Fool’s Gold: Some Observations of Salt Lake City’s 2002 Winter Olympic Games

By Stephen Goldsmith

Honorable men envisioned a Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City in 1960, almost forty years before the Games were actually staged in our oasis on the edge of a desert. These men believed that long- and short-term economic development opportunities were the genuine gold medals of the games. Exhibiting the magnificent natural environment of our metropolitan area framed by international athletic competition, and placing the community’s fine cultural institutions on center stage for the world to witness would, in their vision, allow Salt Lake City to reach new heights as an international city. Not one among them foresaw the dishonor that would eventually emerge, or the disappointment of the area’s businesses when the chilly reality of the Games actually settled in during the winter of 2002. Those who pioneered a vision of Olympian ideals coming to the Wasatch Mountains never imagined the rocky trail they would cut in order to ignite the Olympic torch.

Over the decades that preceded the Game’s arrival, my role in planning the city’s Olympic venues and infrastructure changed dramatically. In the earliest years, when I was barely out of high school and Curt Goudy’s “Wide World of Sports” was regularly televised into my Saturday afternoons, the thought of bobsleds screaming across our desert ice was an exciting fantasy. After all, such events would bring James Bond-like brands of beauty and speed and skill to our backyard. Within a few years I came to realize that environmental impacts of the Games could be severe. Local activists were trying to save our canyons from the intrusion of tens of thousands of outsiders whose outdoor activities threatened the fragile ecology of our sacred landscapes. For many this was an ethical issue. My growing understanding of the delicate balance of the vision and ethics required to stage the Olympic Games caused my youthful enthusiasm to be replaced with defensiveness.

In the 1980s, as I was developing affordable housing and workspace for artists and craftsmen in an underutilized, blighted neighborhood on the edge of the capital city’s central business district, my defensiveness was transformed into a vigilant activism. I stopped watching from the sidelines as community leaders and activists argued about the planning of venues needed to win the Olympic bid. These conversations were taking place in the boardrooms and country club dining rooms of the Game’s boosters. Simultaneously, environmentalists were meeting in their living rooms, strategizing ways to mitigate threats to our watersheds, air quality, mobility, flora and fauna. I had not imagined that I would eventually be leading a campaign to stop the development of one major venue, the speed skating oval. It was to be built in the neighborhood where my organization was bringing new health and vitality to a district that, at the time, had the highest crime rate in Utah.

For those of us working to create shelter for and bring health care to homeless families, a newly elected mayor’s Olympic vision for the neighborhood threatened our efforts to continue developing the emerging cultural district we called home. In our minds, this was a new kind of crime that threatened our neighborhood. We had spent years working with city planning officials, city council members and previous mayors to establish plans that would rejuvenate the neighborhood and its resident communities. The collective goal was to create a mixed-use, mixed-income district with a diversity of housing types, cultural amenities and social services. Adopted plans falsely secured our belief that we were working as a team with city officials. But in the early 1990s the arrival of a new mayor undermined our confidence.

The city’s young planning director at the time, a man who had worked closely with us to develop plans for the area and enthusiastically supported our efforts, suddenly tried to sell us the mayor’s new vision. Those of us who saw through his job-saving marketing efforts were incredulous. In the process he lost his credibility with most city leaders outside of the mayor’s inner circle. The mayor’s plan was ultimately defeated, but only after a long, highly publicized and divisive fight. Six-years later, through an unlikely evolution of public process, I was appointed planning director of Salt Lake City.

The year was 2000, and the Games were now less than nineteen months from opening ceremonies. It had become clear to many observers that managing the Games was not a community effort at all, but rather a top-down exercise. The Olympic Organizing Committee, the official Game’s planners, held cards that trumped nearly every ideal the original proponents had hoped to achieve. The city’s cultural institutions, touted as world-class during the bidding process, became understudies to international artists imported for the Games. Local restaurateurs, with a few exceptions, were closed out of potentially lucrative contracts in favor of single vendors contracted to feed the throngs of visitors who would enter the Olympic village and venues. Public sculpture commissions were awarded to out-of-state artists, and performing artists were flown in to entertain Utah’s guests. With the exception of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, an institution needing no additional international exposure, local arts organizations were pushed out of the spotlight.

When the darkness of 9/11 placed new security fears on top of the old ones, priorities for the public realm began shifting. Barriers put in place to thwart terrorists became barriers to local residents who had hoped to welcome the world. The well-documented scandal around Salt Lake City’s bid committee was regularly in the news, and there was a collapse of confidence around anything Olympian. Notable exceptions were the creation of certain venues, including the speed skating oval now sited far away from the neighborhood we had preserved. For the athletes these facilities were first-rate. But for many in the community the original visions were buried under an avalanche of distrust and fear. For those in Salt Lake City without the money to actually see the athletes perform, the promise of witnessing the real spirit of the Games was threatened.

As planning director I was increasingly frustrated. The mundane need to establish temporary parking lots—acres upon acres of asphalt—was an ever-present drain of staff time. Finding ways to make zoning regulations flexible enough to accommodate shifts in security and mobility plans suggested by the FBI and Justice Department confounded policymakers fearful of unknown impacts. The growing tensions were met with shrinking patience. The official Organizing Committee was moving forward with its plans, sometimes circumventing city policy, begging forgiveness rather than seeking permission for changes to public spaces, the development of staging areas and places for public protest. Disorganization in the final weeks before opening ceremonies was only brought under control through compromise on the city’s part. Control of content, security, mobility, staging, rules of conduct for visitors, property rights and civil rights all appeared to collapse beneath the avalanche of distrust and fear. But for the determination and resolve of Mitt Romney, head of the Organizing Committee, and new Mayor Rocky Anderson, two men who understood that the show must go on, the fear could have been paralyzing.

Through it all, I was determined to hold on to the spirit of excellence and human achievement that seeded the vision forty years earlier. Though economic development was not foremost on my mind, the underlying sense of excellence—this idea of Olympian achievement—continued to press upon me in my role as planning director. Having defeated Olympic boosters and policymakers, and having proven wrong the editorial arrogance of local press, my activist colleagues joined me in an effort to apply the idea of excellence to other city-building efforts. One particular project and its internationally-recognized architect became organizing elements for one last Olympic project.

Moshe Safdie was selected to be the architect for the city’s new public library. Safdie had won an architectural competition among other internationally known architects. He and I had gotten to know one another in the years preceding the Games, and he had been a confidant during the time when the mayor was preparing to remove the previous planning director from his position, replacing him with me. During this period Safdie and I spent time speaking generally about ethics in the design professions. My rigid view, that too many architects are responsible for the degradation of our human settlements and the environment, found some resonance with the architect, and we explored the topic from time to time. With storms building around the Olympic bid scandal, vision and ethics were in the arena of public discourse once again. Together with our friend and colleague Samina Queraeshi, former director of design arts at the National Endowment for the Arts, we organized a symposium and exhibition titled: “The Physical Fitness of Cities; Vision and Ethics in City-Building.”

The event became known as Fitcities, and it brought together a field of exquisite thinkers on the topic. Along with Safdie and Queraeshi, we convened Michael Sorkin, Bill McDonough, Terry Tempest-Williams, Will Rogers, Linda Pollak, Doris Koo, Donlyn Lindon, Tim Beatley and others two days before the Game’s opening ceremonies for an international symposium. Within City Hall we installed an exhibition featuring some recent examples of excellence in city-building from around the world. We featured best practices in all elements of human settlement building; architecture, landscape architecture, planning, social and environmental justice interventions, mobility and engineering. We attempted to raise the processes of settlement building and environmental stewardship to a place that paralleled the coming celebration of athletic achievement.

Many of the honorable men who conceived Utah’s Olympic ambition lived to see the Games. They also watched as the indicted leaders of Salt Lake’s winning Olympic bid were exonerated for wrongdoing. Activists kept environmental impacts to a minimum and ensured that an uninformed and overzealous mayor’s ideas of urban revitalization were aborted. The Olympics did not give birth to the kind of economic development so many envisioned. What has become clear in the process of staging international events like the Olympic Games is that vision and ethics need to coexist. Implementing and guiding plans for such events, with all of the forces that press upon the political, cultural and environmental landscape is, in itself, an Olympic event. Maybe someday they’ll award medals, too.

Stephen Goldsmith is director of the Rose Fellowship Program for the Enterprise Foundation.

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