Try spending seven years and over a billion dollars to throw an international athletic party with thousands of foreign guests and hundreds of thousands of spectators and you”re bound to run into a few snags along the way for Olympic organizers, the challenge comes with the game, so to speak.
Yet when the 18th Winter Olympics stumble into Salt Lake City in 10 days it”ll be the culmination of months of controversy and years of scandal over the Salt Lake games that appear to have been surprisingly forgotten even before they”ve started. But before you shed tears for the Olympic Games that never bloomed, consider the exciting path they took to get here.
Say what you will about the glory of international competition, about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat set against the manicured backdrop of television booths and sappy music-laden slow-motion highlights for this year”s games, the excitement was played out simply in the journey to Salt Lake.
The thrill of competition for Olympic fans began nearly a decade ago when Salt Lake City officials began their efforts to bring the Olympics to Utah. That”s when federal prosecutors say that Salt Lake executives, anxious for their own chances at Olympic “gold,” bribed Olympic organizers with vacations and hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to secure a bid to host the 2002 games. The scandal rocked the formerly altruistic world of amateur athletics with a trail of money that eventually led to indictments for bribery and conspiracy oh yeah, it also led to Salt Lake being awarded the 2002 games.
During the next seven years Olympic organizers spent more time in courtrooms than on ski slopes as the Department of Justice launched an embarrassing and costly investigation. To date the Salt Lake Organizing Committee has forked out a full million dollars more to pay attorneys than it has spent on training over 26,000 volunteers for the games. In sum the SLOC covered a legal tab of over $4.2 million on scandal-connected fees including payments to a squad of attorneys that could have manned several countries” bobsleds next month.
But the Olympic thrill hasn”t stopped with the Department of Justice”s probe or with the shame of buying the games. The flames of electrifying excitement that only the Olympic games can provide have been fanned by bogus land deals, wild charges of road rage against an organizer who beat a pedestrian in the street, petty lawsuits over misguided jokes and claims last week of abuse from animal activists who”ve been chasing the Olympic torch across the country.
Critics of the Salt Lake organizers, many of whom are Salt Lake City residents themselves, have long been vocal in pointing out just how unscrupulous event organizers have been. Beyond the initial bribery that brought the games to Utah, critics point to quieter scandals like a questionable land deal between local businessman Earl Holding and the federal government who conspired, critics say, to trade over 1,000 acres of Forest Service land. The deal reportedly violates the 1994 Salt Lake Organizing Committees Code of Ethics that stipulates that the Olympics would not institute land bartering not to mention facilitate property exchanges worth tens of millions of dollars as this one reportedly was.
Technical land deals aside, the excitement of the games was again on display as tempers flared in November 2000 when the U.S. Olympic Committee and Brighton Ski Resort scheduled home to the games” ski events took a disagreement over a promotional website to district court. This came on the heels of the resort”s posting of billboards in Salt Lake City that made fun of the city”s polygamist roots as well as signs that poked fun at the bid scandal with phrases like “You don”t need an Olympic Committee to get into this school,” apparently playing off of news that Salt Lake Olympic promoters paid for the children of some International Olympic Committee members to attend college. Brighton Ski Resort marketing chief Wes Spiker told the Salt Lake Tribune that research showed that consumers only remember ads that are really funny or really awful “We wanted to be remembered as one of the really funny ones.”
And try as they might to legitimize the games and forget years of scandal, it seems that the journey to this year”s Olympic games will be remembered the same way as one of the really funny ones. If anything, the folks in Salt Lake are learning to be careful what sort of mess you conspire, bribe and scam your way to earn you might just get it.
Geoff Gagnon can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.