Utah’s Olympic legacy still burns bright 15 years later
Olympic facility serves more visitors today than it did after the Games
If you want to watch world-class athletes train or are an aspiring competitor in winter sports yourself, where do you go? For more nearly 20 years, it’s probably been the Utah Olympic Park. Since the 2002 Winter Games, the world-class training facility has continued to carry the torch as a destination site for winter enthusiasts.
On any given day, the Utah Olympic Park’s training facilities and museum are buzzing. From elite athletes performing aerials on the training hills nestled into the Wasatch Mountains to visitors wanting to experience and relive the glory of the 2002 Games on the bobsled track, the site is nearly four times busier than it was immediately following the Games.
The Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation’s efforts to maintain an active competition and training site has transcended what most host cities have been able to do with their multi-million dollar facilities after the Games have ended. The foundation is a nonprofit organization responsible for operating the Utah Olympic Park, Soldier Hollow and the Utah Olympic Oval.
While operating costs are heavily subsidized by the foundation, the park’s legacy still reads like a success story.
“For me, it’s all about a living legacy and active uses of these Olympic venues,” said Colin Hilton, president and CEO of the Olympic Legacy Foundation. “Our core mission is to engage participation in winter sports, that’s why our foundation exists. But we have an interesting story because throughout the history of the Olympic Games, not many people have thought about what you do with these venues afterwards, mainly for financial reasons.”
When the Salt Lake Organizing Committee unveiled plans in the late 1980s to build facilities for the 1998 Olympic Winter Games, the plans were met with trepidation from the community.
Brad Olch, who was Park City’s mayor when construction began on the Utah Olympic Park, admitted he wasn’t sure how successful the site would be. Olch said the funding was available for the project, but he questioned the community’s ability to support the facilities down the road. He cited other dilapidated Olympic venues as cause for concern.
“They have historically been met with limited success,” Olch said. “But the conclusion was there were no other training facilities other than Lake Placid so we kept going in the hopes of getting the bid.”
When construction began on the Olympic Park in 1991, Olch was quoted in The Park Record saying, “A lot of people have spent a lot of time and put in a lot of hard work to create these facilities that will enrich us all.” According to the article, Olch donated approximately $50,000 toward the Olympic cause.
“One day people will talk of Park City as one of the great resorts of the world. It’s a wonderful day for all of us,” Olch stated then.
While Utah lost the bid for the 1998 Olympics to Japan, the state was later awarded the opportunity to host the 2002 Games. The XIX Olympic Games were held between Feb. 8 and Feb. 24, 2002. An estimated 2,345 athletes competed and 1,200 officials came from 80 national Olympic committees participated, according to the Utah.com website.
The Olympic Games provided the foundation with a $76 million base to operate its facilities and programs. The downturn in the economy dropped the foundation’s budget to $52 million, but investments have raised the budget back up to $60 million in recent years.
Olch credited Hilton with the park’s continued growth in the years following the Games, adding “I never thought it would be as successful as it is.”
“Colin Hilton has done an incredible job of running these facilities and making it all work to the point where they are bursting at the seams,” Olch said.
Hilton joined the Olympic Legacy Foundation in 2006. He was a member of the 2002 organizing committee and served as Park City’s economic development director immediately following the Games. The foundation is a nonprofit that operates independently of the state.
“All my friends who I knew running the park were focused on just operating facilities and hoping everyone was using them,” Hilton said. “What I took issue with this is they were focused too much on elite athlete training only.”
Hilton said the park offered bobsled rides and introduced new activities, but engagement with the community was lacking, he said. Hilton began expanding the activities that were offered and strived to make them affordable for the community and tourists alike, he said.
“What I feel most proud about is we are defining the ideals of the Olympics at a grassroots level in our Park City community,” Hilton said. “We are not just focused on elite athlete performance, although that is a component of it. We celebrate all aspects of winter sports for everyone.
“The best measure of our success is the fact that now all future organizing committees of Winter and Summer Games come visit us here in Utah. They ask us how we do this legacy thing,” Hilton said. “Everyone has said you guys have a model. The secret of the model is just looking at a very simple common-sense approach and making this a community recreation center.”
The Utah Olympic Park offers public winter and summer activities, in addition to hosting several national and international competitions.
“We don’t just want to have tours where you come up here to learn about what the Olympics were. We want you to see them training and maybe even go down a bobsled track,” Hilton said.
While the Legacy Foundation continues to bolster its reputation as a world-class training site and broaden its overall focus, Hilton said plans are coming to fruition to transform Utah Olympic Park into a training center with more athlete-support services.
“What we don’t have that is necessary is places for athletes to stay in an affordable way,” Hilton said.
One of the next projects that will be underway at the 389-acre park will produce athlete housing, Hilton said, adding “you will probably see 200 beds and more than half of those will be for athletes and the rest for my workforce.” Hilton said additional services that will come online later may include sports medicine and performance services.
“We have approval to develop about 295,000 square feet,” Hilton said. “This fall or next spring we will begin constructing the athlete housing. We are finalizing design plans now.”
When asked whether the development plans will play any role in any attempts to secure a future bid for the 2026 Winter Games, Hilton said “we stand ready, willing and able when given a chance to host another Games.”
“The Olympic movement over the years has had this philosophy of sharing the Games in new places, but hosting is expensive,” Hilton said. “When will the world finally realize you shouldn’t build these facilities all over the place? I’m not sure we need another bobsled track or three more large speed skating ovals.
“We have a model we are sustaining and we are using them. Why not make the case it should be held here?” Hilton said.
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