“The best Games … ever.”
High praise from the head of NBC Sports and the president of the International Olympic Committee. For me and for the people who helped host the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, they touched our hearts and inspired — thanks both to the people of Utah and to the Olympians themselves.
We got off to a bad start. Allegations of wrongdoing had dampened the enthusiasm of the entire community. Some even said we should give the Games back. But Utah soldiered on, doing our best to restore the trust that had been placed in us. We wondered: Would volunteers now step forward to fill the 25,000 posts that were needed? After all, volunteers would be required to work 17 straight days in the cold with no pay and no tickets. When we opened the application portal, we got our answer: Almost 50,000 signed up. Utah’s spirit of service was on full display.
The Utah spirit continued throughout the Games. People from Orem noted that the Kazakhstan women’s hockey team was shabbily equipped for the competition, so they raised funds and purchased the coats, gloves and headgear that the players needed. People in Heber Valley took it upon themselves to create and staff a cowboy village next to the competition site at Soldier Hollow to give our visitors a taste of the Old West. One volunteer who drove the van for the Paralympic athletes from Armenia noticed that they had only wood skis, so he raised funds, negotiated with an equipment company and outfitted them with competitive gear.
The Paralympic athletes claimed that they had never before seen such large crowds at their events. Utah schoolchildren had selected a visiting Paralympic team to support — memorizing their national anthem, making their country’s flag to wave and cheering at their competitions.
Some of Utah’s most well-known citizens stepped forward in ways I won’t forget. Marie Osmond helped train our volunteers at numerous sessions. Marie and her brother Donny agreed to perform, even behind the scenes, during our closing ceremonies. I bumped into Larry and Gail Miller wearing their volunteer outfits as they organized the hundreds of volunteers at the Jazz arena. The Eccles family donated the millions of dollars needed to build the Olympic cauldron. In fact, scores of Utahns donated to the Games, which was a first for any Olympics. I asked The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for so many things that President Gordon B. Hinckley began to laugh, but we received everything we requested, from facilities to new parking lots to the use of hundreds of acres of land.
The Olympians themselves demonstrated great qualities of the human spirit. Janica Kostelić, of war-torn Croatia, and her family had determined that despite their modest means she would become an Olympian. She competed throughout Europe, often sleeping afterward in a car because they could not afford a hotel. Just months before the Games, she had had knee surgery. But in Utah, she won gold in the slalom, the grand slalom and the combined, and she also won silver in the super-G. Hers was the most dominant performance of a woman in Olympic history.
For Stefania Belmondo, of Italy, ours would be her fourth Olympics. Throughout the race, she stayed neck-and-neck with her Russian cross-country competitor. Then her ski pole broke and she fell hopelessly behind. A French coach gave her a pole of his own, but it was too big. Finally her coach reached her with a pole. Far behind the rest of the field and with only a small segment in the race left, she exerted such energy and determination that she passed them all, winning gold — at age 33.
Vonetta Flowers was offered a spot on bobsled No. 1 with the most decorated American pilot. But with remarkable loyalty to her longtime partner on sled No. 2, she demurred. When bobsled two won the gold, her tears were matched by those of us who knew what she had put aside. Jimmy Shea was singularly responsible for getting me to convince the IOC to put skeleton back into the Games. When he took to the track, snow slowed the course and throughout his race his time lagged the leader. But in the final yards, he surged ahead and won gold. He held high a picture of his grandfather, an Olympic gold medalist from years past. Derek Parra, a roller skater from Los Angeles, won gold and silver in long track speedskating. Admired for his singular enthusiasm and competitiveness, he was elected by the American Olympians to carry the American flag — which had once flown over the World Trade Center — into the opening ceremonies. Paralympian Chris Waddell not only competed, but he also promoted and popularized the Paralympics to people in Utah and across the country. He still lives in our state.
Utah is now the center of Olympic winter sports in North America. But it is much more than that for those of us who touched the Olympic Winter Games of 2002. It is a place of memories and inspiration, for here the Games did indeed “Light the Fire Within.”
Opinion published in the Deseret News.