The Olympics are over, but will the check clear?
SALT LAKE CITY — The chain-link fences and security barricades are coming down. Streets closed to traffic during the Olympic Games are being unplugged and returned to normal. Following the spectacular closing ceremony Sunday night, Salt Lake City is in a morning-after, post-party mode, taking stock of how the Games went and what lies ahead for Utah and its capital.
Most of the 6,000 banners and flags decorating the streets and venues will remain up for the Paralympics March 7-16, but plans are under way for a giant Olympic garage sale after that. Schools and local governments will get first crack at office furniture and equipment, some 5,000 General Motors vehicles loaned for the Olympics will be shipped off to dealers, and Gateway will donate 4,500 computers it made available during the Games to schools and local communities. What's left will go on sale.
Plans are underway to utilize the various Olympic venues. Athlete housing on the University of Utah campus becomes student housing. One imaginative idea for the Olympic bobsled track is to put wheeled bobsleds on it in summer, allowing the public to zip down it at $40 a crack.
While these post-Games housekeeping details are intriguing, Utahns are pondering much larger implications. Will the televising of Utah's spectacular scenic backdrop to an international audience of more than 3 billion people result in a tourist boom? Will the presence of 300 venture capitalists and hundreds of visiting corporate executives for the Games be translated into new business for Utah? Some downtown businesses, particularly restaurants, have not fared well during the Games. Residents fearing city-center traffic jams have stayed away, and visitors have been fixated on the outlying venues where events took place. Thus Utahns are making the same calculations that residents of other cities hosting the Olympics over the years have had to make, namely, is hosting the Games ultimately a plus, or minus, financially? Gov. Mike Leavitt has consistently argued that hosting the Games is a long-term legacy, and that merchants should not expect a short-term windfall. That's why Mr. Leavitt has been vigorously wooing the visiting titans of commerce and industry on hand for the Games.
Then there's the question whether revenues still to be collected by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC), including $100 million from sponsors, and $229 million from NBC, will be enough to pay off SLOC's debts along with Utah taxpayers standing in line. The taxpayers advanced $59 million in Olympic facilities and need a $40 million endowment to keep them running. SLOC president Mitt Romney has vowed that the state will not be left holding an empty bag, and has been swift to begin the repayment.
Mr. Romney's credibility is currently high, because he is riding on a wave of euphoria over the success of the Salt Lake Games. After some initial snickering over siting the Games in a Mormon-dominated state, the visiting press has turned positive about the cordiality of the state's people, and the efficiency of the Games' organization. Visiting organizers of future Olympics in Athens, Torino, Italy, and Beijing are admiring. Utahns themselves think it's gone so well, they are ready to do it again. By Games' end, an astonishing 77 percent of those polled said they would be willing to host another Olympics.
True, there were a couple of glitches in the concluding days. Rowdy late-night revelers clashed with riot police in what CNN called a "beer brawl" outside a beer park. And the Russians threatened to withdraw from the Games because of what they termed "malicious favoritism" for the Americans and harsh judgment calls against them. The lower house of Russia's parliament weighed in with a pro-boycott resolution, but President Putin judiciously opined against a boycott. After some quiet "full and frank discussion," as the diplomats term a knock-down drag-out negotiation, the Russians were persuaded that they were projecting to the world a negative, whiney image, and they backed down.
Jacques Rogge, the new IOC president, a pleasing contrast to his discredited predecessor, Juan Antonio Samaranch, has emerged from all this with popularity almost as high as Romney's. The difference is that Romney's Olympic association will soon be over. But a political career beckons. Republicans in Massachusetts are urging him to return to his longtime home in Massachusetts and run for governor. If that were to happen, and was successful, some political crystal ball-gazers suggest it could be the prelude to a presidential campaign. It would be ironic if a Salt Lake Olympics project once mired in scandal became so successful as to launch a campaign for the presidency of the United States.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.