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The Olympics definitly not "Mormon games"

Posted: Friday, February 15, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- Cross-currents of culture -- old Utah and new Utah -- were mingling and flowing smoothly late one night at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

The rock group "Goo-Goo Dolls" had just finished a concert at Olympic Medals Park, normally a parking lot for the Mormon church. The exited crowd was frolicking, in that partying mood. Across the street, a large group of Mormons was emerging from a special event at a nearby auditorium.

Generation LDS met Gen-X in the middle of the Temple Street. You didn't need a program to tell which was which. The two groups, generally on opposite ends of the sociological spectrum, mingled politely and respectfully.

It was a clear indication that, contrary to predictions, the Winter Games are not the "Mormon Games."

A prevailing joke going into the Olympics was that when the first skier took off on the Grizzly course in the downhill, two Mormon missionaries, white shirts and black ties over their ski outfits, would be in hot pursuit.

"Stereotypical jokes are made about our group just like any group," said Michael Otterson, a native of Liverpool, England, who is director of media relations for the Church of Latter-day Saints. "We laugh at some; a few are not funny."

Generally, when you meet a Mormon here, you encounter a polite-to-a-fault individual with a smiling face and words of good cheer. The Mormons will enthusiastically and unashamedly tell you of their faith and their beliefs -- if asked -- but they are not proselytizing. Gordon Hinckley, the president of the Mormon church who is hailed by Mormons as a modern-day prophet of God, has told members of one of the world's most evangelical religions to respect the diversity of Utah and the world. He's told them to not force their religion on anyone.

"These Olympics are not about the Mormon religion; they are about bringing people together," said Donny Osmond in a recent television interview and, as an entertainer, has for decades been an icon for his faith.

So Mormonism, which formed the very fiber of Utah, is trying not to directly intrude upon the Games. The influence is more subtle -- like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the religion's best and most universally respected symbol, particpating in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Or Hinckley carrying the Olympic torch on one of its final legs.

But here's no need to advertise. The world's media is seeking out the Mormons. A day before the Olympics began, Otterson said his office has had about 1,000 different requests from all over the world for some kind of media interview. He normally works with a public relations staff of five. For the Winter Games, he has 350 people on call.

"We didn't ask for these Games," said Otterson. "They were thrust upon us. Now, they are here and we have to deal with them. But it does give us a chance to clear up some misconceptions."

The most common stereotype is the Mormons are a bunch of polygamists, an issue that initially distinguished the Mormons from most every other religious group in America.

"I've lived in Utah 10 years and I've never seen a polygamist," Otterson said. "Sure, they exist. But they are way in the minority and way in the extreme."

Nowadays, a Mormon practicing polygamy is excommunicated from the church.

"Polygamists are really not part of our church," Otterson said. "We don't condone it. It's illegal. And Mormons believe strongly in obeying the law and living as good citizens. The polygamists are out there on the fringe, doing their own thing and don't represent Mormons."

Many fundamentalist groups question whether Mormons are Christian.

Otterson staunchly maintains that they are. Mormons will readily tell you they believe Jesus Christ is the center of their faith, the son of God and the savior of the world. They differ from Protestants and Catholics in that they claim the original church of the 12 apostles died in ancient Jerusalem. Jesus Christ established a new church in America, revealing himself in a vision to founder Joseph Smith.

"We feel we are a restored Christianity, a reformed church," Otterson said. "Some religious groups don't accept that, but I can live with that. People have a right to worship as they please."

The LDS church has set up a special room across from temple grounds in its administration building to handle VIP's and the media. What one witnesses is a finely tuned and polished effort.

A visitor is greeted individually by name, receives his personal press kit and badge and church spokesmen are made available to answer any and all questions -- with a smile and a non-confrontational tone.

The group welcomes dialogue.

But the incredible part of the VIP lounge is the food -- a nice spread daily of fruit, cakes, sandwiches and snacks. And plenty of soft drinks, including coffee and cola.

Whoa.

Caffeine in the Mormon VIP room? One of the distinguishing factors of the LDS church is its strict anti-drug code, including abstinence from drinks containing caffeine.

"Mormons are family people and we are concerned about the overconsumption of drugs among youth," Otterson said. "But we are also tolerant. Colas are not for us. We don't partake. But we are not trying to force our standards on others."

Colas in the VIP room possibly represent the new face of the LDS church and the new Utah, a land that Mormons consider a miracle in itself.

"No one originally wanted to live here but the Mormon settlers," Otterson said. "Everyone else headed for California."

The reasons were obvious. Brigham Young's Promised Land was hardly originally flowing with milk and honey. It was desert and rock, where little could grow and featured a lake too salty for fish to live in.

Overcoming these obstacles established a tight-knit community in Utah, perceived by some as clanishness.

And Mormons made things work so well that they are now challenged by their very creation.

Because of their emphasis on a service-oriented community

, strong traditional moral values, large, close-knit families and a healthy lifestyle, people are now migrating to Utah from California and everywhere else. It has five national parks, the nation's highest per-capita ownership of computers, world-class ski resorts and one of the lowest crime rates in the country.

With the lifestyle has come diversity. Mormons are now 73 percent of the state's population compared to 77 a decade ago. But Salt Lake City is only 53 percent Mormon.

The state has a rising Hispanic population. But a source of real conflict has been a rising gay population.

In most of the country, church-state issues center on the state having too much power. In Utah, it's the opposite.

The LDS church is seemingly putting the Winter Olympics in a giant test tube to try out new formulas for dealing with the growing diversity.

And Salt Lake City may be one of the most perfect American cities to host an international event.

Because Mormons place such an emphasis on international missions -- each is required to spend two years on an assigned mission to anywhere in the world -- you can find someone in Salt Lake who can speak fluently in almost any language.

On a recent tour of the temple grounds, Sister Malinda, a personable guide with sparkling eyes and a infectuous smile, noted she was a Romanian serving her mission in Salt Lake City.

"In some of our families, you may have four kids and everyone one of them will speak a different language fluently because of their mission," Otterson said. "It's not uncommon for our people to speak two or three different languages.

Because of our mission work, we are used to blending in with different cultures and working with different kinds of people. This has helped us deal with the Olympics."

Many Olympic visitors have been surprised at the thriving bar and club scene in a state traditionally known for tough liquor laws. Gov. Mike Leavitt has noted that there are 1,305 places to buy a drink within the Olympic perimeter, more than twice as many as in the two previous Winter Olympics combined.

And for a couple of weeks, nearby Park City, a ski resort town with a part-jet-set, part-punk personality, has become the party capital of the world.

There's even a beer made here called Polygamy Porter, with the slogan, "Why Just Have One?"

Said Otterson: "Originally, I thought I might have tell visiting journalists who asked where the bars are. But they easily found them on their own."

David McCollum, sports columnist for the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, Ark., is part of the Morris News Service team covering the Winter Olympics.



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