With all of the talk about Utah chasing another Winter Olympics dream, the nightmares of Utah’s previous bid attempts need to be remembered and safeguards need to be in place if and when Utah boosters get serious about bidding again.
To be sure, Mitt Romney and those he recruited to take over the reins of the foundering 2002 Winter Games made course corrections that resulted in successful games. However, a cloud of suspicion many Utahns have forgotten about hung over the bid for the 1998 and 2002 Winter Games. Although, no formal charges or punishment ever came of the “bribery” allegations to Olympics organizers, there are important lessons to be learned from those allegations. Here are some safeguards that Utahns must demand during any Olympics bid:
Culture of openness
During the previous bid processes, public involvement and voices were sometimes lost while Olympic boosters got caught up in the glitz, glamour and secrecy of the United States Olympic Committee and International Olympic Committee (IOC) processes. Too quickly, Salt Lake Olympic organizer mimicked the culture of arrogance of these groups in the way they spent money and chose venues. The public and the press were often in the dark about activities of the Utah Olympic organizers as they flew around the world schmoozing IOC members and providing things such as full-ride scholarships to IOC members’ children at local universities.
At least one symbolic event sticks out in this journalist’s mind about how venues were chosen. Such a scenario should never be repeated. On one occasion, members of a government venue selection board, headed by one of Utah’s wealthiest people, all piled into a bus to take daylong trips to review venue candidates around the Wasatch Front and Park City. When reporters asked to join, what was inevitably going to be an on-board discussion between site visits, they were told that bus was off limits. They argued that quorum, or majority of committee members, sitting on a bus together didn’t violate the state’s open meeting laws, while surely it did.
Another bus had been ordered for the media. Upon boarding the second media bus, only a handful of journalists were present. The journalists decided that a 60-passenger bus was a waste of tax dollars and drove their own cars that day. That event was symbolic of the elitist and non-democratic attitudes that often surrounded venue decision-making.
Public input and transparency
Public input and transparency must be part of any future Olympic bid. In fact, it’s a good idea for any Olympic bid organization to include “loyal opposition” watchdogs on boards who can question expenses and activities. That should be coupled by close media access and scrutiny. Leaders of any bid movement should understand the culture of open government and how it differs from business operations. Anyone who serves on any organizing board should take a mandatory short course in ethics and government transparency. Furthermore, Olympic organizers should be kept from engaging in the “jet-set” mentality and lavish spending that the International Olympic Committee has grown to expect, even after it launched its own limited transparency and accountability measures several years ago.
Utah’s records law and meetings law should be a floor
Like the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee, most Olympics bidding operations around the world are handled through nonprofit or quasi-governmental groups with limited public oversight. Most of these bid efforts are cloaked in secrecy that cover up cost overruns, poor management and cronyism. One only needs to look at the Olympics fiascos uncovered during and after the games in Sochi and Rio de Janeiro to understand the potential waste of the Utah taxpayers’ dime. Utah pretty much got it right when it built legacy winter sports venues here, but the past is no guarantee for the future.
To be sure, if the past teaches Utahns anything, Olympic organizing efforts should at the very least be subject to Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act and Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act. Those rules, along with adherence to state bidding rules and ethics codes, should also be applied to any Olympic movement, public or private. Utah’s elected officials should be transparency’s staunchest advocates. Those laws did not apply to the nonprofit organizing committee, only to government boards set up to build venues. The results were troubling.
Unfortunately, during the last Olympics scandal investigation it was Utah’s political power structure, led by the Utah Attorney General's Office, that attempted to keep the press and public from examining the results of the Olympic bid investigation. If ever there were records that begged to be released to the “public,” it was the Olympic bid scandal investigation by the Utah Attorney General’s Office. The AG’s Office, which should be the advocate for the people, fought efforts to disclose the investigation. Thankfully, the State Records Committee saw it differently and released the documents.
Along with all of the warm fuzzy memories of torch relays, volunteers in white jackets and great Olympic performances during the 2002 Games, Utahns must also demand some tough transparency laws and rules to govern the activities of any future Utah Olympic bid. If boosters and government officials can’t play by these rules, then they shouldn’t pursue another Olympic bid. If they believe such transparency hurts a Utah bid, then perhaps the state is better off without another Olympics.
Joel Campbell covered Salt Lake City government and Utah’s Olympic bid for the Deseret News in the 1990s. He is a journalism professor at Brigham Young University. This does not represent the opinions of BYU.