Salt Lake's Rough Ride On the Road to 2002

Turmoil on organizing committee and dug-up roads mar Olympian optimism.

Utah economist Thayne Robson likes to warn people of the upcoming recession - the one after the 2002 Winter Olympics when all the building is done and the workers laid off. But then again, the city will at least have a new $50 million football stadium to use.

That's the way it is these days in Utah, where anxiety and anticipation march in tandem toward the Salt Lake Winter Games - even though they're still five years off. Residents, who might normally be blissfully ignorant during the tedious planning stages, are buzzing with the latest Olympics rumors and predictions. And it's all been heightened by an embarrassing domestic scandal. The resignation of Tom Welch, the president of Salt Lake's Olympic Committee, under allegations that he "shoved" his wife has galvanized local discontent with the Games, and the upcoming Olympics have been the talk of the town ever since.

Part of it is the roads. Torn up and annoying, the state's busiest freeway and its side streets serve as a constant reminder that the Olympics are costing $1.3 billion in reconstruction. Then there are charges of conflict of interest on the Olympics board of directors itself: Some builders and developers on the organizing committee board are in a position to profit from the Games.

Between these specific setbacks and the usual worries about cost that go along with every Games, the normally obedient public here has been unusually unsettled.

"Putting on an Olympics creates a tremendous upsetting of routine for the local people," Olympic historian John Lucas says. "The biggest negative is that it disrupts the lives of people for three, five, or seven years, and if they don't handle it correctly financially, it can be a terrible drain on the city, the community, and the state - and therefore the taxpayers."

That's become a more pressing concern since Mr. Welch's resignation. To cope with the loss, the committee had to go through a kind of corporate restructuring to fill vacant slots and handle public-relations problems. After all the maneuvering, the committee appeared to be in financial disarray.

"It became clear they don't have the money they said they had, and that there may be a deficit," says Deeda Seed, Salt Lake City Council chairwoman. "It's like pulling a thread and it unraveled the whole thing."

For the people of Utah, it's been hard to grasp the implications. Many are worried about what it all will mean when the Olympics leave town. "It seems like they're trying to get back on track and deal with the negative publicity after that," says Lee Herron, who works for a local hotel chain. "But people are concerned about all the development and all the things that are being done supposedly in the name of the Olympics - like the roads."

Some of these problems are characteristic of Olympics organizing. The first Olympics in 1896 in Athens, Greece, was "nothing but chaos," says Dr. Lucas. Atlanta had terrible problems internationally, politically, and financially, he adds, and the 1960 Squaw Valley, Calif., Games saw Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse at the opening ceremonies in deference to the money Disney forked over to keep them afloat.

Still, Salt Lake has its own peculiarities. The Mormon Church's sanctions against liquor, caffeine, and tobacco have created some public-perception problems. To keep visitors from feeling that they'll be hassled if they order a drink, the Olympics Committee has gone so far as to put bottles of locally brewed beer in "goodie bags" for visiting USOC dignitaries.

The church-owned newspaper called it a miserable strategy, and it was yet another move that got residents chattering about the influence the Games are having on their city. "It's like we're building the church for Easter Sunday," says Mr. Herron.

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