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Ten Years After: The 2002 Salt Lake Olympics

What came of the games.

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On February 8, 2002, the Olympic flame was lit in Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City to mark the start of the XIX Winter Olympics and the VIII Paralympic Games. Some 2,500 athletes representing 77 nations were there as was the largest crowds ever for an Olympic Winter Games, a record that still holds.

I wasn’t among them.

I took advantage of those Winter Olympics by doing something that Utah is famous for: skiing powder. While Olympians hurtled down the slopes of Snowbasin, Deer Valley and Park City, I headed to Alta and Snowbird – where the Olympics weren’t – to go skiing.  At the end of each day, I watched Olympic highlights from my front row seat at Alta Lodge. Alta and Snowbird were nearly empty, as skiers abandoned Utah that year out of fear of getting trapped in the madness of the five-ring circus.

On this 10-year anniversary, I figured it was time to visit the 2002 Olympic venues to find out what I missed, and what has happened since the games.

My first stop was Snowbasin, the sprawling ski area near Ogden that was host to the Olympic downhill, combined and Super G. I had first skied Snowbasin the year before the Olympics. The place was in frantic construction mode. Its owner, Sinclair oil magnate Earl Holding, was determined to remake the sleepy powder haunt a clone of Sun Valley, which he also owns. Lodges constructed with enormous timbers, wall-to-wall Persian-style carpets, imported Italian marble, and custom made chandeliers were springing up like snowbanks on the slopes.

This month, I ventured to the top of Snowbasin and peered over the edge of a trail at that plunged straight downhill as if it were falling off the mountain. This was the start of the men’s downhill course. I asked Tyler, a Snowbasin ski instructor who worked as a course slipper during the Olympics what it was like.

“Pure pucker,” he tells me. “They kept hosing it down and injecting water into the snow to make it harder and faster. By the time of the race, it was like a polished sheet of ice. Stepping out onto it was terrifying.”

“The Europeans hated this course,” he continues. “They said it was too technical, had too many turns, and was too steep.” In spite of this, the Europeans did well here: Fritz Strobl of Austria and Carole Montillet of France won the downhill.

I arced high-speed turns (well, they seemed fast to me) down the women’s downhill course, which started slightly lower than the men’s. I hung on as the trail plunged and twisted relentlessly down the fall line. Halfway down the mountain, the trail took a sharp right-angle turn and dropped precipitously. “A lot of the women got taken out here,” says Snowbasin PR guy Kevin Stauffer. I joke that he should rename the trail “lady killer.” He scowls. “We prefer not to have death references in our trail names.”

Snowbasin had one of the memorable screw-ups during the meticulously planned Olympic games. The winding mountain road that snakes up to the ski area became a large parking lot. One of the course workers recalled that five minutes before the start of the downhill, he looked down and saw a long line of tour busses standing still. Among them was a bus of Austrians who had come to see their skiing heroes compete. They got to see him race – on TV, just like I did. I was told that Mitt Romney, who headed the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee, jumped out of his car and was frantically directing traffic that day.

Snowbasin has never again hosted a downhill ski race. “It’s too expensive and too much work,” says Stauffer. Instead, the resort was busy building a huge halfpipe in preparation for hosting the Dew Tour.

I asked a Snowbasin employee who spent two years helping build the Olympic facilities what the long term impact of the games was. “It put Snowbasin and Utah on the map,” he tells me. “No one even knew where this ski area was. After the games, people all around the world knew who we were.”

Deer Valley  was host to the slalom, freestyle and moguls skiing competitions and aerials during the 2002 Olympics. Until the games, Deer Valley was best known as a magnet for high rollers in search of snow and luxury. That rep is alive and well: as I sat in the ultraluxe Stein Erikson Lodge about to put on my ski boots, I was gently interrupted by a young man. “Would you like me to buckle your boots and take your skis outside?” Indeed.

For Deer Valley, one enduring impact of the games is obvious: the ski area was hosting World Cup moguls and aerials events during my visit. Thousands of fans swarmed the base of the ski run, as bumpers and jumpers alternated thrilling the crowd, their exploits lit up on the Jumbotrons.

Over at Park City, which hosted the ski and snowboard giant slalom and snowboard halfpipe events, I ask a ski host how the Olympics changed the ski area. “In a word, snowboarding,” he replies. “There was very little of it here prior to the Olympics. Suddenly, we had to build halfpipes and host snowboarding events for the games. We’ve never gone back.”

Other evidence of post-Olympic changes can be found in the historic downtown Park City, where alcohol now flows more freely: in 2009, Utah repealed its “private club” laws, and Utah’s first distillery since the 1870s, High West Distillery and Saloon, opened slopeside in Park City in 2007.

Park City is also home to the Utah Olympic Park, home to Nordic ski jumping, and the luge and bobsled course. I volunteered for a bone-jarring and slightly terrifying 80-mph bobsled ride down the Olympic course. I staggered out of the sled remembering why powder, not ice, is my preferred medium for sliding.

I finish my informal post-Olympic survey on the fabled slopes of Alta, which was – and remains – blissfully aloof from the competition. I ask Alta’s longtime PR maven, Connie Marshall, how the Olympics changed the ski area, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary next season. “We’re about deep powder and the soul of skiing,” she reports with a smile. “I’m happy to say that hasn’t changed.”