HEBER CITY — A sheep-herding dog named Tell is practicing for a great sport: Dogs take charge of sheep to make them go where they're supposed to go.
In Utah, it's a huge spectator sport. Beginning Friday, 64 highly talented sheepdogs from all around the world will take part in the annual Soldier Hollow Classic sheepdog championship and festival. Organizers estimate that 25,000 people will watch the competition during the four-day event.
While it's not an Olympic sport, it's part of a lasting legacy from the 2002 Olympics. It's the biggest sheepdog championship in the world, according to Mark Petersen, founder of the Soldier Hollow Classic.
"I had big dreams, but I didn't expect that it would become what it's become," Petersen said. "This is a great jewel that came off of the Olympics."
The event grew out of brainstorming sessions at the close of the Olympics 10 years ago. How could the Soldier Hollow venue continue to be useful after Olympic cross-country skiers were long gone?
"That's the unfortunate legacy of so many Olympic sites," said Howard Peterson, executive director of the Soldier Hollow Legacy Foundation. "They have so many white elephants or the facility just is abandoned."
When the sheepdog trial was launched 10 years ago, audiences found there could be real suspense of watching the interplay between dogs and sheep. The event is also a hit with locals.
"To me, it brings back those fond memories I had as a kid growing up," said Kay Probst, who tended sheep in his youth. "The economy of the sheep to this valley was tremendous back in those days."
This will be Tell's second time in the competition. He'll be going up against what event founder Petersen calls the NBA of sheepdogs. Along with about 20 other annual events at Soldier Hollow, it will help pay the bills of the Olympic venue.
"We wanted to have a legacy where we paid our bills, and we do," he said. "We've been in the black every year. We are self-sustaining. We don't receive any government support or any money from the Olympic profits."
That financial success could be a selling point if Utah ever gets serious again about pursuing the Olympics.
"While it's a very small surplus, we have had a surplus every year for the last 10 years," said Peterson of the Soldier Hollow Legacy Foundation.
Spectator dogs are not allowed. The competition is now the largest in the world, and he expects it will keep growing.
Events in addition to daily sheepdog competitions include acrobatic dog shows, law enforcement K-9 demonstrations, a dock-diving dogs competition, kite flying, face painting, biathlon riffle shooting and pony rides.
All-day events are scheduled Friday through Sunday with medals ceremonies Monday. A full schedule is available at www.soldierhollowclassic.com.
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