Year after scandal, Salt Lake embraces Games - warily

With the holiday rush finally finished, Mary Thompson banters pleasantly with customers at a Salt Lake City hamburger restaurant.

That is, until the she looks at the newspaper headlines that day. Questar Gas Co., a multimillion-dollar sponsor of the 2002 Winter Olympics, is seeking a hefty $22 million annual rate increase to help provide gas lines and service to Olympic venues.

"I'm a single mother, and now I'm facing paying more for the gas bill because of the Olympics," says Ms. Thompson, a waitress. "I don't like it."

The regional gas company's search for a financial cushion is just one reflection of the cost of the Salt Lake City Olympic scandal. A year later, the Western mountain city that found its bid for worldwide fame tainted by bribery is still smarting from those effects.

Worried that fresh allegations could surface and that the Games could come in above budget, Utahns remain wary. Yet there is an undeniably strong desire to put on the Games here. Two polls taken in July and December show consistently strong support - it has been at or above 60 percent since 1993 - and many locals here say they are encouraged by recent steps to put things right.

"Most Utahns are behind the Games," says Del Ririe, a physician from Provo. "The only good thing about it was that it didn't start here. It's come to a head and been exposed [here], and they're going to have to make some changes."

Soul-searching and criminal investigations grew from the revelation that college scholarships and cash payments were used to influence Olympic officials. Resignations and dismissals followed, along with policy overhauls aimed at ensuring ethical actions and lucrative Games.

Installing Mitt Romney as white knight and chief executive of Salt Lake's Organizing Committee (SLOC) was perhaps the key move. Now, much of the city sees him as a savior.

"Mitt's doing an admirable job, although he probably had no idea what he was signing up for when he took the post," says Deeda Seed, a Salt Lake City councilwoman. "He has a lot at stake in putting on Games that are credible and on-budget."

For Salt Lake, the budget issue was a driving force behind the election of a new mayor, who has promised to spare the city from red ink. "Our greatest problem is in dealing with the statewide political issues of whether venue communities have to incur risk and expense," says Mayor-elect Rocky Anderson.

While construction is ahead of schedule, sponsorships have just begun picking up steam. Mr. Romney's goal is to sign one or two sponsors a month until the Games. "We're back to thinking about looking forward and putting on great Games," he says.

All construction is due to be completed by November, and in the past eight months, the SLOC has signed 10 sponsors or suppliers, bringing in $100 million. People on the streets of Salt Lake City have latched onto the growing optimism.

"The scandal's unfortunate. It happens everywhere," says John Blayden, visiting the city with his family from northern Idaho.

But he says he's looking forward to the Olympics and would come back in an instant - if he thought he could get tickets. "We'd like to come back, but we hear rumors about how hard tickets are to come by."

Meanwhile, the December poll showed that 80 percent of Utahns are not only confident in the SLOC, but also believe that Utah can successfully host the Games.

"Mitt's done as good a job as anybody could, coming into that situation," says Glenn Bailey, an Olympics observer. "But I expect there will eventually be indictments, and that will open it all up again."

Such cynicism is still evident among some people here. The clamor for satire pins proclaiming "Bribes R Us" is almost as hot as the market for legitimate Olympic memorabilia.

"This has been going on for years," says Jane Sargent of northern Utah. "Anyone who keeps up with the news couldn't be so naive as to believe it wasn't going on. There were pictures on TV of them exchanging gifts."

Ms. Seed worries that corruption still exists within the International Olympic Committee, and that could hurt Salt Lake in attracting sponsors.

"I know they're struggling to make changes, but I'm not sure how substantive any of those changes are," she says. "The whole history of a scandal is going to be discussed [during the Games], and you have to ask if that is really good for business."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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