Olympic writers discover the West isn't so wild

I once knew an old-time New York wire-service editor who growled that there was nothing of consequence in the news business west of the Hudson River until California.

What lay between, in his view, was a geographic and cultural wasteland to be flown across as rapidly as possible.

That's changed, but still the West and states like Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Nevada are much of a mystery to many Easterners. Now, as the 2002 Olympic Games begin in Salt Lake City on Friday, 8,000 journalists have arrived, not only to cover the sporting events, but to put an international spotlight on Utah, its people, and culture.

Already there's been a torrent of pre-Games publicity.

For the discoverers, and the discovered, it is an illuminating experience.

Some of the modern-day de Tocquevilles are serious and have done their homework. Some have editors who, as one reporter said the other day, "only want the kinky stuff," like polygamy.

It's not so long ago that a French TV crew, retracing the route of the 19th-century pioneers, inquired when they would "run into Indians" and whether they would be dangerous. And still, tourists at the Salt Lake visitors' bureau inquire about where they can see the Mormons (answer: all around them), where they can get Mormon food (answer: there really isn't any), and whether they'll see cowboys (answer: maybe, but they're just as likely to be riding all-terrain vehicles as horses).

What the visiting journalists have found here is a modern city of tall buildings, multi-lane freeways, universities, a ballet company, a symphony, theaters, high-tech companies, and a population with one of the highest per capita personal-computer and Internet usage rates in the nation. It is also the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - the Mormons - whose religion is that of the majority of the state's population.

Their ancestors, who first settled here in 1847, and tapped the snows of the exquisite encircling mountains to make the arid valley bloom, would be astonished at the transition in a century and a half. They came, after harsh religious persecution in the East, to escape the world. Ironically, their descendants are now playing host to it as the Olympics open, and they are under the world's microscope, or at least television lens.

What the visitors are finding among the Mormons are kind and helpful people, devoutly religious, whose moral principles make them an anachronism in today's hedonistic society. They eschew alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, pre-marital and extra-marital sex. Failure to follow those codes may mean excommunication. The same fate awaits any church member who practices polygamy, outlawed by the church 100 years ago. But pockets of illegal polygamists exist, until recently ignored by state prosecutors, and are the subject of considerable curiosity by the visiting press corps.

Mormons dominate the state Legislature and the church has extensive business interests in real estate and commercial enterprises, including a TV station, radio stations, a daily newspaper (of which I, a non-Mormon, am editor), farms and ranches.

IN THE EARLY DAYS of Salt Lake City's quest to win the Olympics, Mormon church leaders were reportedly divided over the desirability of hosting the Games.

Later they embraced them, but faced a dilemma. As one of the most influential institutions in Utah, the church's resources and volunteer manpower were highly sought after, but it did not want to be labeled the éminence grise behind a "Mormon Olympics." So it reined in local Mormon missionaries for the duration of the Games and church volunteers were directed to refrain from proselytizing visitors.

Church leaders say they simply want their members to come across as gracious hosts, not in-your-face advocates of conversion to the Mormon faith. There is no whiff of suspicion that the church played any role in the bidding scandal for the Games, though as individuals, Mormons and non-Mormons stand accused.

Aside from all this, the overriding concern of Salt Lake citizens of any religious persuasion is that a terrorist attack might mar the celebratory image of these Olympics.

F-16s from nearby Hill Air Force Base will maintain protective cover over the Olympic venues, backed up by Black Hawk helicopters, Customs Service planes, and AWACS. No private plane will be permitted within a 45-mile radius of the city. On the ground, more than 15,000 law-enforcement officers and 5,000 National Guardsmen will maintain security. Planning for the known possibilities has been thorough. Just as in the overall war against terrorism, it is the unknown that is most troubling.

• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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