Utah’s Olympic Moment

Originally published in Utah Business.

“Not everybody gets the chance to skate the performance of their life.” That was U.S. figure skater Sarah Hughes’s summary of how she had catapulted from fourth place to Olympic gold at the Delta Center on the last night of the figure skating competition. Her performance and that statement captured a moment of greatness that mirrored Utah’s experience in hosting the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. We hosted the world and excelled. It was our Olympic moment, and most of us will never forget it.

This month we commemorate the 10-year anniversary of this global achievement. The caldron will be relit, Sarah Hughes will return to the ice and Mitt Romney will take a detour from his presidential campaign to celebrate with us. Most importantly, the state has formed an exploratory committee to consider another bid. It’s Olympic-mania this month, and we would be wise to take a pause, capture our enthusiasm in a bottle and reflect upon the lessons learned during this monumental experience.

I experienced the Olympics from the vantage point of a governor’s spokesperson. Fully credentialed and working 16-hour days, I moved from event to event, country home to country home, athletes’ village to media center and points in between. Here’s a short collection of a few of my favorite Olympic experiences and the lessons I learned:

American greatness. The opening ceremony was historic—but not because of its artistic beauty or incredible execution, though it had both. It was historic because less than four months after 9/11 the peace-loving world gathered for the first time to celebrate human achievement. A live crowd of 50,000 people and a worldwide viewing audience of more than two billion people watched as Derek Para and seven other handpicked members of the U.S. Olympic Team carried in a tattered U.S. flag from the World Trade Center.
The crowd fell dead silent, our hearts beat as one and we united as a people. I learned that one of America’s greatest assets is our unity. It’s a powerful force with unlimited possibilities.

Economic intangibles. I worked with a team of professionals to help quantify the economic impact of the Games to our state. We considered the new money that flowed into Utah and then calculated the impact on sales, earnings and employment. These are useful measures, but they miss the mark. The economic value of Utah’s Olympics is best expressed through the intangibles – how we got better as a people, how we gained confidence that we could compete and win on the international stage and how we showcased our welcoming and hospitable spirit to the world. I learned that economic value is too often confused with statistics, when it’s the things we can’t count that really matter.

A gracious spirit. Gov. Leavitt shared with me a story about the Canadian pair skaters—Jamie Sale and David Pelletier—who were wronged by a French judge and temporarily denied the gold medal that they had earned. The governor complimented them on the class they had shown during the controversy. Gov. Leavitt asked them how they found the maturity and strength to be so gracious. Pelletier responded that their parents had taught them to be kind and well mannered. Only the beauty of watching them skate matched their magnanimous character. In the end, they were awarded the gold medal they had earned. I learned that a gracious spirit wins every time.

Grittiness. I attended the short track speed skating event where Apolo Anton Ohno collided with other skaters on the final turn, cut his leg and then did a massive, gritty crawl to the finish line to earn the silver medal. Short track speed skating is a lot like life. It’s a crazy and unpredictable scramble filled with moments of beauty, speed and exhilaration. Sometimes we get knocked down. Sometimes it isn’t fair. I learned that even the very best get slammed against the wall, but the truly great get back up and scramble to the finish line.

Utah exceptionalism. February 8, 2002 was, by far, the biggest day for me. Overnight a snowstorm blanketed our mountains. Hours later Air Force One arrived carrying the President of the United States and several of his Cabinet members. Our city—framed in snow, dressed with building wraps, supported by a new freeway and TRAX system, and polished in a way that only the Olympic spotlight can bring—radiated with beauty. Later that night the Opening Ceremony would honor the 2,400 athletes from 77 nations who participated in the Games. But first, a ceremony was held at the Utah State Capitol where, in the presence of the leader of the free world and with the acoustics of the rotunda, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir belted out the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I found myself with tears streaming down my face. This was my city, my state, my governor, my president and my hometown. We had worked so hard for this opportunity, and I was so proud of our state. I will always carry that memory deep in my heart.

Utah’s Olympic moment is some-thing we should all cherish. It is right that we seek this opportunity again for future Utahns.