Keeping eyes on Tokyo, local officials are confident in Utah’s ability to host future Olympic Games

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UTAH (ABC4) – Fraser Bullock has been through this before.

While serving as the chief operating officer and chief financial officer at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake, he thought he and his team had planned for every possible thing that could wrong.

“We prepared for every contingency imaginable,” he recalls to “We actually had a function within our committee, and that was anything from weather issues to health issues to traffic issues. We prepared for everything.”

Then the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 – just a few months before the Games were set to begin in Salt Lake – rattled the international landscape and threw a major wrinkle into the security concerns for the Olympics.

“That was outside of the magnitude of the scope of anything that we had planned for,” Bullock remembers.

In the months that followed 9/11, holding a safe event, while still maintaining an enjoyable atmosphere among heightened security, became a major theme leading up to Salt Lake’s time on the international sporting stage.

Luckily, the preparation was solid and the Games went off without a hitch. Bullock considers the 2002 Olympics to have been “very successful” as incident-free and with a financial impact on the Utah economy of around $6 billion. Should Utah win the bid to hold a future Olympics, the economic impact is expected to be near a similar figure.

It’s the confidence of having already held an Olympics in a challenging atmosphere that leads Bullock and other members of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games to believe that they could handle another difficult assignment; holding the Games in the post-COVID world.

The current pandemic has already greatly impacted the sporting world, arguably as much as any other industry. The major sports leagues in the United States struggled to complete their seasons once the COVID-19 virus gripped the globe. Amateur and youth sports also took a hit. In a rippling effect, industries that rely on sporting events for revenue, such as hospitality and foodservice businesses, felt the blow of a sports world on pause as well.

Even as the pandemic appears to be in a waning stage in parts of the United States, the virus is still causing havoc. The organizers of the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo, Japan announced on Thursday that spectators would be barred from attending the Games, which have already been pushed back a year due to the pandemic. With Japan entering a national state of emergency due to an uptick in infections, the Games are still set to begin on July 23, but will strictly be a made-for-TV event.

Bullock says his committee, which is preparing to submit a formal bid to host the Olympics in either 2030 or 2034, is monitoring the situation in Tokyo closely and is encouraged by the Japanese organizers’ efforts to put the Games on as best as possible.

Still, he is assured that the team working on a bid to bring the Olympic flame back to Utah will develop an impressive set of emergency plans, just in case any sort of crisis arises.

“When it comes to knowledge and management of actually putting on a Games, we have that here, I experienced it, so I feel confident in understanding the ways that we need to do our extreme risk management and contingency planning,” he explains.

Jeff Robbins, who serves as the president of the Utah Sports Commission in addition to being a board member on the Olympic bid committee, feels similarly based on how the state has done in holding sports events even during the middle of the pandemic.

Over the past 15 months, the Utah Sports Commission has had a hand in hosting 44 major sporting events which have brought an estimated $125 million to the state economy, according to Robbins. In these events, which have included hundreds of athletes and staff members from out of state and abroad, only one positive test for the virus was found, which was quickly mitigated and isolated.

By holding events as a public health crisis continued around the globe, Robbins says that many lessons were learned in Utah that can have a major effect on keeping sports alive in extreme circumstances. Before the virus’s outbreak in spring 2020, there was really no game plan for such a situation, he explains.

“I think we had a great medical community, we had great support from our public officials. We learned how to manage difficult events, even when you don’t have obstacles, and succeed,” Robbins states. “So, significant lessons were learned that we take forward, and we happen to have a really, really good medical community, and our public officials and health officials were very, very good.”

Robbins added he isn’t sure of anywhere else in the world that has held as many major sporting events in recent months.

When it comes down to spectator participation, both Bullock and Robbins lament that there won’t be any in Tokyo this summer. In terms of being able to have full participation in future sporting events, both agree that certain responsibilities will fall on the individual fans themselves.

Bullock feels that the locals who adapted to the increased security of the Games in 2002 showed that Utahns are willing to deal with difficult situations to enjoy their sporting events.

“What we saw back in 2002 was the patience of the people and the expertise of the volunteers,” he explains. “Just four months after 9/11, being able to understand, ‘Okay we have heightened security. I understand that I need to work through the security situation, it’s part of the experience,’ and it worked very, very smoothly.”

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