It was to be a special international event to draw the world’s attention during the U.S. Bicentennial. The United States Olympic Committee promoted Denver to host the 1976 Winter Olympics. The International Olympic Committee liked the idea and gave the Rocky Mountain city the bid.

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Mike Young, Tom Welch, and Fred Ball start the Chamber’s Olympic countdown.

However, Coloradans started asking questions. For one, Richard Lamb, a young attorney, state legislator, and eventual governor, worried about the environmental impact and economic dangers of the Olympics. Soon, a petition drive secured enough signatures to put the Olympic issue on the ballot. The anti-Olympic measure was successful and the Denver officials told the IOC they no longer wanted the Games. The IOC was furious.

Salt Lake City boosters saw an opportunity to salvage a Bicentennial Games. Salt Lake Mayor E. J. (Jake) Garn, Gil Shelton of Tracy Collins Bank, and Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce executive vice president Fred Ball told the USOC that they would like to assume the Denver bid. Lake Placid, Portland, Reno, and Salt Lake City prepared to make a bid on January 4, 1973. Salt Lake’s bid hung heavily on securing federal funding. Officials also wanted to forgo the expense of building luge and bobsled venues.

The USOC awarded a replacement bid to Salt Lake City. Garn and Shelton returned to Salt Lake City and Ball flew to Switzerland to ask the IOC to keep the Games in the United States and to accept the Salt Lake City plan.

It was obvious as Ball entered the IOC meeting that members were not only furious with Denver, they were furious with the United States. Ball gave the presentation and then went outside, walking down on the lakeshore to await the decision. Soon, the IOC member from the Soviet Union came to Ball and told him not only would Salt Lake City not host the 1976 Winter Olympics, but no American City would probably ever host an Olympics in the future. IOC members were in no mood to forgive Denver.

After meetings with federal officials showed little support for Salt Lake City’s Olympic financial request, Garn officially withdrew the city’s bid by the end of January 1973. At least one pundit said Salt Lake City may have been better off by not jumping into the bidding race at all, remembering how it took Rome fifty years to recover from a reneged Olympics bid. So Innsbruck eventually got the 1976 honor–its second chance to host a Winter Games.

The dream revives

The city’s Olympic dreams were sidelined for years until state and city leaders started talking to the Chamber about renewing efforts to secure the Games for Utah. State economic development officials were drawn into the discussions and prepared possible scenarios.

By March 1984, leaders were floating the idea of bidding for the 1996 Winter Olympic Games. Mayor Ted Wilson and Governor Scott M. Matheson began discussions with the USOC.

Shortly after the effort was started, Ball received a visit from a young architecture student from the University of Utah. He explained that he had completed his graduate school thesis on the “Winter Olympics in Utah.” Neil Richardson produced a very comprehensive and excellent case study for hosting the international event, said Ball. Neil was recruited to become a part of a newly formed Olympic Bid Committee. His efforts and suggestions in that original thesis formed the first “bid book” scenarios and parts of it remained through the process until final victory in Budapest on June 16, 1995.

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Huge murals dominated the major buildings downtown during the Olympic Games

Ball responded by saying, “What are you doing for the next fifteen years of your life?” Tom was asked by Fred to lead the bid committee and attempt to secure the approval of the United States Olympic Committee. The request was relayed to Mayor Wilson and Governor Norm Bangerter who also contacted Tom and re-affirmed the request.

The committee had no office, no telephones, no money, and really no firm plans, said Ball. Wilson contacted the USOC and received a time line on the next bidding process. Fred secured office space on Regent Street across from the Chamber offices on Second South Street. The State Of Utah supplied desks and furniture from their surplus storage area. AT&T provided telephones and Mountain Bell offered service. The bid committee now had an office, a volunteer leader, and a time frame.

Shortly after this small start, the mayor was notified that the time frame had been dramatically altered. Instead of having nearly a year to prepare the bid, the USOC was to select a candidate in Indianapolis, Indiana, in less than four months.

The committee went to work on a very fast pace and put together an eye-catching multi-media presentation and an impressive bid book. Many of Neil Richardson’s initial proposals were included in the book.

Stunned by Anchorage

Reno-Lake Tahoe, Nevada; Portland, Oregon; Lake Placid, New York; and Anchorage, Alaska, campaigned for the USOC’s vote. The city that was considered the weakest competitor was Anchorage. Lake Placid had hosted the Games before and had many of the venues and infrastructure in place. Reno was in close proximity to Squaw Valley and had several strengths.

Salt Lake sent a good-sized delegation to Indianapolis. Optimism was high. A high-quality presentation showed Salt Lake City was competitive.

Strict rules were given to each bidding city. There could be no demonstrations outside the bidding room, speakers must be the mayor of the respective city, and just one representative of the committee. Bid books and visual presentation had strict rules and limitations. While Salt Lake was prepared to follow the guidelines, Anchorage wasn’t, according to Ball.

Anchorage’s costumed mascots danced outside the meeting rooms. Instead of the Anchorage mayor, U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, spoke. The Alaska bid book and slide presentation was not near the quality and completeness of the Salt Lake presentations, Ball noted. Thus, to many in the Salt Lake delegation the USOC decision to select Anchorage on the first ballot appeared like a political payback.

Donna deVarona, a former world-class Olympic swimmer and a USOC official, told the committee that Stevens was the best friend that U.S. amateur athletes had, and she recounted the pieces of legislation he had introduced in behalf of amateur athletes. She moved to select anchorage as “America’s Choice.” Many were stunned at the quick decision.

The vote dampened Salt Lake’s spirits. At the time, Tom Welch said the huge costs associated with bidding probably meant the city wouldn’t return for another try in 1996. However, the doubts soon disappeared with Welch and company returning to bid another day. Welch had joined forces with Dave Johnson, the manager of the Utah Sports Foundation, in this quest.

Gambling on a new strategy

The state and the committee came up with a new strategy. Utah would promise to build winter training facilities even before winning the right to represent the United States. The Legislature set up a Winter Games Authority, which, if voters approved a funding plan in November, would build and operate training facilities for U.S. athletes.

That was the key. In Des Moines, Iowa, in June 1989, Utah finally came out victorious. Its offer boosted the city’s credibility and ousted Anchorage from contention. Big celebrations followed. The USOC indicated privately that Salt Lake City would remain “America’s Choice” for the upcoming future. No longer would Salt Lake have to worry about gaining the USOC nod every four years. Utah could concentrate on winning over the IOC for the next several bidding cycles.

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The new Olympic Oval speedskating arena in Kearns.

But first it had to win over the voters, a process in which the Chamber became deeply involved. If they failed to persuade voters, it would mean the end of Utah’s Olympic dreams, said Governor Norm Bangerter. They predicted a tough campaign, but in November the referendum passed, and voters agreed to amass $56 million for the facilities, diverting 1/32 of a cent of sales tax to pay for it. Construction started.

Two months before the vote, on September 5, 1989, Craig Peterson, the city’s community and economic development director, moved over to the Bid Committee and became the first employee. He reported for a time to Fred Ball, who was vice chairman after the Des Moines vote. Welch and Dave Johnson concentrated on the international arena while Peterson presided over a growing staff. The Chamber was clearly out front at this point in the effort, Peterson says, but adds there was an effective merging of interests. The state concentrated on the facilities, the city went after the Games, and the Chamber was doing the fund raising and generating community support.

Salt Lake’s next target was June 1991 in Birmingham, England, where the IOC would select the city to host the 1998 Winter Olympics. Salt Lakers were confident about the potential for success. Boosters could easily rattle off Salt Lake’s bid strengths–the city had been bidding for many years, an International Airport was close to the city center, seven world class ski resorts were within forty minutes of downtown, and it would be the largest city to ever host a Winter Games.

Thus the bid committee was confident when the IOC met in Tokyo, Japan, in 1990 to announce the host of the 1996 Summer Olympics. Most observers believed that Athens, Greece, would win the IOC nod. The 1996 Games would commemorate the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympiad and Athens was the sentimental favorite because it had hosted the first Games.

When IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch announced that Atlanta, Georgia, would be the host city, most were shocked. Utah Governor Norm Bangerter said he felt that someone had kicked him in the stomach. “We knew that the IOC would not vote for two American cities in a row,” said Ball, believing that Salt Lake’s chances for 1998 were doomed.

Leaders decided to continue bidding. A new board and executive committee was formed. The Chamber continued with community involvement. “It would be hurtful for future bids if we dropped out of the race for 1998. We kept the course and worked hard with the IOC members. The meeting to announce the winning city was scheduled for Birmingham, England, in 1991. A large delegation attended the meeting and we hoped that by some miracle we might see the IOC vote concurrently for two North American cities,” Ball later wrote.

When the vote was announced, the winning city was Nagano, Japan. Salt Lake lost by a thin four-vote margin. Reporters said Salt Lake City was giving delegates boxes of salt-water taffy and Nagano was giving away Toyota automobiles.

Four more years

For four more years, the Olympic bid staff orchestrated a very personalized effort. Delegates were visited in their home cities. Every delegate was given an invitation to come and experience Utah. Many IOC members visited Utah and several came on more than one occasion.

Salt Lake’s target was June 15, 1995, in Budapest, Hungary. That was decision day for the 2002 announcement. The Chamber buzzed with activity during the four years leading up to the announcement. Chamber members attended regular morning bid briefings. Chamber leaders helped raise money. Limited-edition artwork pieces by Ray Magleby were signed and sold. Some pieces featured two gold medallions and sold for $5,000. Other pieces had silver medallions and these sold for $500.

The Chamber flew in Andrew Young, former Atlanta Mayor and United Nations Ambassador, to a fund-raising dinner. He had been instrumental in the Atlanta successful bid. The vice president of NBC Sports attended another event.

The 2002 contenders, Oestersund, Sweden; Sion, Switzerland; and Quebec City, Canada, offered Salt Lake stiff competition. Insiders thought that Sion was Salt Lake’s top competitor.

The air was filled with electricity as official delegations filed into the large hall in Hungary to hear the presentations and watch the IOC selection process. Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corridini and Welch made Salt Lake’s presentation. Hundreds of thousands watched via closed circuit hookups. In Utah, local television stations carried the broadcast live.

2002chamberolypinFinally, it was decision time. Samaranch stood on the podium and announced the frequently rebroadcast line, “The City to host the 2002 Winter Olympics is the city of Salt Lake City.” Pandemonium broke out both in Hungary and in Utah. There were cheers, tears, hugs, jumping, and unrestrained jubilation.

Salt Lake City received more votes on the very first ballot than the other three competing cities. Oestersund and Sion each received fourteen votes. Quebec City garnered seven votes. Salt Lake City received fifty-four. It was the first time in International Olympic history that a city had won on the first ballot.

When the party ended, the Chamber slipped into the wings as the Salt Lake Organizing Committee took center stage. Ball waited to retire until after the successful bid was announced.

Tears and triumph

Welch also left the scene, resigning because of family problems. Soon, however, the Games were tarnished by the “Salt Lake City scandal.” News media began reporting that bid committee leaders engaged in “bribing” IOC members in a variety of ways. The mounting negative publicity dogged the organizing efforts and ten members resigned, were suspended, or reprimanded. As sponsors withheld money and suspicions increased, worries surfaced that the Games would not go on. Welch and Johnson became the focus of a federal grand jury. Ball defends them. “They were asked to bring the Games to Utah and they accomplished the assignment by doing what other cities had done in the past,” Ball said.

Ethics investigations ensued. Eventually, Mitt Romney, a Massachusetts businessman and politician, was recruited to help restore confidence in the Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games. (After the Games ended, the Chamber honored Romney with its “A Giant in Our City Award,” in what was termed the last major event of the Olympics.)

The Games went on. On the way there, the Wasatch Front got a new freeway, a light-rail line, several winter sports venues, and a lot of free publicity, both negative and positive.

NightSceneAfter all the intense preparation, the numbers help define what occurred during a fortnight in February, 2002. Some 4 billion television viewers watched the Games and 1.6 million tickets were sold. There were 70,000 visitors to the Olympic corridor a day, and the 15,000-seat grandstands at the venues routinely filled to capacity. Some 15,000 security personnel, assembled from agencies across the country, provided unparalleled security in the post-September 11 tragedy atmosphere.

The Games were the best attended, most watched, and most secure in history. At the closing ceremonies, Jacque Rogge, IOC president, proclaimed that Salt Lake City hosted a “superb” Games. After all of the years of bid campaigns, preparation and anticipation, most Utahns agreed they ended all too soon.


Sources: Fred Ball typescript in Chamber offices. Interview with Craig Peterson, June 25, 2002. “Salt Lake Gains ‘76 Winter Olympics Nod,” Deseret News, 4 January 1973. “Garn To Take 5 Delegates to See Nixon,” Deseret News, January 6, 1973.  “S.L. Mayor Withdraws Olympic Bid,” Deseret News, 30 January, 1973. Hack Miller, “World Knows We’re Poor,” Deseret News, 8 February 1973. “Will Olympics come to SLC? It’s possible,” Deseret News, 3 March 1984. “Anchorage wins ‘92 Olympic bid; a stunned S.L. comes in second,” Deseret News, 16 June 1985. “S.L.’s win comes at expense of 2-time winner Anchorage,” Deseret News, 5 June 1989. “Salt Lake’s Commitment on Training Facilities Called Key to Success,” Deseret News 5 June 1989. “Welch Vows big Victory for Referendum,” Deseret News 6 June 1989. “S.L. Official Switches Jobs,” Deseret News 4 September 1989. Lee Benson and Ray Grass, eds., 2002 Salt Lake City (Salt Lake City: Deseret News; 2002)