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Ready or not... Olympics are here

Posted: Thursday, February 07, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY. This place has colder weather than I remember. And a much warmer feel.

Three months ago, Salt Lake City didn't seem ready to host an interdepartmental office seminar, let alone an international sporting event. The whole city looked like an unset table not necessarily messy, but certainly not appropriate for company.

Venues were still being pieced together. The light-rail system had not been completed. And the massive security everybody was talking about was still more plan than product, with no fences or checkpoints set up yet.

Even Olympic signage, which typically starts going up five minutes after a bid is awarded, was curiously absent.

Now, you couldn't have swung a dead pole-vaulter around Atlanta without hitting a picture, painting or banner of the rings for five years before the Centennial Games. They were on lampposts, crosswalks, anywhere you might happen to look as you were speeding through town.

But, just 113 days before the Opening Ceremony for the 2002 Winter Olympics, you could have walked around downtown Salt Lake City for two hours and seen no suggestion that anything or anybody special was coming here. Actually, I saw one when I did exactly that back in October, an SLC 2002 Budweiser sign hanging in a bar window.

At that point, all you could really think was, this city is in big trouble. And these people have no idea what is about to hit them.

Because you don't just whip an Olympic city together in three months, don't pull out all the trappings and wrappings that bring a special air to an ordinary town in no time.

Except they did here.

Salt Lake City is very different today than it was in October. It's quainter, more picturesque, practically inviting. It has given itself to these Olympics, not just its name. And it has taken on the personality of the Winter Games.

The transformation has been as striking as it has been complete.

Olympic flags hang from every street light. Directional signs are festooned with little event icons. And the city's tallest buildings are all wearing their best dress.

That's probably the neatest of SLC's new additions, the 20-story banners draped over the sides of skyscrapers.

There's a twirling figure skater on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints office building. There's a goalie reaching to make a save all the way to the top of the Gateway Tower East. An upside-down snowboarder hangs from the Gateway Tower West.

They call them wraps, and they are the touch that really helps wrap all of Salt Lake in Olympic ambiance, a little accessory that combines cosmopolitan functionality and competitive chic.

They turn the city's most prominent structures into monuments to sports, backlit until midnight to suggest that for the next three weeks, athletes will not just be visiting this city, but standing over it as well.

And that sets the kind of mood that was not supposed to be possible for such a detached metropolis.

Although smallish by American standards, Salt Lake is the biggest city to ever host the Winter Games. Usually they're sent to these little Nordic burbs that exist basically to sell sweaters and hold ski competitions. Their narrow, streets and postcard houses provide the wonderland backdrop that is the typical set for the Winter Games.

There was some doubt whether Salt Lake could accomplish that kind of feel, whether Everytown USA could do tony. But they have, the little detailing all around downtown making a city feel like a village just in time for the start of the Games.

Count that as the first victory here. And the nicest surprise.

Because it was easy to expect all kinds of twists and gyrations up on the mountain. But, so far, the best flip of the Olympics belongs to the city holding them.

Morris News Service columnist Tim Guidera can be reached at guidera@hotmail.com.



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