Olympic Exploratory Committee tells governor, mayor to go after 2026 Winter Games

Published: Thursday, Oct. 18 2012 7:47 p.m. MDT

The Salt Lake City skyline is lit with Olympic banners on building and the medals plaza in the foreground on Jan. 29, 2002. Photo by Tom Smart

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The state's Olympic Exploratory Committee unanimously recommended Salt Lake City launch a bid to host a second Winter Games, this time in 2026.

"Utah's Olympic legacy is strong and vibrant and ready to provide the foundation for a future Olympic Winter Games," the committee stated in a 36-page report to Gov. Gary Herbert and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker released Thursday.

Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, who served as lead co-chairman of the committee, said he expects the governor and the mayor to give the bid the go-ahead. Their decision is expected sometime in November.

"The main ingredient of this is that we've done this. We know we can do it," Bell said. "We're excited. We're going to get in line, and we're going to make a great pitch, I believe, assuming the governor and the mayor approve it, as I expect them to." 

Bell said the committee, made up of business, government, sports and community leaders, received no negative comments about trying for a repeat of the 2002 Winter Games during months of meetings.

"It really was somewhat of a love fest, looking at it again and hoping we could host it again," said Fraser Bullock, chief operating officer of the 2002 Olympics and an adviser to the committee.

The governor told reporters he has received the report and will review it over the next few weeks before making a decision.

The mayor has said public enthusiasm alone is not a good enough reason to pursue what he called a "very serious, expensive undertaking." His spokesman, Art Raymond, said Becker is "definitely taking a very close look at it."

It's up the U.S. Olympic Committee to decide whether to field an American bid city. In July, the USOC dashed Salt Lake City's hopes of bidding for the 2022 Winter Games by announcing it would sit out the competition.

The USOC is currently trying to determine whether it might be better to bid for the 2024 Summer Games rather than the 2026 Winter Games, a decision expected sometime in the next two years. 

Even if the USOC decides to accept bids for 2026, an American contender likely won't be chosen for at least another four years. The International Olympic Committee will name the host of the 2026 Winter Games in 2019.

Hosting a Summer Games comes with staggering costs, Bullock said, making it more likely that the USOC will ultimately decide to bid for the smaller Winter Games given the nation's economic situation.

That's an advantage for Salt Lake, he said.

"We have an excellent grasp on the economics of the Games. We know we can put on great Games at a very reasonable cost because of the infrastructure we have in place, and that's unique in the United States," Bullock said.

Both Denver and the Reno-Tahoe area were actively seeking to be selected as the USOC's choice for 2022, and both are waiting to see what the USOC decides about 2026 before resuming their efforts.

The report pegs the cost of a bid at less than $1 million at the USOC level and between $25 million and $30 million to compete internationally. All of the bid costs would be paid privately, the report states.

The proposed budget for hosting the 2026 Games is $1.67 billion, about $300 million more than the price tag for 2002, Bullock said. The costs aren't as high as they might be for another city, thanks to projected savings on planning costs and venue construction.

The only cost to taxpayers identified in the budget is $85 million to upgrade the bobsled, luge and skeleton track, speedskating oval and other Olympic facilities. The budget calls for the money to repaid from Olympic revenues, and another $75 million to be set aside for post-Games operating expenses.

Those facilities were built for the 2002 Games with $59 million in tax dollars that were paid back, along with $40 million toward operating expenses expected to keep the facilities open through 2030.

Bullock called the $85 million in tax dollars in the budget "nice to have. That's not a must-have. It's not an essential thing that has to happen for us, but it's important because I think it increases our odds" by showing government support.

Bell said he believes state and local officials can come up with a way to fund the $85 million.

"That's not chump change by any means," he said, but officials can be confident the money will be paid back based on past experience.

The report said the 2026 Games could be expected to produce a $5 billion economic impact, provide the equivalent of more than 30,000 jobs that last a year and generate more than $75 million in revenues to state and local governments.

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank, the author of a book on Olympic politics that featured Salt Lake City, said there could be more opposition to any government spending for a second Olympics.

"It's a whole lot easier to sell that Olympic dream to cities that haven't hosted a Games," he said, noting that even with the success of the 2002 Games, it's difficult to pinpoint the payoffs, especially in Salt Lake.

For 17-year-old freestyle aerialist and Olympic hopeful Madison Olsen, there's no question that Salt Lake should go after another Winter Games.

"I think it would be an awesome opportunity," Olsen said. For the U.S. athletes who train in Utah, competing on their home turf would "give us the advantage to be the best in the world."

The Park City High School senior said while there's always the possibility she'd stay in the sport and try to make the U.S. team for 2026, knowing that the Olympics were going to be in Salt Lake "would definitely motivate me to do it."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com

Twitter: dnewspolitics

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