SALT LAKE CITY - Visitors to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City have noticed that, with rare exceptions, local residents, many of them members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints, go out of their way to help visitors.
Utah is more than 80 percent Mormon, although the percentage of church adherents in Salt Lake City is far less so, perhaps 45 percent. Still, as one writer to an alternative newspaper wrote, “The church is determined to make us all live like Mormons.”
Temple Square, situated in the center of the city, is not only the religious hub, but also is in many ways the political center of gravity. The legislature meets in the handsome state capitol up a steep hill, and it is predominantly white, Mormon, and male. Late-night comedians have had their fun at the state's expense. “Eight out of 10 blacks in Utah play for the Utah Jazz,” said Dave Chappelle, a black comedian on The Tonight Show. And the other 20 percent? Jay Leno asked. “You're looking at him,” Chappelle cracked back.
A story in Thursday's Salt Lake Tribune, the newspaper traditionally independent of Mormon church ties, reported that the state's median age is 27.1, compared with 35.3 for the nation as a whole. And racial minorities, as elsewhere, are contributing to the state's figures because they tend to have younger and larger families. But of course they are starting from a much smaller base in this overwhelmingly white state.
Although the church takes the position that this is not a Mormon Olympics, the church's influence is reflected in the unflagging smiles one receives from volunteers all along the routes where spectators walk to the venues and the inevitable security barriers.
Politicians and church leaders seem divided over how much leeway to permit their guests. This is a venue where the beer is weak and coffee is frowned upon as an improper stimulant. But partying is going on, and if one tires of the Salt Lake scene, even one that features the Canadian group “Barenaked Ladies,” you can join the rich and well-connected up in the Wasatch Mountain resort community of Park City, where the parties go on well into the night.
As to the Olympics themselves, one begins to wonder after laying out up to $250 for a ticket to a major event, $5 for a hot dog, and $3.50 for - dare we mention it? - a cup of extremely hot coffee, just where is all that money going? The scalpers were taking it on the chin at the hockey games Wednesday night, offering $200 tickets for as low as $50 apiece. The city has been cracking down on some of the scalpers, but the real scalper seems to be the Salt Lake Olympic Committee and its international big brother, the IOC.
With all that money coming in from tickets, souvenir sales, TV rights, and other add-ons, it is clear that while unpaid volunteers are working in the trenches, the top bureaucrats have got the best venue this side of heaven. I made up my mind after the Canada-Finland hockey game to pay no more “official” prices. If I can get cheaper tickets elsewhere, I will. I was a little late in discovering that economic fact of life, however.
And the traffic congestion is by no means as bad as pictured. The venues are scattered all over Zion's half-acre, and there is no trouble driving to any of the competition sites. Still, the organizers did their best to encourage people to use public transportation, But this is America, darn it, and we like our cars.
What will Salt Lake City do with all those Olympic venues? Will this region be able to support ski-jumping and other arcane sports from users' revenue or will taxpayers foot the bill? My view is that the Olympic Games, for all the prestige they may bring to a city, may well become too costly for any city that lacks access to the taxpayers' purses. And for all the money that the LDS Church is said to have, Salt Lake City is largely a community of modest homes, sprinkled with the usual urban sprawl of an American gasopolis.
Although television still gets teary-eyed over the concept of amateur athletes striving only to do their very best, it's rapidly disappearing in these games. Those ferociously contending hockey players crashing against one another on the boards will return to their regular NHL uniforms and huge paychecks once their Olympic holiday is over. Money has polluted the Olympic traditions, probably beyond repair.
Cheyenne or Denver, this place isn't. And although many merchants are not profiting from this Olympiad, and are grousing loudly about it, they hope you will be encouraged to return. I certainly would.
Ralph Johnson is a retired editorial director of The Blade.40.76004 -111.8882