HONG KONG — True to the adage "you don't have a second chance to make a first impression," international airport terminals for host Olympic cities not only offer welcoming services to Games participants, officials, media and visitors — they also provide guests that first impression.

I've arrived at three such Olympic-host airports the past four months — two on the same day earlier this week. And that's not counting a departure from Salt Lake City International, the primary arrival point for the 2002 Winter Games.

Invited to participate in a late March seminar to help Chinese journalists prepare for the Olympics, I arrived at Beijing's Capital International Airport on the day its new Terminal 3 opened for international passengers.

While the expansive terminal dwarfed the day's regular passenger traffic, I tried to imagine how it would handle the upcoming Olympic onslaught, since I was a Games-period veteran at the Atlanta, Tokyo and Sydney airports.

I imagine the Beijing airport is doing fine.

One thing obvious that day — there will be no want for people power. Workers sporting crisp uniforms stood several deep at every station ranging from information booths to janitorial closets, constantly scurrying off to reclean or readjust — whether it was needed or not.

En route to Asia this week, I had a layover at the Vancouver International Airport, billed as "Gateway to the 2010 Olympic Games." As host of the next Winter Olympics, Vancouver is on the clock, 18 months away from the world's spotlight.

Just like its larger-scale counterpart in Beijing, the Vancouver airport seemed to be ready and waiting for its masses. Vancouver serves as Canada's premier exit for Pacific Rim air travelers — its large international terminal easily accommodated the day's traffic, including the Canadian women's Olympic soccer team and Canadian athletes bound for Beijing.

"Natural and native" best describes the theme of Vancouver's international terminal, awash in hues of green, blue, teal and aqua. Decor includes indoor waterways, log bridges, wood walkways, stone accents, a two-story aquarium tank and an attractive abundance of massive Eskimo and Inuit arts and wood crafts.

Visitors will have no doubt of Vancouver's heritage and environment upon arriving for the 2010 Winter Games.

After Beijing and Shanghai, the Hong Kong International Airport serves as the third likely destination for those arriving for the 2008 Olympics. Site of the equestrian competition and located more than 1,200 miles south of most Olympic events, Hong Kong is the Beijing Games' most low-key site — a fast-paced city of nearly 7 million and a premier global financial center is not going to be flustered by an influx of a relatively few international visitors.

That was evident upon arrival in Hong Kong (I'll make my way to Beijing in time for the Games), with the airport providing ample direction to the center where Olympic credentials are validated for athletes, officials and media. I received individual attention from the half-dozen workers, since I was the only one there at the time, signing along the first line atop the check-in form.

Even the immigrations officer granting clearance had seen few if any of the Olympic credentials doubling as Chinese visas, needing to pull out a folded instruction sheet detailing how to process credentialed Olympic visitors.

A closing note about Salt Lake City International Airport and the city's Olympic heritage: I've noticed over the years — an observation confirmed by associates — there is little visual reference remaining of the 2002 Winter Games, a key date in Utah's timeline.

Instead, photographic displays throughout the terminals understandably highlight Utah's wide-ranging natural beauty or strive to underscore a diverse population.

I've always thought a strong, permanent display of photographs and artifacts from the '02 Games in a high-profile location at the airport would be not only appealing and attractive, but provide a colorful, vibrant reflection on the participating athletes and nations in the state's signature cities and at its heralded winter-sports sites.

It wouldn't be a first impression for Salt Lake as an Olympic host city, but rather a well-deserved lasting impression.


E-mail: taylor@desnews.com