Twelve years ago today the Olympic torch was making its way to Utah. Like the Sochi Olympic torch relay crisscrossing through Russia today, the 2002 Olympic torch was on its 65-day journey from Olympia, Greece to Salt Lake City, Utah.
Originally lit by the sun, the flame crossed the Atlantic Ocean, arrived in Atlanta, Georgia and commenced through 45 states where torchbearers like Olympic legends Bonnie Blair, Mohammed Ali and many less well known, but equally inspiring, people carried the flame.
On Feb. 4, 2002, the Olympic flame made its Utah debut at Delicate Arch. The NBC Today Show broadcast it live and over the next four days the flame made its way to Rice-Eccles Stadium where the 1980 U.S. men’s gold medal winning hockey team lit the cauldron in front of a worldwide television viewing audience of more than 1 billion people.
This was Utah’s Olympic moment and it was powerful. With the Sochi, Russia games just 35 days away and Olympic qualifier events occurring in our state right now, it’s time to recommit ourselves to hosting another Olympic games in the Beehive State.
Getting to that moment will be a circuitous and long path that isn’t for the faint of heart. It will require our very best financial, environmental and community stewardship. But a quick reflection back to the incredible triumphs of amazing athletes like Derek Parra, Apolo Anton Ohno, Sarah Hughes and others around the globe reminds us of the power of the Olympic movement to inspire and connect the world.
The U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) has made the decision not to pursue the 2022 Olympic Winter Games and will soon consider whether to pursue the 2026 games. Utah is not standing on the sidelines as we wait for the USOC to consider next steps. Under Gov. Gary Herbert’s leadership, the Utah Olympic Exploratory Committee determined in 2012 that Utah is, “ ready, willing and able to host another Olympic Winter Games.” The committee unanimously recommended that Salt Lake City pursue the 2026 games should the USOC submit a bid.
There are myriad reasons Salt Lake City should once again bid for the games. Many of them are well known to Utahns – the public supports it, facilities are already built, the venues are close together, and we have a proven track record of success. Importantly, another Salt Lake City Olympics will be more affordable and environmentally sustainable than other likely U.S. bid cities.
But, there is an even more compelling reason why Utah should host another Olympics. It has nothing to do with the past and everything to do with the future. A large percentage of Utahns today and in the future have either no or little memory of the remarkable experience of hosting the games.
Today there are approximately 1.2 million people in Utah aged 24 or younger. The oldest persons in this age cohort would have been 12 years old in 2002. This means approximately three out of every seven Utahns today either were not born in 2002 or were too young to have vivid recall about the depth and breadth of the Salt Lake Olympics. By 2030 the contrast gets even greater. The number of Utahns with no or little memory of the Salt Lake games will swell to approximately 2 million people or one out of every two Utahns.
For all of the convincing reasons why Salt Lake City should bid again, hosting another Olympic Games isn’t about those of us who experienced the magic 12 years ago. It’s about the other half of the state who, by the time we could host another games, will have no or little memory of preparing for and being a host city for the Olympics.
Utah is a natural winter sports capital for our country. The majestic Wasatch Mountains, phenomenal Utah Olympic Park and Olympic Oval, international airport and metropolitan region make for an ideal Olympics. Those of us who experienced the wonder of the 2002 Games should do our part to make sure future Utahns have this same opportunity.
Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.