BY JENNY GOLDSBERRY
Winter sports weren’t represented in the Olympics until 30 years after Athens’ first games in 1896. However, at the time, figure skating was a part of London’s summer games in 1908. Viewers were at first adverse to the idea of a Winter Olympics. So, when Chamonix, France, hosted them, they performed a rebranding of the winter sports. As a result, the first winter games weren’t called the Olympics, but the Chamonix International Winter Sports Week instead.
Eighteen other cities hosted these Winter Olympics before Salt Lake City got the chance. Three of those cities hosted twice. The ten host countries included Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Italy, Austria, Japan, Canada, Yugoslavia, and, of course, France. America had only hosted the winter games three times before, in Squaw Valley, California, in 1960, then in Lake Placid, New York, in 1932 and 1980. The Wasatch Front population at the time was more than eleven of the other host cities’ populations combined and then some. In addition, Salt Lake Airport had the largest airport with 21 million visitors a year in the late 90s. At the time, the airport also boasted that it was the first airport in the country to screen bags for explosives. Consequently, it also had the most hotel rooms at 35,000. So, it came as no surprise that it sold a record number of tickets: 1.6 million. According to the Utah Department of Transportation, roughly 2.2 million visitors came to the state during the Olympics.
The games came to Utah 20 years ago. Some Utahns were happy to welcome them, and others not so. To commemorate the anniversary this year, this article will examine the influence the games had in our neck of the woods.
For most people, the number-one concern was the traffic the games would bring. In anticipation of the traffic, local leaders opted to expand Highway 89. At the time that the Olympics selected Salt Lake, the federal government had allotted Utah $89 million dollars to build the necessary infrastructure. It’s federal law that U.S. cities hosting the Olympics receive this federal funding. Since Highway 89 led right to one of the Olympic venues, Snow Basin, some of that funding went to expanding the road. Many homes in South Weber and Ogden that bordered the highway got the short end of the stick on that deal. Instead of trees between their homes and the highway, the lanes stretched right up to their properties. Then, some were impacted twice by a massive Olympic park-and-ride lot only yards away. While the trees used to block wind from Weber Canyon and dirt from nearby sand pits, now the wind and dirt strikes those homes directly.
Mitch Shaw, Senior Communication Manager for the Utah Department of Transportation over Weber County, claimed the department achieved all its goals. They also improved interchanges and added new access roads. One of their goals was to reduce background traffic by 20%. As a result of all their efforts ahead of the Olympics, they met that goal. It took some studies to shorten delays and reduce congestion. “The last thing you want is people to be stuck in traffic for the Olympics,” Mitch said.
While the work came ahead of the Olympics, it has come in handy for our population. Over the past 20 years, Utah’s population increased by a million. Improvements done in 2002 continue to benefit drivers today. UDOT’s goal is to improve quality of life by improving mobility. When the growth in the state skyrocketed, traffic needed an update. Our state is the fastest-growing state in the nation, so it will forever need more infrastructure to facilitate the growth. Meanwhile, Mitch says some of the updates are actually “somewhat obsolete today.” “It’s safe to say that the Olympics were the accelerant,” Mitch said. These updates came when they did because of the games, but according to him, they were inevitable. We all dealt with the unavoidable three years of construction and “road closed” signs. Plus, a significant chunk of funding came from the federal government instead of the state’s budget.
Today, Mitch says more work is on the horizon. Construction workers sprinkle the highway, working on more interchanges. Neighbors to the north are advocating for a roundabout between the highway and local roads. There will likely always be something to improve about our highways.
Venues & Events
First, there was the Ice Sheet in Ogden. It features four sheets of ice that are 15 feet by 145 feet. This was ideal for men’s and women’s curling. As far as spectators, it fit 2,000. Today, it still hosts curling events, only now for the amateurs. This April, it will see its 23rd Annual Rocky Mountain Bonspiel. April will also be the first time that participants can camp and curl at Buenaventura Park.
The Ice Sheet has more than curling to offer. Now, it is also used as the Ogden Mustang’s arena: Weber County’s first and only junior hockey program. It’s such a successful team that their games often fill the seats just as full as the Winter Olympics once did. More than 50 former Stangs committed to play NCAA Hockey. Sixteen teammates have represented 10 different countries at World Championship tournaments. Just last October, player Jake Meure scored his fourth career overtime game-winning goal, marking him the all-time franchise leader. While they keep the arena full during their hockey season, they also host hockey camps for aspiring players during the summer.
This season, the team is playing its eleventh season. Sean and Kimberly Wilmert took ownership of the team in 2020 as longtime supporters of the Mustangs organization and Ogden residents. Ever since then, the Stangs have also competed as members of the United States Premier Hockey League. There will be four home games this month. If you can’t catch any of those, be advised that their last home game will be on February 26th.
Next, there’s Snowbasin Resort in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Swiss Olympic Downhill Champion Bernard Russi designed it himself in the late 1980s. Over a hundred years ago, it was known as Utah’s largest rendezvous site for trappers and traders like Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, and Jedediah Smith. When a flash flood on August 13, 1923, destroyed the area, locals decided to turn it over to the Cache National Forest. Ogden City, Weber County, the Ogden Rotary Club, and the Ogden Chamber of Commerce combined to buy the land from its previous owners and conserve it. Then, some Forest Service employees scoped out the area, attempting to ski in order to establish the area as a potential ski resort. They inevitably enjoyed the area’s powder. As a result, they held a contest to name the future resort. Geneve Woods won with her entry, “Snow Basin,” in 1938.
On November 27, 1940, the Mayor of Ogden declared the “Ogden Snow Basin winter playground” officially open. Ogden native, John Paul Jones, learned how to ski at Snow Basin. Jones went on to serve his country during World War II. He consequently lost his life in the Battle of Belvedere in Italy. Still, his 10th Mountain Division prevailed and was the first Allied unit to cross the Po River. The John Paul lift at Snow Basin was named after him. Before the games, there was also a lodge built in his honor. Then, the Holding family purchased Snowbasin in 1984 and still own it today. To prepare for the Olympics, there was yet another exchange of land between the resort and the federal government. They transferred 1,377 acres of National Forest System lands at the base of the resort to Snowbasin and 11,757 acres of private land in northern Utah to the Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Today, 60% of Snow Basin is still in the National Forest. Bernard Russi designed a 9,311-foot summit with a 2,890 drop. Those who competed as Super-G skiers would fly down that drop and turn through 30 to 35 gates, while those who participated in the Giant Slalom event had fewer turns, but longer courses.
Today, there are still many visitors to Snowbasin, so much so, that, according to Director of Marketing Michael Rueckert, there are plans to expand. The resort plans to expand lodging, parking, and chairlifts. As recently as this past year, you might have noticed some of these improvements.
“We see visitors from all 50 states and several countries, each year, looking to experience our Olympic heritage,” Michael said. These updates have been necessary to facilitate a growing number of visitors. To hear Michael tell it, the Olympics put Snowbasin on the map.
About 200 more athletes attended the Salt Lake games compared to the Nagano games before it. In total, over 2,600 athletes from 80 countries participated. What helped draw these athletes was an increase in medal events. There were 78 events across 15 disciplines, which was 10 more than in Nagano. It was also double the 38 events Lake Placid hosted in 1980. Salt Lake hosted the first-ever women’s bobsleigh races. Then, they added events in the men’s and women’s biathlon competition, a short track speed skating race of 1,500 meters and a sprint category for the men’s Nordic combined event.
There were many firsts at these games. Germany’s Georg Hackl became the first person in Olympic history to earn a medal in the same individual event in five consecutive games. Canada’s Jarome Iginla became the first black male athlete to win a winter gold medal. On Team USA, Vonetta Flowers was the first black female to win a winter gold, and Derek Parra and Jennifer Rodriguez were respectively the first Hispanic athletes to medal in the winter games. Utah had one local medal winner in 2002: her name was Tristan Gale. She competed in the first-ever women’s skeleton events. She had competed in bobsleigh events before, which are different because it involves a team sitting on a sled. Now, she had to lie face down on a sled by herself. At the games, she recorded a personal record, winning her the gold medal. She beat American teammate Lea Ann Parsley by one tenth of a second; Lea Ann had won a World Cup medal previously, and went on to win seven total medals. In this case, Tristan truly beat the best of the best.
There was a lot to hate about the 2002 Winter Olympics, but there was also a lot to love. Hopefully, no matter how you feel about the games, you can still feel proud of our community. Two decades later, we’re still driving the same roads and traversing the same ice and snow together.
AT A GLANCE
Feb 8, 2002 – Feb 24, 2002
US Medal Total: 34
Motto: Light the Fire Within