Utah rolls out the red carpet; see D1.Salt Lake City rolled out its white carpet for Mr. Olympics Saturday.

The "greatest snow on Earth" greeted International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch, who arrived in Salt Lake City to atypical April showers and the kind of political pomp and ceremony generally reserved for a chief of state or a victorious NBA team."We have invited the people who have been involved in our bid process to come out to the airport to greet you today. As I told you, they are the ones responsible for the snow," said a grinning Tom Welch. He introduced Samaranch to Utah's hardest hitters, on hand to help score the winning run - the 1998 Olympic Winter Games.

"When I left, the wheat was growing and the peach blossoms were on the trees. But they wanted you to see a winter city."

Welch, chairman of the Salt Lake City Olympic Bid Committee, flew to Rochester, N.Y., to escort Samaranch to Utah aboard a private multimillion-dollar Gulfstream II jet on loan from Utah Sport's Authority Chairman Ian Cumming.

As red, white and blue balloons danced in chilly breezes, dozens of Utah's top political and civic leaders gathered to meet the president's plane, which glided in under a water archway - compliments of city fire engines - to the "Washington Post March" played by the Utah National Guard's 23rd Army Band.

"Thank you for your warm welcome on behalf of the people, the IOC members coming with me and myself," Samaranch told the crowd. "And thank you also for this beautiful scenery - for the really winter games."

With that brief statement, Samaranch was whisked to waiting helicopters that flew him to Cottonwood Heights Community Center, where he was slated to drop the puck at youth hockey games.

By 1 p.m., an hour after his arrival at the Salt Lake International Airport, his two-day whirlwind tour of Salt Lake City's proposed Olympic venues was well under way.

During his visit, Samaranch will be courted by the state's most influential business leaders, while getting a taste of hometown culture. His itinerary Saturday included tours of proposed sites for the bobsled-luge run and ski-jump complex, plus a walk down Main Street in Park City - which stands to benefit substantially should Salt Lake get the nod of IOC members.

Saturday night, following a reception and concert at Symphony Hall, he was scheduled to attend a Ballet West performance at the Marriott.

On Sunday Samaranch's visit will include breakfast with business leaders, and a tour of the proposed site of the Olympic village at the University of Utah. He'll hold a news conference at 3:15 p.m. before leaving Salt Lake City for Atlanta - a city already basking in Olympic glory.

It was in September that the IOC chose Georgia's capital as host of the 1996 Summer Games. Welch and Co., concerned that IOC members may be reluctant to award both bids to one nation, have sought to show the differences between Salt Lake and Atlanta - and have spared no expense in doing so.

The Salt Lake City Olympic Bid Committee hopes to host visits by 60 IOC members to Utah by June 15 when more than 90 members of the international committee will decide the fate of Salt Lake's bid in Birmingham, England. Typically, a VIP visit of IOC members costs about $20,000.

Because Samaranch's domestic flight was paid by Cumming, and most banquets sponsored by prominent citizens, his Salt Lake inspection cost considerably less. In fact, "almost nothing," according to David Johnson, vice chairman of the Salt Lake City Bid Committee.

Nonetheless, his visit is considered the one that can make or break Utah's bid.

"This visit is extremely critical. Having President Samaranch here and having him see our spirit, our facility and our readiness to host the Olympics will make a big difference," said Lt. Gov. Val W. Oveson. "We are still an underdog, but that's a pretty good way to go into this race. But I'm optimistic that we have an excellent chance as we go into June."

Samaranch, president of the IOC since 1980, is a non-voting member considered to carry the most political clout. He's been credited with leading the IOC through the difficult times of Olympic boycotts, and achieving a resolution for the successful 1988 Seoul Olympics.

As further evidence of his influence, the next Summer Olympics will be held in his native Barcelona, Spain.