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Salt Lake celebrates first anniversary of 2002 Winter Olympics



The 72-foot high, 37,000-pound steel-and-glass cauldron is back, permanently.

After 10 months in storage the structure which housed the flame during last year’s Olympics in Salt Lake was set into its permanent home, 50-feet south of its original location at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Its return marks the first anniversary of one of the most significant events in the state of Utah’s history.

A year ago this weekend Salt Lake City, Park City and a host of other venues opened their collective communities to the world and put on Olympic Games remembered today as "a peaceful and safe gathering amidst turbulent times."

To mark the occasion the city is hosting a Utah Winterfest festival, an event many hope will become annual.

Organizers say the festival is aimed at celebrating the Games, not re-living them, and they expect the event to be enjoyed mostly by locals, although they hope it will eventually bring back some of the Olympic visitors.

This year the festival includes more than a week of events, ranging from the freestyle skiing world championships at Deer Valley to a musical show at the Salt Lake Tabernacle titled a "musical tribute to the human spirit."

While there is no doubt the 2002 Winter Games in Utah touched the lives of those living there, measuring the improvements to people’s lives due to hosting the US$1.3 billion Games is more difficult.

Of course there are the physical venues left behind, which include the Utah Olympic Oval and Soldier Hollow, the cross country and biathlon track built in Wasatch Mountain State Park.

The cross-country facility also includes a lodge but it is facing funding problems.

The University of Utah got US$ 28 million for student housing upgrades as the facility was used as the athletes village. There were also massive upgrades to the highway system as well as other infrastructure gains.

And experts agree that the event sheltered some sectors in the region from the recession, which hit every other state.

Indeed, according to the Utah Travel Council: "Olympic-induced spending rescued the tourism industry from another quarterly loss, as hotel and restaurant sales increased significantly, off-setting declines in air transportation and auto rentals."

State wide, hotel occupancy began increasing in the lead-up to the Games and jumped nearly 19 per cent during February.

Since the Games hotel occupancy has remained higher than for 2001.

But according to UTC media relation’s manager, Ken Kraus, the real benefit of hosting the Games is less tangible than new venues or increased hotel occupancy.

"A large part of the Games were broadcast worldwide and reached millions, if not billions, of viewers," said Kraus.

"You could never in countless lifetimes pay for that type of exposure, and for an organization that is obviously interested in promotion of a specific destination that right there was worth the price of admission.

"Running, managing, pulling off the Games was a very satisfying experience for literally every person involved one way or another in tourism promotion in the state of Utah.

"We today are seeing the effects of that exposure, particularly in the realm of bookings to ski resorts and booking conventions."

One of the most valuable things media coverage of the Games accomplished was the debunking of many myths about Utah, not least of which was that you couldn’t get a drink in the state or find a club to party at.

"There is a heart beat and it does exist into the night time hours and I personally am fond of the food scene," said Kraus.

"There is a vibrant restaurant scene here. There is a vibrant club scene particularly here for those in the 18 to 30 set, the diversity of recreational opportunities is absolutely endless."

Major marketing continues in Utah playing on the success of the Games and according to the Governor’s office it is estimated that over the next five years new sporting events coming to Utah will generate more than US$200 million in the local economy.

In fact, Salt Lake is today considering a bid for the 2018 or 2022 Winter Olympics.

But for most people the Games lined their souls with pride, not their pockets with money.

And today Utah struggles, as do most places, with a tight economy and jittery tourism market.