SALT LAKE CITY — We’ve seen the sad pictures: weed-covered Olympic venues that were quickly of no use after their 2½ weeks of glory, largely abandoned after costing billions to build.
Then there’s Salt Lake City, where the legacy of the 2002 Winter Games carries on vibrantly more than a decade later.
It’s a lesson all cities bidding for big-time sporting events should heed.
“We view legacy not so much as memorials and museums,” said Colin Hilton, president and CEO of the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation. “For us, it’s a living legacy.”
The Olympic oval in suburban Kearns, where speedskating was held during the Salt Lake City Games, is still a valued part of the community. So is the Utah Olympic Park, home of the bobsled and luge runs as well as the towering ski-jumping hills. Both are hosting U.S. Olympic trials this weekend, continuing to provide a dynamic winter sports legacy.
In fact, every venue used during the last Olympics in the United States remains fully functional, open to everyone from world-class athletes to locals who can barely stand on a pair of skates.
What a contrast with other cities.
Take Athens, which hosted the Summer Games two years after Salt Lake City. Many of those facilities were largely abandoned after the Olympics, quickly of no use to a country that found itself on the verge of financial collapse. The images of crumbling stadiums should’ve provided a stern warning to other cities, but no one seemed to notice.
Beijing spent billions for its coming-out party in 2008, leaving behind an impressive national stadium, the Bird’s Nest, that goes largely unused except as a tourist attraction. Sochi is preparing to host the Winter Olympics in February after doling out more than $50 billion — far more than any other Olympics, winter or summer — to essentially build every venue from scratch.
Rest assured, there’s no chance of Sochi getting more than kopek on the ruble for its investment. In fact, it seems very likely that five ice arenas and the main stadium — all clustered together along the Black Sea, far from the city center — will become a complex of white elephants as soon as the torch is extinguished.
Not so in Salt Lake City, which skipped the quest for gaudy architectural achievements to assure its venues would remain an important part of the community for years to come.
“We’re four times busier now than we were ahead of the games,” Hilton said. “There’s not too many Olympic cities that can talk about being busier after the games.”
Sure, the stadiums and arenas were spread out over rather long distances in 2002, but they were placed in areas where they would remain viable after the 17-day Olympics were long gone.
A 10,000-seat arena is suburban West Valley City hosts a minor-league hockey team and numerous concerts. Another arena in Provo was downsized after the games and turned over to the BYU hockey program. A third rink in Ogden continues to host community events on the campus of Weber State.
But the crown jewels are the Olympic Oval and the Olympic Park, which are operated by the nonprofit legacy foundation. Fortunately, the Salt Lake City organizers had the foresight to include an endowment in their budget for post-Olympics operations, a fund that was initially targeted at $40 million but wound up being $76 million because of the financial success of those Olympics.
Nearly 12 years later, the endowment remains at $65 million even after the Great Recession. That allows its two main complexes to remain open despite a hefty operating deficit, which is an unavoidable due to the high costs of running the facilities. The oval, for example, has an annual shortfall of $1.2 million that is covered by the legacy fund.
They are more than just venues for elite athletes, though nearly every winter sport holds a major competition in the Salt Lake City area each year. A larger purpose is served during the extensive time they are open to the public — hosting youth sports, teaching people to skate, inspiring the next generation to pursue their Olympic dreams.
It’s not surprising that many of the athletes competing in various sports for spots on the U.S. Olympic team (including most members of the women’s national ski jumping team) were growing up in this area during the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. They were inspired to go for the gold, and the lasting vestige of those games gave them a conduit to make it happen.
Salt Lake City is already exploring a bid for another Winter Games. Hilton estimates it would cost around $2.5 billion to bring the Olympics back to Utah, a far cry from the boondoggle in Sochi.
“Part of our wish is that the Olympic movement does look at a more sustainable model for hosting the games,” he said, “where you don’t have to spend billions of dollars building facilities that become white elephants.”
Let’s hope the International Olympic Committee starts rewarding cities that already have the facilities in place.
A city such as this one.
“We love our winter sports,” Hilton said. “We’re active with our winter venues. Some day, if the Winter Games look to come back to us, we’ve got the infrastructure and citizens to host another great games.”