By Clare Ogilvie
It produced jobs in a time of economic recession, boosted national morale after a terrorist attack, turned a modest profit, and was certified climate neutral.
But the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympics also fell short on promises of low income housing, did little to offset a drop in tourism in the months following the Games, and created some heated debate over land use issues after a ski resort was given park land for houses as part of an Olympic deal.
It was also plagued with a scandal that shook the Olympic brand and forced organizers to tighten the budget.
All of these experiences offer lessons for the organizers of the Whistler and Vancouver 2010 Games concludes a new report on Salt Lake Games commissioned by 2010 officials.
It is the last of three reports the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Games (VANOC) produced on past Olympics in North America.
The first two on Lake Placid and Calgary were released in the last two weeks.
At the top of the list of lessons from Salt Lake is that not everything can be controlled, and that includes world politics, the national economy, the weather, and even the judging process.
That’s one lesson already taken to heart by VANOC, which recently ran a simulation of the Games, where all kinds of things went wrong including injuries to athletes, and poor weather.
Hand in hand with that lesson is being prepared to deal with the problems by having contingency plans in place.
And, said Salt Lake officials, Games organizers must provide top notch accommodation, training and competition venues for the athletes. VANOC is paying particular attention to that lesson and already has competitors vying for the best spots in both athletes’ villages. The 2010 accommodation has already been described as the best ever.
But perhaps the biggest lesson is to nurture a positive self-image as the Olympic host, for it is that image that will be seen around the world bringing legacies that will last for years beyond the event.
“This is not necessarily a tangible legacy,” said Fraser Bullock, who was CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.
“But the experience of hosting the world brought our community together in a very unique way that we have never experienced before, unifying working together and allowing us to leave a long term impression on the world in terms of being an Olympic city.
“Really that is the primary reason for hosting a Games.”
That has paid off in the long term with, for example, sport businesses, including Amer Sports, the largest winter sport business in the world, relocating to the Salt Lake area after the Games.
In the short term, however, while the civic pride felt good issues such as high gas prices, travel jitters from terrorism, and a lack of state funding for tourism marketing conspired to reduce the positive financial impacts on Salt Lake in terms of visitors.
The report found that while ski resorts expected some decline in visits during the Games they actually went down up to 50 per cent. In 2002, states the report, an estimated 17.3 million people visited Utah and in 2003, the number slipped to 16.9 million. However by 2005 it had climbed to 18.5 million.
This is a key lesson for VANOC and tourism officials locally, provincially and even nationally.
“Our tourism plan certainly isn’t going to stop at 2010,” said Arlene Schieven, vice president of marketing for Tourism Whistler.
“We will have one that is continuing well beyond 2010 and our marketing budget will continue so I don’t see that we will have a big drop off in marketing after 2010.”
Indeed Tourism Whistler views the Games as a unique opportunity to spread the word about the resort to a global audience and make sure the public and tour operators know it’s pretty well business as usual before and after the 2010 Games.
Workshops will be held annually with tour operators, said Schieven, to make sure that message gets out loud and clear.
“We want to try and mitigate that aversion effect,” she said.
“We are looking at the communication aspect of it as our biggest opportunity.
“We still need to increase awareness of Whistler so we are in a position where we can really, really benefit from having the spotlight on us.
“ I think that… one of the greatest benefits is that we will increase international awareness as a destination and we are looking to the longer term benefits from that.”
The 2002 Games were also criticized at the time for not helping to address the plight of the homeless and those who needed low-income housing.
The same criticism is now being levied at VANOC.
But, said Bullock: “I know many people would like VANOC to solve the problems of the world but they have to be singularly focused on doing a fabulous job of hosting the Games, then the rewards will come.
“That is what we said here in Salt Lake City. We said our job is to host the Games and do a great job.
“We would have many, many people approach us and say, ‘can you solve this problem, can you solve that problem,’ and we would say, ‘our first job is to host the Games in a superb operational fashion and in an economically and financially responsible way. To the extent that we can include efforts to improve low income housing yes we will do that.
“And we did some of that, though not as much as people wanted. But our first priority was to host the Games, which is a massive undertaking.
“I think it is a mistake when communities expect the organizing committee to do everything. It is unrealistic and it distracts them from their mission. They will do what they can, but they can’t solve all the problems.”
As with the reports from Calgary and Lake Placid, the sporting legacies from Salt Lake were found to be important catalysts for sport development both nationally and locally. Competitions at all levels are now held in the area thanks to the venues left behind.
Nearby communities also benefited from the Games and local kids and youth learned about the ideals of the Olympics both through school programs, attending events, and volunteering.
Though funding was cut for the Olympic arts festival program local organizers rallied to the Games and turned out a superb smorgasbord of events, most of which were reasonably priced or free.
“The most important thing is to do a great job of hosting the Games,” said Bullock.
“If the city shines to the world when it hosts the Games that will be the most lasting impression, not only for the worldwide reputation of the city, but also for prospective tourism and economic development.”