Sydney energizes beleaguered Utahns for 2002 Games

TV ratings in Salt Lake for the summer Olympics were well above the national average. Requests for tickets online have doubled recently.

Dione Burnett has some good news for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics: She watched NBC's broadcasts of the Sydney Games.

In fact, she didn't miss a night.

True, the early mornings and after-hours of being an elementary school teacher meant she could tune in only from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. before heading to bed.

But she was hooked.

"It got me excited," says Ms. Burnett. "And I already miss that the Olympics are over."

Burnett and thousands of Utahns like her have given the Salt Lake Games what might be their first opportunity for optimism in two years. Since the first hints of bribery emerged in 1998, residents here have been served course after course of scandal and intrigue, with new allegations almost daily.

The bitterness is not yet healed, but the excitement here over the recently concluded Sydney Games - evident through high TV ratings and increased 2002 ticket sales - seems to have been a small but important part of an ongoing cleansing process. It has helped renew many Utahns' interest in their own Olympics - now fewer than 500 days away.

"The momentum really did start with the Australian Olympics," says Carol Parker, an Olympic volunteer, who attended a rally last week designed to symbolically pass the Olympic torch from Sydney to Salt Lake.

As part of a special Australian Down Under demonstration, party organizers pumped up inflatable replicas of the Sydney Opera House, displayed Australian Aboriginal art, and screened an Aussie movie.

But beyond the scripted event and its bits of kitsch, the most significant sign of surging Utah spirit was local television ratings. NBC, which had promised advertisers a 17.5 share, garnered only a national average of 14.6 through the first nine days of the games. The NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City, however, averaged 22.6, with a prime-time share of 41. (Share represents the percentage of in-use TVs tuned in to a program.)

"I've been watching the Sydney Games every night and imagining our Olympics with great, scenic shots of Utah," says Claudia Oakes, assistant director of the Utah Museum of Natural History and a 2002 volunteer.

Others, like custodian Darren Workman, turned on the Games to watch hometown heroes. He went to high school with Logan Tom, who came close to winning a women's volleyball bronze.

"It was good to see her," he says. "I [also] watched some gymnastics, and I know a lot more people have watched the Olympics since we got the Games."

Organizers say Sydney also helped double the number of people registering for tickets online. Registrations were up to 2,000 a day, with ticket queries totalling 64,000 by the end of the Sydney Games. Tickets are already at a premium with only 1 million available.

Indeed, SLOC spokeswoman Caroline Shaw says the Sydney fortnight has even mobilized more people.

"More than 25,000 people have signed up to be volunteers, and if there's one lasting memory from the Games, it's the volunteers," Ms. Shaw says.

And now, more Utahns are getting eager for the Games to finally arrive. Barney Olsen, a dentist who ran track in high school, watched many of the events last week and feels energized about 2002. "I'm looking forward to the Olympics coming here," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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