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What are the ‘big gears’ Utah must move for a 2034 Olympics?

Sen. Mitt Romney, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt say Utah must start now to address big challenges ahead of a 2034 Winter Games — including crafting a vision for how Utah should transform in its wake

By: Katie McKellar, Utah News Dispatch

Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt said one of the most important lessons he drew from his time as Utah’s chief executive is that in order to lead out on transformational issues, one must look for decisions that will result in “cascading consequences.”

He compared them to gears on a clock. Turning the largest gear will spin the smaller ones with ease.

“If you really want to transform society,” he said, “you have to look at the big gears.”

Perhaps one of most impactful “gears” that could transform Utah’s future is Salt Lake City’s now likely chance of hosting the 2034 Winter Games. The city was selected as a 2034 preferred host in November, and with no serious contenders, Salt Lake is close to formally locking down the Games. A final vote on the bid is expected to be announced in Paris on July 24, Utah’s Pioneer Day.

This week, the International Olympic Committee is coming to Utah to tour proposed event venues. Next, the Future Host Commission is expected to submit a report to IOC leaders, who will then decide whether to send Salt Lake City’s bid to a final vote, the Deseret News reported.

A 2034 Winter Games would mark the second time the Olympics has come to Utah. Leavitt was governor when Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Games — and it’s one of the “legacy” issues Leavitt highlights in his recently released memoir series detailing the lessons the former governor learned from his time in office. Leavitt hopes it will help policymakers tackle some of the biggest issues facing Utah today.

Friday, Leavitt — along with Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and other Utah officials — joined a panel hosted by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, the Hinckley Institute of Politics, and the Deseret News at the Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City.

The discussion, moderated by Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks, was part of a forum titled “What’s Past is Prologue.” It unpacked generational issues from Leavitt’s memoir that are seemingly coming full circle and resurfacing in new ways for Utah’s government leaders.

The Olympics, Leavitt said, is an “obvious” example. The 2002 Winter Games wasn’t just a 14-day event, it ushered in a new era for Utah. It put the state on the international stage, spurred major growth, attracted tech business leaders, and accelerated transportation infrastructure, including a massive rebuild of I-15 and construction of FrontRunner and Salt Lake County’s TRAX system.

“The Olympics is a 17-day activity, then it’s over,” Leavitt said. “That isn’t the value of the Olympics to the state. The value … is the 10 years in advance of the Games, during which there is a huge amount of back pressure that will allow you to get a lot of things done that you could never get done in their absence.”

Now, with another opportunity to host the Winter Games in 10 years, Leavitt said Utah must act now, not only to use the next decade to prepare, but also brace for and shape the change the Olympics is sure to usher in for the state — another new era.

The discussion focused on what “big gears” Utah must move to make a 2034 Winter Games a generational success. The panel included Leavitt, Romney and other past and current state leaders involved in either the 2002 Olympics or the 2034 bid. They included:

  • Fraser Bullock, chief operating officer and chief financial officer of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, and current president and CEO of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games, which is bidding for the 2034 Winter Games.
  • Former Utah Sen. Lane Beattie, who helped plan the 2002 Winter Games. He also formerly served as the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce before his retirement in 2018.
  • Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, who is serving as one of the legislative members of the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation.
  • Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, one of the legislative members of the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation.

The ‘big gears’

Romney, participating remotely in the discussion on a TV screen, said Utah leaders must launch an “immediate” effort in Washington, D.C. to generate “energy and passion” for a 2034 Winter Games in Salt Lake City — as well as lay the groundwork now for federal funding to support security and transportation, which the federal government will be tasked with but has not yet funded.

Romney said security for the future Olympics will probably cost billions — perhaps $3-4 billion — but by then he warned Congress will likely be confronting “some very tough financial times,” pointing to frustrations with the federal government’s spending and national debt.

“I’ll tell you, if Salt Lake goes to the government and says we need $3-4 billion dollars for security and transportation, that may not be a welcome request, and it may not be granted,” Romney warned. So he urged Utah and California leaders — ahead of a 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles — to urge Congress to start putting aside funding every year to prepare for national special security events and transportation for an Olympics.

“So instead of asking for $3-4 billion down the road, we’re able to get $200 million or $300 million year after year going into special accounts,” Romney said.

Romney also said Utah leaders should frame the 2034 Games not as a “big gift” to Utah, but an opportunity to “serve the world.” Like they did with the 2002 Olympics, he said leaders should put Utah’s volunteerism at the forefront and ask Utahns to be part of solving problems.

“I think what made (the 2002) Olympics so successful was that people began to realize this was an opportunity for us to help serve the world. This was about service. It was about giving, not receiving,” Romney said, urging leaders to not shy away from the challenges. “Acknowledge the difficulties. … Travel’s going to be hard. It’s going to be intrusive. Acknowledge those things.”

Romney said he’s happy to see Utah leaders talking about the issue now. A 2034 Winter Games is sure to “bring the world’s attention to Utah, for good or bad, and I think we’re going to see the best,” he said. But he also urged leaders to think about whether they really want it to bring “more growth.”

“I’m not sure we want more growth,” he said, noting it’s “not necessarily a bad thing” when a state’s population growth tapers. “I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘Do we want to continue to grow the state?’ I know it’s great for developers … but how much growth do we want to have?”

McKell agreed Utah leaders need to start formulating a vision now about how it wants Utah to change in wake of the Olympics.

“It’s time to have that discussion,” McKell said. “I don’t think we know exactly as a state what we want to accomplish, right now. And I think we need to decide. We need to harness government at all levels … we need to decide what is the legacy, what do we want to accomplish.”

Another “big gear” a 2034 Winter Games could turn and help transform Utah’s future, the panel discussed, is acting as a remedy to today’s polarized political climate.

“We have a divisive society today in many ways. How do we overcome that?” Bullock said. He pointed to recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics polls that show over 80% of Utahns support hosting another Olympics, and said Utah can coalesce that support and bring people together through volunteer efforts during the Games.

“We’re going to host the world together, as a community. And then utilize that not only at the local level but at the national level and at the international level — an opportunity for unity to celebrate human achievement under the umbrella of sport,” Bullock said. “It’s just a wonderful opportunity for the next 10 years.”

Bullock said last time, when Utah hosted the Olympics in wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack, “we became a healing opportunity for the world.”

“There will be something important that we will be doing at some point along this journey,” he said. “That’s the opportunity. … For us to do something special, for not only our community but the entire world.”

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