t. The bid was an election; more than $16 million was spent preparing the bid and campaigning to achieve a majority of eighty-eight voting members of the IOC. The stakes were very high.

Mike Leavitt and Deedee Corradini, Salt Lake City Mayor, at the announcement of the winning the bid for the Utah Olympic Games.
Winning the bid for the Utah Olympic Games

The Decision

Budapest, Hungary was the meeting site where the IOC would decide where the 2002 Winter Olympics would be held. Nearly three hundred Utahns made the trip, including Jackie and me. We traveled with Earl and Carol Holding on their corporate plane, along with Olympic skier Picabo Street and her mother. Upon arriving, we traveled through the countryside to our hotel, which sat on the Danube River. The meetings were held across the river at a university. 

When one attends an IOC meeting, once again you are struck by how absurd the treatment of the IOC is. The host city is expected to provide members and staff with a segregated, special traffic lane through the city between their hotel and the meeting location. Nobody else uses the lane. In addition, all the members are driven in individual chauffeur-driven cars. The president of the IOC is always greeted by the title “Your Excellency.” 

The first several days were devoted to meeting with uncommitted IOC members and making final preparations for our all-important formal presentation. On June 16, Utah and the other cities made their presentations. I had a short speaking part, affirming Utah’s commitment. Once a city had presented their case, the delegation moved to an auditorium that was part of the meeting complex. Ultimately, by late afternoon, all of the delegations were sitting in the same room, waiting for the IOC to vote. 

The International Olympic Committee has voted. The 2002 Winter Olympic Games will be held in the city of Salt Lake City.

Given the time difference, it was morning in Utah. Back in Salt Lake City, the City-County Building on State Street was the designated gathering place. Large video screens had been assembled to show the decision announcement live, and a similar scene was playing out in each of the other remaining bid cities. Likewise, sitting in the auditorium, we could see video feed of the site in Utah as people gathered—more than fifty thousand. 

I knew from my own experience that virtually every person in Utah knew that the announcement was being made, and they would be watching or eagerly awaiting word. Whatever the outcome, it would be known by most Utahns within seconds.

The feeling inside the auditorium was polite but tense. People mostly kept to conversation within their own delegation. 

Suddenly a voice over the sound system declared that the IOC would be making an announcement. People hurried to their seats. The side door on the stage opened and the IOC marched in single file until they filled a set of bleachers set up on the stage. The last to enter was Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC chair. He approached the podium. With very little additional dialogue, he opened his folder and read a prepared statement thanking the cities who had bid. With every word, my heart pounded harder. 

I have often reflected on that moment. The population of an entire state had their hearts beating fast for the same reason. It was truly a unifying moment in time, true not only for us but also the other bid communities. Then Samaranch said, with his heavy Spanish accent, “The International Olympic Committee has voted. The 2002 Winter Olympic Games will be held in the city of Salt Lake City.” While one quarter of the room erupted in jubilation, the other three quarters wilted. The same was true on the video screen. We had beat out Sion, Switzerland; Östersund, Sweden; and Quebec City, Canada.

In the auditorium, the Utah delegation hugged each other, danced, and cried. Picabo Street and a young figure skater jumped up on a table to celebrate, which ended up collapsing, sending people sprawling on the floor. Nobody was hurt, but it added to the chaos of the moment. On the screen we could see pandemonium breaking out at the City-County Building. Fireworks went off, music blared, people cheered. It was one of my life’s most memorable moments. 

With the victory in hand, the delegation from Utah traveled home. The airplane was met with an arch of water by the Salt Lake Airport Fire Department. We were ready to start the next exciting, but perilous phase of the Olympic odyssey. 

From Booster to Overseer

While the host of the games was technically Salt Lake City, the games were clearly the Utah games. Venues would be placed throughout the state, and most importantly, the state of Utah provided a financial guarantee. So, under a written agreement between Salt Lake City, the bid committee, and the state, the governor had specific responsibilities and authority. 

The most significant of these were appointing five members of the organizing committee jointly with the mayor of Salt Lake City, as well as creating veto power on the budget of the games. However, as things progressed, the formal responsibilities proved to be less significant than the fact that in crisis, the governor has the capacity to fill any vacuum as the perceived leader. 

There was a need to coordinate activities of various state agencies in preparation for the games. During the Olympics, Utah was required to provide a range of services, such as public health, law enforcement, and basic infrastructure. I appointed John Fowler, a former certified public accountant, to be the chief Olympics officer. I then built an Olympic budget team under Lynne Ward within the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. Since Utah had provided a financial guarantee and we had a veto on their budget, we needed to be convinced they were approaching the games with integrity. 

There were other state responsibilities the successful bid affected. We were in the middle of planning the renovation of Interstate 15 through the center of Salt Lake County. Fixing I-15 was an imperative; traffic congestion worsened by the day as the state’s population was growing faster than any other state except Nevada. Initially, I was told that fixing the seventeen miles of freeway would involve tearing down three highway junctions and 130 different structures, taking us ten to twelve years to complete. Under that timetable, the Olympics would hit midway through the project.

It was a difficult problem. Deferring the project until after the games was not an option, but having the highways torn up while the games were on was untenable. This dilemma produced one of the most significant undertakings of my governorship. The design-build I-15 project was the solution—we invented a new highway building management system that allowed us to finish the ten-year project in half the time and for ten percent less money. 

Robert Garff and the CEO of US West announcing a contribution to the Utah Olympic effort.
Utah Olympic Committee Chairman, Robert Garff and the CEO of U S West announcing a contribution to the Utah Olympic effort.

Likewise, we knew that the state of Utah would need to create a unique law enforcement system for the Olympics. It would not work to have forty different police departments and other emergency responders operating autonomously. I had been tipped off to this problem by Governor Zell Miller of Georgia. Shortly after the games were awarded to us, I visited Governor Miller and asked him to share his experience. He immediately flagged the coordination of law enforcement. His words resonated with me because I had already experienced the tension between law enforcement agencies when I had asked all of Utah’s police forces to cooperate in the development of a single communication system. This could be its own story, but suffice to say, I knew Governor Miller was right. 

I immediately began developing a strategy to create a special police authority that would operate during the Olympics, where the state of Utah was clearly in command of law enforcement. Predictably, it was resisted by local law enforcement agencies, but we got it done, and it turned out to be enormously important. This is only one example of the special requirements that we put on state agencies because of the Olympics; virtually every state agency was the same way. 

Utah Olympic Committee architect Neils Valentiner, International Olympic President Juan Antonio Samaranch, Mike Leavitt, Frank Joklik and Tom Welch looking at a model of the University of Utah Stadium remodeling for the 2002 games.
University of Utah Stadium remodeling for the 2002 games.

The Salt Lake Organizing Committee 

Once the bid had been awarded, the Salt Lake City Winter Games Bid Committee was disbanded. In its place rose the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, which quickly became known by its acronym SLOC. While the name implies that it was a locally established entity to organize the games, that was not the case. The organizing committee of any Olympic games is an uneasy alliance of different interests, each with the capacity to appoint a carefully negotiated number of seats on the organizing committee, which serves as the official governing body of the games.

As governor, I was ensured a seat on SLOC, but it was understood that the state’s Olympic officer would attend in my place. The United States Olympic Committee, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has seats on the board, as well as several of the athletic federations—the nonprofit organizations that govern different sport categories in the United States, such as skiing, ice skating, and so on. 

Once organized, SLOC’s first order of business was to choose a president and chief executive officer. While there were other names discussed, nobody doubted that Tom Welch would be selected for the job. 

Some questioned the fact that Tom had not led a large organization before, and worried about his readiness to lead a large, complex organization like SLOC; however, nobody doubted he at least deserved a chance. He was general counsel of a large grocery corporation, held in high regard by the U.S. Olympic Committee members, was known by the athlete federations, and was the face and heart of the Utah bid. Within Utah he was a star, a conquering hero who had tenaciously stayed with a dream until it had been realized. Tom Welch was widely, and deservedly, admired and appreciated by Utahns. He had devoted nearly eight years of his life to successfully securing the games. Tom also wanted the job, and he got it. 

Tom appointed Dave Johnson as his second in command at SLOC. Dave had been Tom’s primary lieutenant during the bid process and ran the Utah Sports Foundation, a quasi-private organization spun off from Utah’s Department of Community and Economic Development to promote amateur sports and Olympic bids. Together, they began to assemble a team. 

Roughly eighteen months later, in late July 1997, Tom Welch’s status dramatically changed when he was charged with domestic violence battery, leading him to resign from his position.(7)

Tom’s circumstance brought consequences for Utah’s Olympic preparation. Within a couple of weeks, Tom had resigned as president of SLOC. It was a period of great turmoil, and all the factions began to bring their long knives out. 

SLOC quickly settled on Frank Joklik, the seventy-year-old retired president and chief executive officer of Kennecott Copper’s mining operations in Utah. Frank was a man who understood the world and was accustomed to running large organizations. 

The leadership change provides some insight into the role I had as governor. The situation had broken the momentum in our preparation, shook public confidence, and energized the ever-present critics. The financial guarantee the state of Utah had provided had made a successful Olympics everybody’s business and my highest priority as governor. Even though I was technically a member of the organizing committee, my bigger role was as Utah’s most visible leader. The governor was the only person in the state with a mandate to provide assurance to the public. I also wanted the organizing committee to feel the public responsibility they had to set aside the drama and to get refocused, fast. I asked to address the bid committee and then repeated the same speech on statewide radio. 

I felt good about Frank Joklik’s selection; he was an experienced executive, and he and his wife, Pam, had been part of the bid committee from the earliest point and already had the confidence of the Utah community. Frank adopted most of the existing team, including Dave Johnson as his second-in-command, and began to move forward in a disciplined way. There were sponsorships to sell, venues to build, and television contracts to finalize. Perhaps his most pressing job was refining the budget, a budget which I had not been comfortable with previously. It had become the subject of much scrutiny from the public and state. My relationship with Frank was constructive and things seemed to be back on track. 

In February 1998, the Nagano Winter Olympics were held in Japan. I attended as governor to learn everything we could from their experience. There is also an Olympic tradition at the end of each game where the host city passes the Olympic flag to its successor host city during the closing ceremonies, and this figurative baton was being passed to Utah.

We flew into Tokyo, and then took the bullet train to Nagano. Perhaps the most memorable experience of the trip took place upon my arrival in Nagano. The Utah media met me at the train, with perhaps three or four cameras and their accompanying lights. As I walked up the ramp, I was wearing a western cowboy hat that we were wearing as a part of the Utah “uniform” at the games. I didn’t want to pack it, so I wore it. When the Japanese people in the train station saw an American, wearing a cowboy hat, being videoed by multiple news organizations, hundreds of Japanese people whipped cameras from their purses or pockets and began taking pictures. I spent the next forty-five minutes signing autographs and posing for photos. The funny part is that none of them had a clue who I was. There was speculation in the crowd that I was a hockey player, movie star, or something famous—all of which was flattering, but the fact remains, they didn’t know who I was; they just kept taking pictures. 

An Olympics Disaster

Those were the more carefree days of the Olympic saga. Later that year, on December 12, 1998, a public relations disaster struck the global Olympic movement. 

That day, a prominent member of the International Olympic Committee, Marc Hodler of Switzerland, walked into the lobby of IOC headquarters between scheduled meetings of the group and told the media that the 1990 and 1996 Olympic selection processes had been tainted by members of the committee who were taking bribes. Likewise, he alleged that the children of IOC members had received scholarships from the Utah bid committee in exchange for their support. 

It was cataclysmic for the entire Olympic movement. Eighteen days earlier, a Utah television reporter, Chris Vanocur of KTVX, reported that a letter, purportedly sent to a scholarship recipient, had mysteriously been sent to him at the television station. The letter referenced the scholarship funding, and the shock waves from the report rippled throughout Utah and in local Olympic circles. But Olympic ethics did not have seismic repercussions until Hodler made his allegations at the IOC gathering.

Every day between Marc Hodler’s impromptu news conference and Christmas, the intensity of the clamor grew, both locally and internationally. This was an explosive and irresistible question of whether one of the most prestigious organizations in the world, the Olympics, was corrupt. 

Bad situations like the Olympic scandal remind me of hurricane season. You can often see a category-five storm stirring off the Gulf Coast. Most hurricanes will die down as they approach a land mass, turning into a couple of bad days of wind and rain but easily ridden out by sheltering in place. This causes an uncertainty about how early and how robustly one should respond, as boarding up the windows and evacuating is costly and difficult. Because storms usually dissipate, it is tempting to stay at home and ride it out. However, once every few years, a storm continues to intensify, and when it hits land those who have not properly responded pay a heavy price. 

I hung back for a day or two hoping it would fall off the front page. Very quickly, it became evident that this could be a category-five problem. We had a mess on our hands, and I needed to step up. 

What neither I nor other members of the Utah bid committee knew was whether members of the bid effort had actually crossed lines with assistance we didn’t know about. As it turns out, those lines were not clear cut. Since the IOC was very lax in their interpretation and enforcement of their rules, over time the bid process had become a minefield of conflicting standards and practices relying primarily on individual judgment calls. 

On December 19, 1998, one week after the Hodler accusations, we announced the formation of a Board of Ethics to investigate the SLOC bid process. It was chaired by Gordon Hall, a recently retired chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court. I asked the panel to finish their work by February 11, 1999. 

Media outlets were doing their own investigations. Then four other investigations were launched—by the IOC, USOC, the Utah Attorney General, and most significantly, the U.S. Justice Department. There was a new story every day, not just locally, but also internationally. We shared the headlines with another scandal that was unfolding at the same time in the nation’s capital—the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton following an independent counsel’s investigation of his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinski. 

Just before Christmas, the level of potential risk rose exponentially. When U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno announced that the Justice Department had opened an investigation, the problem grew to a new dimension in my mind. 

Representatives of the other cities who had bid unsuccessfully for the 2002 games began to call for the International Olympic Committee to withdraw its award of the games. Key sponsors of the games began to express their skepticism that we could overcome this problem and talked of cancelling their sponsorships. To their credit, the IOC made clear they had no intention of withdrawing the bid. However, I knew that could change with enough pressure, and I sensed we were at risk of a meltdown that could cost Utah the games and forever mar the state’s reputation. 

Working Toward a Solution: Resignations

Between Christmas and New Year’s, Jackie and I rented a beach house in San Juan Capistrano, California, in order to have some rest from the unrelenting demands of being governor. Typically, even during a vacation, I would work a few hours each morning and then spend the rest of the time with family. However, during the Christmas of 1998, the Olympic scandal dominated my time and attention, and I did not get much of a respite. 

There was news every day, phone calls with staff, and interviews. I realized we could not wait until February for the ethics committee report, and then there was the problem of a leadership vacuum. SLOC was not a public entity, and leadership had been discredited by the events of the last month. While both the state and city were important contributors, public leaders had limited statutory authority. The IOC was no help, as they were embroiled in their own crisis. Momentum was growing against the games; the international media attacks were increasing. Everybody was disheartened, and finger pointing was starting to break out among the ranks. We needed to reverse the trend or things could get worse. As governor, I realized that I needed to assert myself and just take charge. 

Union Pacific train that was used to transport flame across parts of the United States on its journey to Utah
Union Pacific train that was used to transport flame

I wrote down six things we needed to accomplish if we were to recover from the damage done to Utah’s reputation and psyche. First, we had to find the truth and fix the problems. Second, we had to find new leadership. Third, candor was needed in order to characterize our behavior and messaging so we could resume preparations with a fresh start. Fourth, we had to raise our standards beyond what would normally be necessary. Fifth, we needed to keep pressure on the IOC to own up to the need for reform. Lastly, in the final analysis, we would only truly put this behind us by putting on the most successful winter games in Olympic history. 

The first step, finding the truth and fixing it, was already underway. The ethics committee would issue its report by February 11, 1999. The report would provide considerable insight into what had gone wrong, and we could use it to start fixing any problems revealed. I also wanted to use the ethics committee report to leverage a turning point in the situation. 

I returned to Utah on the weekend after New Year’s resolved to move fast on the second strategy, new leadership. I had become convinced we could not generate a new start without a change of leadership. My first day back in the office was Monday, January 4th. I made phone calls in advance to those affected and then made an announcement calling on SLOC officials to take leaves of absence while the four investigations were underway. This signaled a jolting change of course. 

I made calls to Bill Hybl, chairman of the United States Olympic Committee, and Bob Garff, chairman of SLOC, to tell them of my views that we could not turn this around with the existing leadership still in place. They agreed. I asked both to attend a meeting forty-eight hours later at the Governor’s Mansion. 

Frank Joklik was my friend, and in many ways was a victim in all this. I didn’t want to make a public call for him to resign unless it was necessary; likewise, I didn’t want to operate behind his back. I decided to talk with him privately prior to the mansion session with Hybl and Garff. 

The Governor’s Mansion is a thirty-two room Victorian mansion built by early silver-mining magnate Thomas Kearns. I often chose to conduct sensitive business there because it was more private and had a feeling of intimacy not present at the Capitol. Frank and I met in the main parlor, a bright and optimistic room. The meeting was both somber and professional. Frank is a remarkably accomplished man; his Australian accent adds to the air of sophistication gained from years working at the most senior levels of business. All of us were having a difficult time reconciling the irony of the moment: Frank was among a small handful of other prominent people who had been the bedrock of the Olympic movement in Utah. 

I had another meeting after Frank with members of the SLOC Executive Committee and USOC representatives, all gathered around the cherry wood table in the large dining room. The meeting was, at times, combative. Some of the executive committee members thought this was a massive overreaction. But in the end, the right decisions were made. 

The next day, January 8, 1999, Frank Joklik announced that he had accepted the resignation of Dave Johnson and had decided to resign himself. Consistent with my January 4th request, two others, Kelly Flint and Rod Hamson, were placed on administrative leave with pay. Frank Joklik could have fought the idea of resignation, but I feel he did an honorable and statesmanlike thing and agreed to step aside as CEO and president. However, we both agreed that it would be good for him to remain as a member of the Board of Trustees. 

With Frank’s resignation, and other key players on administrative leave, new leadership needed to be put in place quickly. February 11th was fast approaching, and I knew enough about what the ethics committee was finding to know that it was not going to be a happy moment. We needed to be ready to put the past behind us and to launch a fresh beginning at the same time. That gave me one month to be ready. 

Working Toward a Solution: A New President

Our first job had to be finding a new president and CEO. Truthfully, it was a job that belonged to the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. However, SLOC was a large and loosely connected body, with members who had been appointed by a wide array of interests. Each of the major athletic federations had a seat; the USOC appointed multiple members; and the mayor of Salt Lake City and I, the governor of Utah, jointly appointed five members. Several athletes were on the board. Plus, the makeup and rules of governance did not lend themselves to rapid decision-making. As a result, I made the decision to become a one-person search committee. Obviously, the new president could only be hired formally by a vote of SLOC, but we didn’t have time for a lengthy and traditional search process. 

I drew up a list of criteria for the person we were looking for. The short version: they could have no connection with the bid scandal or any other substantial controversies. I wanted a sophisticated and experienced executive who had successfully turned around large complex organizations. The person had to have a persona that could bring optimism and unity back in Utah, who would also serve as an effective spokesperson for the games to the world. Lastly, I wanted someone who understood Utah and its culture without being captive of it or easily caricatured by it. 

I developed a list of people from my own acquaintances and reached out to several others asking for suggestions. There were nearly twenty names on the list. I then narrowed the list to a half dozen and had research conducted on their backgrounds. Frankly, it wasn’t extensive, but it was enough to boil the list down to three with whom I had direct conversations. 

One was Mitt Romney, the CEO of Bain Capital in Boston. I had met Mitt only once when we shook hands at a session of the general conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I had no relationship with Mitt; his name was suggested by Kem Gardner, a prominent Utah real estate executive.

My interview with Mitt Romney felt quite promising. His business was buying broken companies and fixing them, and he had been extraordinarily successful doing so. He had run an unsuccessful—but very competitive—campaign for the United States Senate against the formidable Ted Kennedy. Mitt’s political effort gave me confidence in three important areas: First, I watched videos of his debates against Kennedy and I saw that he was quick-minded and articulate. Second, he had been vetted publicly. One does not run against Ted Kennedy without having every wart exposed. Finally, he was up to facing a big challenge. Running against Kennedy in Massachusetts would be seen by most as a fool’s errand, yet Mitt took it on and actually led the race until the very end. The last point in Mitt Romney’s favor: the Romneys had a home in Deer Valley. They knew Utah and felt like part of it. 

I continued to explore additional options, but my focus was drawn back to Romney. I asked Mitt if he would come back to Utah to spend more time with me. I had a commitment in California, so Mitt met me there so we could talk on the way back. The two of us retreated to the back of the small jet and talked for nearly two hours. I explored his motives for being willing to uproot his life, move to Utah, and take this challenge on. He told me he had earned sufficient money and it was time to turn his attention to something else. I learned about his family and the challenges he might face in making a quick transition. The fact that he already owned a home in Utah made resettlement easy. He told me that his transition from the Bain organization had to a large degree been settled when he ran for office. Money would not be an obstacle because he insisted on working as a volunteer. 

Mitt wanted to understand more fully the governance structure and relationship SLOC leadership had with the governor and mayor’s offices. We discussed the dynamics of the board and other community influencers. We discussed the role of the IOC and USOC, as well as the athletes. Mitt was deeply concerned about the economics of the games, and he perceived a sizable hole in the current budget. I could answer many of his questions but deferred to members of the SLOC Executive Committee and USOC on others. I made clear that I was not personally empowered to make a hiring decision. If he were willing, the process would involve discussions with the trustees. 

"We were the best city in the world. We still are."

By the time we approached the general aviation side of Salt Lake International Airport, I had made up my mind. Mitt Romney was the kind of person who could lead the resurgence we needed; he met every part of our criteria. I explained to Mitt that hiring a new president of SLOC was a decision for their Board of Trustees, and my job now was to get the votes. That process started immediately. 

Over the next few days, we met privately with members of the SLOC Board. We started with leadership and continued with the members. I was delighted when the USOC leadership embraced Mitt, which was key to having the athletes on board. Meetings were held with the local members, including Mayor Deedee Corradini. It was done with great focus on confidentiality, and within a short time, we had the votes secured. This was consistent with my timeline, because I wanted to gain formal approval of Mitt as the new president and CEO at the meeting before the ethics committee reported its findings. 

Reassurance of the Games

Simultaneously with my focus on new leadership, every day was filled with important calls of reassurance to sponsors of the games. If even one announced that they would not honor their contract, or expressed doubt, our effort would be much more difficult. News interview requests came every day from around the world. 

The governor’s news conferences I held monthly on KUED, the University of Utah’s PBS affiliate, typically covered a range of issues. But on January 27, 1999, all but a few seconds were dominated by the Olympics. Lucinda Dillon, a member of the Deseret News’ capitol hill reporting team, summarized it up well:

“The first month of 1999,” she wrote, “has been remarkable—a black cloud has positioned itself over Utah’s image in the wake of the Winter Olympics scandal.” “In fact,” she continued, “the governor said lately, the scandal has nearly consumed his life.”

I told reporters the upcoming ethics report would be as complete as possible and “startling in its openness,” in comparison to what the Olympic community was used to, ideally establishing a new standard.

“The world has reflected on our city in the context of the negative, and that’s not a happy event,” I said. However, suggestions that the Salt Lake City games be cancelled was out of the question. “It makes no sense at all for us to even consider at this point backing out,” I said. “We were the best city in the world. We still are.”(8)

One week earlier, the Utah Legislature opened its annual session. On the first day of a session, the governor gives the State of the State speech to a joint session of the House and Senate. The occasion, televised live across the state, provides the largest and most formal setting of the year to speak to the people, and that year, I knew above all else that I needed to use the moment to establish the right message and mindset for the state. 

That year, I began with the customary greetings to legislative leadership and then addressed the Olympic scandal head on: 

The final year of the century has arrived in a tempest of doubt and confidence. The stock market soars amid the trial of impeachment. One week, Iraq dominates world headlines. The next week, we do. 

For the past month, our state has been the focus of attention we would never have invited. It has been a period of relentless soul-searching as community standards of integrity collided with the difficult revelations about conduct in bidding for the 2002 Winter Olympics. 

Every Utahn feels the sting of a scandal that has diminished a great movement and poisoned, for now, the wellspring of excitement and pride we felt upon becoming an Olympic host. 

At one of the darkest moments of this disheartening experience I found myself sitting alone in the library of the governor’s residence. The words my father said to me nearly every time I left the house as a boy came to my mind. “Remember who you are and what you stand for.” 

Tonight I stand at the pulpit of the people, in this most formal state setting, to say firmly, unequivocally: We know who we are. We know what we stand for. We are a people familiar with success and the honest ethic of work that compels it. We are a state of industry that cultivated a desert. This is the place that linked an entire nation by railroad. 

We do not excuse our contribution to this problem; we accept responsibility and pledge its correction. What we hunger for the world to understand and for history to record is that the dishonorable actions of a few do not represent the aspirations of the many.

Let the promise of opportunity flow from this moment of adversity. Ours is to make a contribution of lasting value. Not just a Games that are higher, faster, stronger, but an entire movement that is truer, nobler and worthier.

The speech was received well, and it laid a context for the themes and actions that would soon follow as we prepared for the release of the ethics report and what I wanted to be a new beginning. 

A Fresh Start for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee 

However, there was one other important action the SLOC board needed to take. This one was sensitive because it involved individual members of the board. There were two problems. First, by necessity, the board was a large group with many interests that needed to be represented. Consequently, there was little accountability for attendance, and the members beyond a small executive committee were not fully engaged. That had to change; I wanted the board to adopt a 75 percent rule. If they failed to attend three quarters of the meetings, they would be asked to resign. 

The second, and far more sensitive issue was perceived conflict of interest. Most volunteer organizations have this problem, and there are direct ways of dealing with it, like a person simply disclosing a conflict and therefore abstaining from any related vote. However, the profound impact of the bid scandal and the taint it left gave the games even more active critics, and scrutinizers both at home and around the world had created a strong theme out of integrity.

Healing a public crisis like this one often requires going a little beyond what might otherwise be necessary, and removing the obvious symbols is critical. True, there are times when just facing and withstanding the heat produces a better outcome. However, in this case there was going to be heat either way. I asked several people to withdraw from the board. These were prominent people who I considered friends. They were unhappy and I could not blame them. However, it needed to be done.

I finished these meetings and made calls on the eve of the ethics report’s release asking some new people to serve on the committee. By the time I was done, I had received an advance copy of the report. It was extraordinarily well done for a report compiled so quickly. The ethics committee did not have subpoena power, but they painted a picture that held up over time as accurate and fair. Most of all, it satisfied my requirement that the world hear the full truth and hear it from Utah first.

Ethics Committee Report

When the ethics committee we appointed to investigate the scandal released its report on February 9, 1999, two things were evident.(9) First, the world was failed by the International Olympic Committee. They were entrusted to protect one of the world’s most valuable assets for peace, the Olympic Games. However, they failed to organize and conduct a bid process that had integrity. They had rules but didn’t enforce them. Instead, competitors were required to operate on a “current practice standard” that was unclear and invited liberal interpretation. The reality was, competitors operated on the informal rules or lost the game.

To a lesser degree, our state and the Olympic effort were also failed by the trustees of our Salt Lake Olympic Bid Committee. It was their job, on behalf of all of us, to know and keep the rules. The bid committee trustees had hired and trusted management. They had failed to create systems of verification that would protect the community and management from embarrassment. 

I found out through the ethics report that the International Olympic Committee had a $150 gift limit; I didn’t know that before. Likewise, I didn’t know if the bid committee management or board of trustees were aware of the limit, but they should have known. 

Routinely, members of our bid committee would bring members of the IOC to my office. We would talk for a few minutes, I would make my best Utah Games pitch, and then take pictures as we presented them with gifts valued at well over $150. I was not the only one. Hundreds of Utahns had responded to the requests of bid organizers. We all wanted to win; we were all engaged in the same cause. Many donated gifts valued at more than $150. Others were asked to hire children of IOC members or to contribute to a scholarship for another. Each thought what they were doing was within the rules. 

I learned an important lesson which was particularly important during my time in Washington, D.C.—be vigilant. I think we may have been somewhat naïve. In situations like this, one needs to “pack your own parachute” and not just assume the rules are being kept.

The ethics committee report was released at a news conference at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Salt Lake. I had arranged beforehand to have a call with Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the IOC, in a prearranged room above the large meeting room. The call was perfunctory. I told him that in my remarks I would continue to express the need for the IOC to be transparent and aggressive in their investigation of the questions raised by this situation.

After the call with Samaranch, I had about forty-five minutes to prepare for the news conference. I dismissed my staff and asked that they go downstairs and make sure things were set for the event. I needed to collect my thoughts. As the clock ticked down, I began to wish for more time to prepare. I had worked day and night to find the new leadership and to make the required changes, but what I did not do adequately was prepare my remarks. I hand-wrote them sitting alone right before the news conference. 

As if the report’s release was not sufficient to generate a crowd of media, by complete coincidence it was held the same day as an international figure skating championship taking place at the Delta Center. Consequently, hundreds of journalists from around the world were physically in Salt Lake City that particular day. Undoubtedly, it was the largest and most aggressive press gaggle I’ve faced by myself.

The media had reviewed the Olympic report. It was not necessary for me to repeat or characterize their words; what was important was how I responded to the report in the news conference that day. 

I had three objectives. First, if SLOC leaders had shown poor judgment, it should not be a reflection on the entire state. 

My second objective was to direct appropriate attention to the IOC’s role and their historic pattern of questionable practices and corruption. The IOC was in the midst of their investigation, and it was clear there were problems. Ultimately, six members of the IOC were expelled while others were sanctioned. None of that would have occurred if we had not opened our records and allowed everyone to see it all. That day I said emphatically, “Olympic corruption didn’t start here, but it will end here.” Those words were repeated by me and others many times.

Lastly, I wanted to draw a clear and bright line between the past and the future. Utah needed a new start. That day I announced the changes in both the membership of SLOC and its operating rules; I dealt directly and aggressively with the potential for conflict of interest. Then I introduced Mitt Romney as the new leader.

My actions succeeded in allowing the new SLOC management team to move forward in preparation for the games. However, the Olympic scandal drama was only beginning to unfold. It would continue for another two years. Each time one of the investigations was completed, everything was relived in local, national, and international media.

The most vexing of the investigations was conducted by the United States Department of Justice. Tom Welch and David Johnson were indicted by the Justice Department in July 2000. The trial preparation and each legal step played out on the front page of newspapers locally, and in other news media as well. 

However, in July 2001, a year after the indictments were handed down, U.S. District Judge David Sam dismissed the racketeering charges and followed up in November 2001 with dismissals of the remaining counts. The government appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which reinstated the case and sent it back to Judge Sam in April 2002. A trial was under way in late 2003, and the government had just finished its portion of the case when Sam announced from the bench that he was acquitting Welch and Johnson of all charges.(10)

The judge blasted federal prosecutors for seeming to “represent themselves as the protectors of our moral values” in Utah, and for lionizing the “sacred standards” of the International Olympic Committee’s charter—yet failing to present evidence that laws were broken. Sam told a packed courtroom that the federal government’s case pitted “Salt Lake City and the entire state of Utah, welcome recipients of the efforts of Mr. Welch and Mr. Johnson,” against the defendants.(11)

As Judge Sam implied in dismissing the charges against Tom Welch and David Johnson, both bore a substantially greater burden than they deserved. Both of them made critical contributions which led to Utah getting the Olympic bid. However, they were standing in the middle of the overspray created when the failings and inconsistencies of the IOC bid process were publicly revealed. Judge Sam did the right thing. 

This episode illustrates a conundrum of leadership. In the 2002 Olympic scandal, someone had to assert leadership. No one person or organization was in a position to do that. The governor was not statutorily empowered to do what I did. The inherent stature of the office made it possible for me to simply take action. However, the same stature that allows a leader to act, also makes a leader an attractive target. Outsized influence is accompanied by a disproportionate share of criticism.

Second Wind and a New Challenge

The Salt Lake Organizing Committee’s new leadership allowed a fresh breeze to blow through the state of Utah. Mitt Romney did a remarkable job of creating a new beginning. Within a matter of months, though the media was still full of scandal details, people were wearing their 2002 Olympic sweaters, jackets, and hats again. When a public call for volunteers was made, more than 75,000 people applied to fill 29,000 volunteer slots. Soon the venues were put into use, and excitement began to build. 

It would not accurately reflect the situation to say everything smoothed out at that point. There were serious preparations to make, sponsorships to sell, and budget priorities to choose between. 

Under our contract with SLOC, the governor had to approve the Olympic budget. I knew the budget was not yet disciplined, and the last version we had seen still had a substantial gap between revenues and expenses. I felt Mitt and the team he brought in would have the discipline to close the gap because of his previous experience. Very quickly, Mitt brought an economic team together. Fraser Bullock, a Utahn who was one of the co-founders of Bain Capital, took the job of taming the budget. He forced the people who saw everything as essential to choose between “must haves” and “want to haves.” They reviewed and challenged all the assumptions; my budget team would push them for answers. Quickly, we developed confidence and I left Romney to work. 

The next hassle to fix was a new chief Olympics officer for the state. John Fowler, my first appointee, resigned about three years out from the games for reasons I don’t recall. I then approached Lane Beattie, the president of the Utah Senate, about taking the job. Lane had been among my most important allies in the Legislature. He thinks big, had sizeable influence with the Legislature, and was well-liked by the Olympic community. He was someone who enjoyed my greatest trust and confidence and had a similar relationship with state legislators. Lane accepted the job to be the chief Olympics officer and resigned from the state senate to take a full-time role. It turned out to be a great decision. He embraced the role enthusiastically and built a great state team.

Working with Lane, we appointed Olympic officers within each department of state government and asked local governments to do the same. Lane had the responsibility to coordinate and lead more than a hundred of those local governmental officers. Collaboration among state and federal agencies and departments was vital. 

We needed to ensure that our state captured the remarkable opportunity the Olympic Games gave us economically. This meant being prepared to host thousands of business people and media who would focus on Utah before, during, and after the games. We also wanted every Utahn, in one form or another, to feel part of the games. 

Every department in government had a role. I tasked the Department of Economic Development through its leader, David Winder, to begin organizing a serious hosting program that would allow us to attract business leaders from all over the world. We also wanted to support the efforts of Utah businesses working to develop business relationships. The Division of Community Development started developing cultural programs for our citizens.

Jackie began working on a musical program for the schools. She envisioned each school child learning and performing a series of original Olympic songs composed by notable Utah composers. She believed that music would leave each child with a lasting emotional tie to this important period in the state’s history. It was a brilliant plan and was executed superbly. 

Jackie raised the money, then chose the artists, Sam Cardon and Kurt Bestor. A decade after, any Utah child who was in school during that time could recite the words and sing the melodies of these upbeat toe-tappers. Each song taught the meaning of the Olympics and values of Utah. 

Ten-Thousand-Day Horizon

While I had attended Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway; Atlanta, Georgia; and Nagano, Japan, I had decided against traveling to the summer games in Sydney, Australia, in 2000. However, as we got closer to 2002, the Utah Department of Economic Development hired a consultant who had organized Australia’s Olympic business development program. After spending considerable time with him, I became persuaded that there were useful lessons to learn from Australia. So, in the summer of 2001, I organized a trade mission to Australia to help Utah businesses and the state learn from Sydney’s successes. 

The Australian portion of the trip proved very helpful, and we reshaped many of our plans for the upcoming games as a result. I also developed relationships with the governor of New South Wales, the Australian state where Sydney is located. 

The business development plan to maximize the Olympic experience was much on the minds of my chief of staff Rich McKeown and I, and we created the idea of a “thousand-day plan with a ten-thousand-day horizon.” It would be a rolling thousand days that was recalibrated often but was aimed at achieving long-term economic development results. Rich and I have continued to refine the process over the years, and it has become a trademark of the way we manage and lead. 

A second major takeaway we learned from Australia was not to overlook the non-accredited news media that show up in large numbers to cover the Olympics—an observation our Sydney hosts had themselves learned from Atlanta’s 1996 Summer Olympics. The Sydney Olympic Committee had made elaborate arrangements for the accredited media, establishing media centers and hosting centers. But they also developed hosting centers co-located around the various facilities and official areas to help non-accredited media do their jobs as well, realizing that freelancers and independent media who came primarily to cover the cultural environment surrounding the Olympics could have as much or more impact on the way the games were perceived. Atlanta had not done this four years earlier and was branded in the first two or three days of the games by the traffic problems they had.

The Day Our World Shifted

A few months later, the earth moved again in a far more devastating, dangerous, and lasting way than the uproar caused by the bid scandal. On September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the United States using hijacked airliners, destroying lives and buildings and putting our nation on a war footing. I was at home preparing for work. I got a frantic call from Joanne Neumann from our Washington D.C. office. “We are under attack,” she said, with an excited but trembling voice. “Turn on the TV; I’ve got to get out of here.” 

That day America changed, and so did the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympic Games. We had to. Within days of the attacks, people started calling for the Olympics to be canceled on the basis of security. Certainly, the games provided an attractive target for terrorists, and it wasn’t without precedent; terrorist events had occurred at previous games, most searingly at Munich, Germany, in 1972. However, I dismissed suggestions to cancel the games and made clear that we would ensure the games were safe. 

On October 7, 2001, U.S. and British forces attacked targets in Afghanistan in pursuit of the terrorists who had organized the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the unknown third target saved by courageous passengers who brought the aircraft down in a rural area of Pennsylvania.

Suddenly, the Utah Olympic Games became the “Security Games.” Our Olympics would be the next major moment when the entire world would gather, taking place during a highly emotional atmosphere as the American people were both deeply worried about additional attacks and yet highly patriotic, wanting the games to move forward. 

The federal government, amid rethinking its security policies, began to engage with the state and the Olympic committee emotionally and financially on the security issues. This was good news because they were willing to provide substantially more money; however, they also wanted to have more control. This caused tension between federal and state law enforcement agencies, and working out agreements between them often required the Governor’s Office to be involved. 

It was my first real exposure to the world of national security and the widespread problem of the intelligence community being unwilling to share information freely with other federal entities, much less with states. Over time, with the combination of the security environment and the collaborative approach we took at the state level, we devised intelligence-sharing arrangements that were truly unprecedented. 

The Lighting of the Olympic Flame

The first official event of any games is the lighting of the Olympic flame at the site of the first Olympics, in Olympia, Greece. The first week of December 2001, a large delegation of Utah organizing committee members flew to Athens, and then traveled by bus to Olympia, Greece, for the lighting ceremony. 

I am simply amazed that people gather on the streets to watch this. What is it about fire on a stick that makes them come?

The site is in front of the Temple of Hera where the original Olympics were held. About fifty of us sat on chairs in a small open place in the woods. A group of women dressed as goddesses emerged from a forest of trees, the leader carrying an unlit torch. What appeared to be flammable material was deposited into a concave metal bowl sitting at the goddesses’ feet. As the sun’s rays hit the concave bowl, it began to generate heat. Suddenly there was smoke, and then flame. The leader placed her torch into the flame, where it ignited. It was at that moment that I realized the Olympic flame is actually the sun. 

At that point in the ceremony, a runner emerged from the woods, dressed in the uniform of the Utah Olympic Games. I got goose bumps; this was the moment. The runner lifted the Utah torch to the Olympic torch and the flame ignited. The Utah runner then held the torch high in a salute. An official pronounced the Olympic flame of the 2002 Utah Winter Olympics as lit, instructing the runner to carry it to the world. A signal dove was released in symbolism. As the dove took flight, a feather fell from its tail. Apparently both Kem Gardner and I had the same thought, because once the meeting adjourned, we both lunged for the feather. He got it, but graciously gave it to me. I preserved the feather and used it as an object lesson in several talks. 

The torch runner began to run in the first leg of the transitional torch run. From that day until February 8, 2002, when the torch made a triumphant entry into the Olympic opening ceremonies, it traveled 13,500 miles across continents, through forty-six of the fifty states. It was carried by 12,012 runners, drawn from communities along the way, each considering the task as a high honor.(12)

2002 Olympic lighting of flame
The 1980 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team, lighting the opening ceromony cauldron.

Periodically throughout the torch run, I would visit cities for economic development purposes. I was always surprised by the size of the crowds that gathered to watch the torch pass. One day, sitting with torch run organizers, I said, “I am simply amazed that people gather on the streets to watch this. What is it about fire on a stick that makes them come?”

The organizer said, “Let me help you understand it.” She then told me a story of two weeks earlier when she had a gap in the runners. She sent her assistant ahead to find a substitute runner. The assistant went to an elementary school along the route and said, “Can you give me a runner? Don’t give me the student body president, give me somebody who needs a lift.”

The school secretary responded that she knew just the right boy. A few minutes later they were dressing an undersized fifth grader in the uniform of the Utah Winter Olympic games, hurrying him to the street. The previous runner approached. The little boy raised the torch with both hands. The flame lit and he began to run. As he approached the school, his school mates and thousands of others applauded. He stopped and with both hands lifted the torch to the sky in an Olympic salute. The crowd responded wildly. 

Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square
President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush at the Utah State Capitol Building. An Olympic welcome celebration with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.

“Two weeks ago,” the organizer said, “we got an email from the school secretary recounting what a great experience it had been for the school. Then, referencing the undersized fifth grader, she said “He doesn’t sit alone anymore.” I now saw the Olympic flame differently. It wasn’t fire on a stick; it was a symbol of humanity’s aspirations for a better world. 

The Final Preparation

As the torch relay crossed from state to state, the final touches on our readiness increased. Special attention was paid to security; the world was still on edge from the deadly and traumatic 9/11 attacks. In late December, a joint federal and state law enforcement task force rounded up two hundred employees at the Salt Lake International Airport who were working in the United States illegally. In another incident, an explosive device was found in a manhole housing an essential cable that carried all communications in the West. The explosive would have disabled not just the Olympics, but all communications in eleven western states. Needless to say, federal agencies were seriously beefing up their presence, and our state and local law enforcement were operating in a joint Olympic command.

The last several days before the games were memorable for other reasons. The organizing committee had approached the owners of the tallest buildings in downtown Salt Lake City for permission to cover their west facing surfaces with gigantic murals of Olympic athletes. The murals were lit in a way that transformed the city into a festive showplace. When those went up, the countenance of the entire city lit up as well. 

There were moments throughout the Olympic preparations that I felt had a spiritual component to them. An odd one occurred the week before the opening of the games. During that week, delegations from many of the countries involved had already arrived and were actively involved in preparing. I was scheduled to do proclamations, a ritual I did roughly every month. We would invite various groups with an issue or cause that I supported to the Capitol, and as governor I would issue a formal proclamation. We would line up more than a dozen groups and do the proclamations in rapid-fire succession, alternating between the Gold Room, the Governor’s Office, and the Governor’s Board Room. As I walked down the hall after completing one, the staff would brief me on the next one. 

On this occasion we were walking between rooms. The staffer who had organized the event said, “This next group is the Falun Gong. They are a Chinese group, and you will be declaring Falun Gong Day and welcoming them to Utah.” 

At some time during the months previous, I had read a small story in a news magazine about how controversial this organization was in China. The government saw the Falun Gong group as a threat to their control and civil harmony in China and had imprisoned a number of its leaders and members. I was walking toward the door of the Gold Room as my briefer told me there were many television cameras and media members covering the ceremony. I felt a distinct sense of discomfort come over me for reasons I could not pinpoint. I paused to resolve it, and the memory of the small news item I had read came back to me. 

I realized at that moment that I faced a serious problem. The Chinese Olympic delegation was in town. Knowing their feelings toward the group, if I signed the declaration declaring a “Falun Gong Day” in Utah, it would have resulted in a serious diplomatic moment, damaging relationships and deflecting attention from the positive aspects of the Games. I told my staff, “Walk in there and announce that the governor will not be signing the declaration today, but he will be here momentarily to greet you.” 

It was very awkward, but I walked into the Gold Room briskly. Television cameras and, as I remember, thirty or forty people, mostly Chinese, where there. I made no mention of the proclamation but greeted them warmly. I talked briefly about Utah as a state and then shook every hand, leaving within a few minutes. 

I would not see the impacts of this small moment for years to come. During my time as part of President George W. Bush’s cabinet, I had many dealings with the Chinese people that could have been negatively impacted if I had gone in and honored the Falun Gong that day in Utah. 


1. Gordon B. Hinckley, Marjorie Hinckley, other general authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints celebrate the arrival of the Olympics.

2. Native American Stephanie Laree Spann carries the torch through Arches National Park. Delicate Arch is in the background.


The torch relay, meantime, was weaving its way through cities in Utah after arriving on a dramatic morning at Arches National Park. The event was covered live by NBC News’s The Today Show. The torch arrived in a helicopter and was passed to a Native American runner in full cultural costume. Each city in Utah then held a torch ceremony to welcome the “fire on a stick.” 

When the torch arrived at the state capitol, it was the day before the opening ceremonies. I asked a 102-year-old man to light the Olympic flame that would burn at the Capitol building. That same evening, the Olympic committee revealed another surprise: Five Olympic rings lit up the foothills of Salt Lake City’s northeast side, just above the University of Utah—a beacon that could be seen across the Salt Lake Valley, all the way to the Point of the Mountain.

Before the games started, we held a dress rehearsal at Rice-Eccles stadium at the University of Utah. It was good we did; the program seemed to go well, but because of the security magnetometers, lines to get into the stadium were disastrously long. We recalibrated our approach to avoid problems the next night by turning down the sensitivity on the magnetometers just a notch, without compromising security.

The temperatures had been rather warm, and so many people had been concerned about the quality of the snow for the major ski events. Many prayers were applied toward that problem. On the night before the games were to begin, fresh snow began to fall and the skiing events went smoothly.

By opening-day morning, not only was the dirty inversion that often occurs in Utah’s valleys during winter gone, but the entire northern half of the state had been cleansed with fresh snow and blue skies. Providentially, it was a picture-perfect day to start the Olympics. 

The Opening Ceremonies

My major task on the day of the opening ceremonies was to receive and entertain President George W. Bush, and the First Lady, Laura Bush. 

The arrival of Air Force One always produces a patriotic moment for me. On this day, it was particularly true. The fresh snow punctuated the intensely blue sky, which made the shiny, powder-blue color of the monstrous 747 aircraft glow. As it stopped, Jackie and I went to the tarmac to meet George and Laura Bush. The stairs were rolled into place, and they exited, embracing us as friends. It was a big moment for us and for Utah. 

Delta Center figure skating competition
Anne Marie, Taylor, Jackie and Mike at the Delta Center for the figure skating competition

The president and first lady were accompanied by members of the president’s cabinet, men and women who would later become my colleagues. In all, seven cabinet members attended, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

During the late afternoon, we held a meeting at the state capitol for legislators and invited guests. 

It was the first time a sitting U.S. president had ever visited Utah’s capitol building. The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square performed, as well as the 23rd Army Band. The president spoke, as did I. We then spent time in the Governor’s Office and Gold Room taking pictures with family, guests, and lawmakers. Afterward, we began to set up for the opening ceremonies at the University of Utah stadium. This was it—the fulfillment of three decades of work. The world would gather in that stadium to launch the 2002 Utah Winter Olympic Games. 

IOC President Dr. Jacques Rogge and SLOC President Mitt Romney
IOC President Dr. Jacques Rogge and SLOC President Mitt Romney welcoming the world to the 19th Winter Olympic Games.

The Games Begin

The president opened the Salt Lake games with the phrase: “On behalf of a proud, determined, and grateful nation, I declare open the Games of Salt Lake City, celebrating the Olympic Winter Games.” And then in a moment I will never forget, a torn and damaged American flag, rescued from the rubble of the World Trade Center site on 9/11, was reverently carried into the stadium by a group of American athletes and members of New York City’s police and fire departments and Port Authority police. As the Tabernacle Choir sang the Star-Spangled Banner, fifty-five thousand spectators stood as one in silent respect. 

Next, the athletes—2,399 of them from nations around the world—entered the stadium by country, and then came the dazzling Olympic program, unfolding in a nonstop interplay of sound, light, color, and artistic performance, establishing the theme of the games: “Light the Fire Within.” 

President George Bush sits with members of the United States Olympic team
President George Bush sits with members of the United States Olympic team at the opening ceremony.

Jacques Rogge, the new president of the IOC, and Mitt Romney pronounced the games open. The Olympic flame entered the stadium after its 13,500-mile journey. And then, the most closely held secret of the games—who would light the Olympic cauldron—was revealed. Stepping forward was the 1984 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, the “Miracle on Ice” college players who stunned the world by defeating the juggernaut Soviet team at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, and then advancing to win the gold medal. The crowd erupted, along with millions of Americans watching on television. 

Fireworks crowned a beautiful evening filled with pride, excitement, tears of relief and joy. It was well after midnight when Jackie and I got home—the first of seventeen consecutive adventurous and historic days. 

Seventeen Days 

During the first few days of the Olympics, two of the things we had worried about beforehand—negative press about the security presence or Utah’s prevalent Mormon culture—were resolved in an amazingly positive way. Within days of the start of the games, Utah’s remarkable volunteers won the world over. A volunteer force of 26,000 had fanned out at the various venues to assist athletes, tourists, journalists, and spectators. They translated for individuals who spoke different languages; opened their homes to visitors from other countries, and opened their hearts, presenting an unforgettably warm and vibrant face to the world.

“A colossal triumph,” declared Newsweek writer Mark Starr, who acknowledged having a less flattering preconception about Utah heading into the games. “The gracious hospitality that [sic] Utahans extended was everywhere.” 

“Having covered a few hotspots in my long career, from the Middle East to Central America, I know that men carrying M-16s and Uzis don’t generally waste much time on good manners and smiley-face sentiments. But under the influence of Utah authorities they sure did. Even as the police and military scoured our cars, bags and persons for explosives, they would wind up the search with a “have a nice day.”(13)

During the weeks prior to the games, we had developed a draft schedule. My primary task, short of emergencies, was to act as the general host. Many of the national teams created “country houses” where they welcomed visitors with a flavor of their own culture. I tried to visit nearly all of them. I also hosted meetings at nearly every meal, most often at the Governor’s Mansion. On behalf of the State of Utah, I had invited many economic development prospects, and whenever possible, I would take them to an Olympic venue to watch the competition, generally flying to the site in a Utah Highway Patrol helicopter. 

Each night at 10:00 p.m., in our living room on Laird Avenue, we would assemble the leadership of the Governor’s Office, the highway patrol, and different state agencies to discuss the upcoming day and tie down the schedule. The meeting rarely ended before 11:00 p.m. Then I would deal with family and personal business until well after midnight. Almost always my first meeting would start at 7:00 a.m. at some venue, which generally meant arising at 5:30 a.m. or so. These seventeen days did not include a lot of sleep. 

An Olympic-sized Scare

On the third or so night of the games, there was a frightening departure from my normal routine. Early in the evening I had determined to attend the figure skating event at the Delta Center. It was my practice to walk from suite to suite, introducing myself to the parties from around the world who occupied them for the night. I loved these events because it represented such a melting pot of nations who had come to celebrate sport and to cheer (generally good naturedly) for their teams and countrymen. 

By 6:30 p.m. I had worked my way all the way around the Delta Center and returned to the suite the state used to entertain guests. It was the early rounds of the figure skating competition, always a favorite. 

A member of my security detail approached me with a mobile phone saying, “The commissioner needs to talk with you,” referencing Bob Flowers, the commissioner of Public Safety. Bob was direct. “Governor, I think we need you to come to us; we have a situation. An air monitor at the top of Concourse C at the airport has detected anthrax, a deadly chemical agent used in biological warfare.” I asked, “How sure are you?” He reported that they had suspected it was a false positive and retested it. “Governor, we retested it four times. Each time it read anthrax.” 

Without saying anything, I left the arena, walking down the circular ramps that connect the suites and into the parking area where my car was waiting. I knew that if this was true, it would be considered a terrorist attack, creating chaos within the Winter Games and beyond, in the nation and across the world. The most immediate problem, however, was extremely localized—what was happening at the airport? 

Salt Lake City International Airport is a busy, bustling hub for Delta Air Lines. Between 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. hundreds of airplanes would arrive, tens of thousands of passengers getting off and walking to a different terminal, traveling to any one of more than a hundred different cities. If the air permeating the concourses of the airport was filled with anthrax spores, thousands of lives were in danger. 

I called Rich McKeown and Natalie Gochnour at their homes and asked them to join me immediately at the Utah Department of Health, where the analysis was being done. I volunteered to pick Rich up so we could begin discussing how to approach this during the drive over. 

A dreadful hypothesis was taking shape in my mind: A terrorist group could gain access to the ventilation system at the airport. By releasing a very small amount of the white powdery substance into the system, thousands of people could be infected, many of whom would not show symptoms for three to five days. They would travel to their destinations, infected, and then as people across the country began to become ill, it could be pinned on them going through Salt Lake International on the same night. By that point, the terrorist would have escaped and could easily have left the United States. If true, the consequences would be devastating. 

As we traveled, I said, “Rich, if this is an actual terrorist attack, we are in a highly volatile no-win situation. Everything we do in the next few hours is going to be sorted through and second-guessed by congressional panels and the media. We need to keep a detailed record of everything that happens. Will you keep the record?” He agreed. 

Once at the Department of Health, the officials briefed me on the situation. In essence, I was told that the original monitor had, as Bob Flowers told me, been tested four times. Each time, the test reflected a positive hit. However, they told me, they were running a more delineating anthrax test that would take another two hours for results to be known. The dilemma we faced was that thousands of people were arriving in Salt Lake City while we sat there. By having knowledge of a potential anthrax attack but not taking action, we had to accept the moral responsibility and the potential economic damages that inaction would create. However, if we closed the airport and it proved to be a false positive, the nature of the games would be changed as the world’s attention focused on the uncertainties and interpretations of that move. 

“I need more information about the probabilities here. Who do we have that can offer insight?” I asked. Two federal officials were available to me, one from the Environmental Protection Agency and the other from the Department of Energy. Both were experts on anthrax. Within minutes I had the two on a conference call. Each provided similar thoughts. The monitors are often prone to false reads, but there was no way to be sure.

I had to make a decision or accept the implications of losing the option. I said to Flowers, “Call the emergency response. Tell them I want the hazmat team standing ready. Put them in their ‘moon suits’ and move them to the base of the terminals, but keep them in their trucks. Nobody moves until we give the order.” 

“Then call the manager of the Salt Lake International Airport. Brief him on the situation. Tell him that we are waiting for the delineating test. The second we have confirmation of anthrax, I want the airport closed. He will need to call the FAA; I’m sure there is a protocol for this.”

I directed Rich and Natalie to begin drafting a statement as well as develop a list of people I needed to call before it was issued. I then walked down the hall and peered in a small laboratory window where a woman named Natalie Burton was feverishly working on the delineating test. I retreated to the briefing room. We still had one-and-a-half hours to wait. 

Within an hour I received word that airport management was standing by and the hazmat team was geared up and waiting at the bottom of the terminal stairs. Rich and Natalie and I had assembled a list of people we needed to call and the tasks that needed to be done immediately. The list started with a call to the White House, triggering protocols we had developed in the interagency teams. Finally, at 8:45 p.m. the door opened and Rod Betit, executive director of the Utah Department of Health, entered the room. There was a moment of suspended breathing, but no words. 

“What is it?” I asked. “False read,” came the reply. We all breathed again. 

Even though we were enormously relieved, we still needed to deal with whether to disclose it. 

Mike using the Utah State helicopter to move from venue to venue during the 2002 Olympic games

Ultimately, at the wise suggestion of Rich McKeown, we decided to avoid making it a security issue by calling a special briefing. Instead, we had a public health officer, at an already-scheduled news briefing, report matter-of-factly that there had been a false read at the airport. The incident was never mentioned in the media.

Figure Skating and Speed Skating

A few nights later, Jackie and I attended the finals of the figure skating competition and sat right at the edge of the ice at the Delta Center. Two skaters, Michelle Kwan of the United States and Irina Slutskaya of Russia, were highly favored to win. In fourth place was a sixteen-year-old American skater named Sarah Hughes. In a shocking twist, Sarah Hughes beat out Kwan and Slutskaya, as the two favorites both faltered during their performances and Hughes skated with perfection. 

Later, I was in the media center and observed Sarah, who the day before the competition had taken the SAT exam for college. She was asked what it felt like to win a gold medal, and I have since used her response in speeches from time to time. She said, “First, I want to say how grateful I am to have skated for my country. Some people will never have an opportunity to skate the performance of their life, and I did.” 

During the intermission that night, one of my favorite moments took place. As the ice was being reconditioned, music started to play very loudly—M.C. Hammer’s popular and can’t-sit-still tune, “Can’t Touch This.” People in every section of the Delta Center leapt to their feet and grooved to it, holding their country signs and flags. It was a spontaneous, international show of unity. 

I also realized that I enjoyed watching speed skating; the 2002 games were the first time I had ever seen a speed skating competition. I thought it was a remarkably exciting sport. Two memorable moments for me occurred at the Utah Olympic Speed Skating Oval: The first was presenting flowers to the medalists in the 1000-meter competition. As with figure skating, the event had a bit of an upset. A Dutch skater who had previously taken a silver medal in Nagano was favored to win gold in Salt Lake. In the Netherlands they take this very seriously—a banner brought by the Dutch contingent to Utah and placed near the track’s final turn said, “If it ain’t Dutch, it ain’t much.” Surprisingly, though, the gold medal winner of 1998 repeated his victory and the Dutch skater who won silver in 1998 earned silver again. Not knowing any of this background, when I presented the bundle of flowers to the winners, I said to the second-place finisher, “How does it feel to have won a silver medal in the Olympic Games?” He said dryly, “Just like it did last time. I wanted the gold.”

The second moment was watching Derek Parra win a gold medal. We had all become acquainted with him in preceding months as he had come to Utah to train. Parra winning gold was proof that Utah had the facilities where athletes could train and become champions. 

Occasionally, I would visit the Athletes Village at the University of Utah campus, just to be hospitable. I enjoyed interaction with the athletes. On one occasion, I encountered a short track speed skater named Steven Bradbury. The night before, in the 1000-meter event, he had won the gold medal in a remarkable way. Bradbury knew that the other top competitors, including Apolo Ohno, the American favorite, were faster than he was. So, Bradbury held back, skating safely behind them about twenty meters the entire race. On the last lap, the other four skaters intensified their speed and aggressiveness to a degree that they crashed, sprawling into the side boards of the track—exactly as Bradbury had expected. Bradbury skated by to capture the gold medal. It was a clever bit of strategy. I wished Bradbury success that night in the 1,500 meters. He said, “I think I may have used up all my luck charms last night.” 

As I talked to athletes, they spoke openly about their amazement at how well they were being treated by Utah’s people and the hospitality and graciousness they observed. I would hear similar sentiments again and again. Something magical was in the air, as if world troubles had been set aside and hearts all beat as one.

When the games finally ended, the letdown was palpable. The festive banners were removed, the incandescent mountainside rings came down, and the visitors who had enlivened our cities and state for seventeen days went home. Salt Lake City, so filled with light and buoyant activity during the games, retook its regular workday look and feel. Naturally beautiful, but not as electric.

As a state, however, we had summited a previously unreachable peak and would never again be relegated to the plateaus. After the dashed hopes of previous unsuccessful bids, the long effort to finally land the games, and the dramatic turns of the bid scandal and hyper-vigilant security environment following 9/11, Utah had won big.

Economic data compiled by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget after the games was stunning. Visitors to Utah for the games numbered 250,000 and resulted in $350 million in visitor spending. The total economic impact was $4.8 billion, resulting in 45,000 job years of employment and $1.5 billion in income for Utah workers between 1996 and 2003. The games ended with a $40 million net surplus, ninety percent of which went toward the continuing upkeep of our Olympic facilities.14 

From my memory, state entities had officially hosted approximately 350 investors and venture capitalists during the games, along with world leaders from seventy-seven countries. The Department of Community and Economic Development alone had co-hosted eighty-four international events involving 18,400 participants. The worldwide television audience of 3.5 billion people saw Utah as a competent place with spectacular scenery and warm, friendly people.

Legacy impacts of the games were projected well into the future. The world-class winter sports facilities built for the 2002 Olympics would be continuously used for athlete training and events year after year; Salt Lake’s status as an Olympic city would last forever. Utah as a brand was established by the games, along with the expectation and confidence that we can—and likely will—host them again. 

Our vantage point for 2002 envisioned a timeline extending not for weeks, months, or years, but for decades. Indeed, as I write this in 2022, Utah is ramping up to possibly go for gold again—the 2030 or 2034 Winter Games. 

I have no doubt that businesses, governments, law enforcement, communities, and Utah’s tour-de-force volunteers would step up in the incredible way they did before, while also creating some new magic and placing an updated, uniquely Utah stamp on any future games—a repeat performance for a new generation when we would again welcome the world with lights on a mountainside and fireworks erupting from canyons; with sheer competence and a can-do attitude; and with the warmth, spirit, and sunny friendship of Utah’s people—all of which two decades ago led an anonymous spectator at the 2002 games to sum it up simply but plaintively: “I wish the world could always be this way.” 

Photo courtesy of Utah Tourism. Photographer, Steve Greenwood.
Olympic Medals Plaza


1. Mike Wise, “Olympics: Closing Ceremony; Games End With a Mixture Of Rowdy Relief and Joy,” The New York Times, 25 February 2002,

2. Robert Rice, “Ballot Preamble May Explain Issues to Voters,” Deseret News, 17 August 1989, 

3. “Utah Voters Approve Olympics Referendum.” AP News, 8 November 1989. 

“Tough Challenges Remain After Utah Olympics Vote,” Deseret News, 8 November 1989.

4. “Promote Olympism in Society,” The International Olympic Committee, accessed 6 February 2021,

5. Donald MacIntyre, “Japan’s Sullied Olympic Bid,” Time, 1 February 1999,,8599,2053970,00.html 

6. Donald MacIntyre, "Japan's Sullied Olympic Bid."

7. Lisa Riley Roche, “Welch Resigns as Games Chief,” Deseret News, 29 July 1997,

8. Lucinda Dillon, “Leavitt Laments Role as ‘Chief Explainer’ in Olympics Scandal,” Deseret News, 27 January 1999. 

9. Jere Longman and Jo Thomas, “OLYMPICS; Report Details Lavish Spending In Salt Lake’s Bid to Win Games,” The New York Times, 10 February 1999. 

10. Lex Hemphill, “Olympics; Acquittals End Bid Scandal that Dogged Winter Games,” The New York Times, 6 December 2003.

11. Lisa Riley Roche, “Acquitted: Duo refused to cave in,” Deseret News, 6 December 2003.

12. “2002 Olympic Torch Relay.” Wikipedia, 4 December 2020. 

13. Mark Starr, “Salt Lake City, Utah, Winter Olympics 2002, Olympics, Utahans,” Newsweek, 2 February 2002,

14. Jasen Lee, “Economic impact of 2002 Olympics still felt,”, 8 February 2012,


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