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2002 Winter Olympics challenged, changed by 9/11

Published: Friday, Sept. 9 2011 6:04 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Fraser Bullock can never forget the first time he talked with Utah Olympic leader Mitt Romney after the 9/11 attacks on America.

"I got a phone call from Mitt, who had just driven past the Pentagon right after it had been hit and smoke filled his car," recalled Bullock, the chief operating officer of the 2002 Winter Games.

Romney had been in Washington, D.C., lobbying for more federal help with Olympic security, to help close the budget gap left by the bid scandal that had surfaced years earlier.

Suddenly, Romney was fleeing the nation's capital and having to confront the impact of the day's events on the Salt Lake Games.

Bullock said the pair began talking "about the fact that in less than five months, we were going to host the world and how were we going to keep everyone safe."

But, he said, the conversation soon shifted.

"One of the things that we recognized was that our Olympics would be a chance for the world to heal somewhat, to come together under the umbrella of sport," Bullock said. "To be united in a different way."

He said they recognized there would be questions about whether the Olympics should go forward in such a changed world.

The International Olympic Committee first expressed a "profound sense of shock and disbelief" as well as sympathy for the 9/11 victims, before offering assurances there would be no reconsideration of holding the Games in the United States.

Still, there were worries.

"There were countries that were concerned about sending their teams. They were saying, 'Well, we're not sure we want to come,'" Bullock said. "There were sponsors that cancelled ticket orders and others who said, 'We're not sure we can be safe in that environment.'"

Bullock said organizers realized all they could do was "put our heads down and work as hard as we can to keep everyone safe," always with the knowledge that terrorists had struck at previous Olympics, killing Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich.

A re-evaluation of security plans soon after 9/11 led to the addition of a nonstop combat air patrol over the state throughout the Games, he said, as well as other elements intended to "provide another layer of security and comfort for those who were coming."

The hard work paid off in an Olympics seen as a success from a security standpoint, said Utah law enforcement veteran Dwayne Baird, then with the Salt Lake Police Department.

"They were secure and we didn't have any security-type events," he said. "It felt good to have the world here. And afterwards, I think we felt like we could do this again."

For Bullock, everything came together in a single moment during the Opening Ceremonies, held at the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"In comes the flag from the twin towers, carried by the athletes selected by their peers, and you couldn't hear anything," he said. "It was just a feeling of reverence and quiet."

Organizers had to battle IOC protocol to get permission to display the tattered American flag, recovered from the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York City. "It did take a little bit of arm-twisting by Mitt and others, but it was the right thing to do," Bullock said.

He said it was a moment "the world really came together," including the estimated 2 billion television viewers tuned in around the globe. "It was a special moment for everyone," Bullock said.

Particularly for organizers, "it was a very interesting moment, because we started in a very different place, with the scandal and budget deficits," he said. "We thought we were about ready and 9/11 hits just before our Games. We had to work again to dig ourselves out of a troubled situation."

Olympic gold medalist speedskater Derek Parra was one of the America athletes who carried the flag into the stadium and held it as the "Star Spangled Banner" was played.

"Walking onto that stage, to this day, was the most emotional and possibly spiritual experience of my life," Parra said. Expecting a roar from the 55,000 spectators, he said the silence made the flag's appearance even more poignant.

"Everyone in that stadium, if not the world, was feeling, I think, the same emotion. It was as if time stood still," Parra recalled. "The world stopped to watch that flag. We were all affected."

In the aftermath of 9/11, Parra said he considered quitting skating.

"Here we were, months out from the Games, but I felt almost ashamed that I was putting so much focus and value on going around in circles when people were pulling their loved ones out of the rubble," he said. "I didn't know what to do."

Back on the ice at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns just days after the attacks, Parra said he decided he would skate his best as a way "to give those victims' families something to cheer about."

And throughout the Olympics, both on and off the ice, he said he felt the presence of those who had lost their lives on 9/11.

"Even during the Opening Ceremonies, when we were holding the flag at the end of the national anthem, a gust of wind came through and it was pulling the flag out of our hands," he said.

"It was the spirits of the victims there. They were telling me, 'We're with you, we're behind you.'"

Contributing: John Hollenhorst

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com

Twitter: dnewspolitics

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