Salt Lake City 2002: from adversity to success

The Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002 were delivered successfully and served as a springboard for growing winter sport and bringing more major sporting events to the state of Utah, despite taking place following a set of unique and challenging circumstances, including terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, an economic recession and a crisis related to the Olympic host election process, which led to a major reform of the process.

Brennan Smith / A local youth skier celebrate at the finish of her race at the Utah Olympic Park.

Salt Lake City 2002 helped to heal a nation reeling from the terrorist attack in the U.S. on   11th  of September 2001. For US citizens in particular, the Games became a symbol of resilience and fortitude, which resonates well with the Games’ Opening Ceremony song “Light the Fire Within”.

Significant lessons emerged too, not least for the International Olympic Committee itself and cities interested in hosting future editions of the Olympic Games, including environmental best practices, how the Games can boost sport development, and the changes made to the Olympic host city selection process.

Sport Development

The US team won a record 34 medals at Salt Lake City 2002, breaking its previous mark of 13, a mark the nation reached at both the 1994 and 1998 Games in Lillehammer and Nagano, respectively. The US and international athletes used the Olympic venues for pre-Games training and competed in front of strong home support: Utahns bought 40 per cent of tickets and most events were sold-out during Olympic events.

The Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation (UOLF) and Utah Sports Commission (USC) were formed before 2002 to manage sport venues, sport development and work with other Utah organisations to continue bringing major sports events to the state following the Games. The UOLF successfully encouraged both public recreational and high-performance athlete involvement in sports development. In 2020, the Legacy venues are nearly four time busier than they were in 2002. Furthermore, almost 800 sports events were brought to the area, 75 per cent of them non-winter, as Utah has become a year-round sports hub.

The Olympic Winter Games 2002 helped Utah establish itself as one of the world's premier high performance and recreational winter sports destinations. Today, the three UOLF venues: Utah Olympic Oval, Utah Olympic Park and Soldier Hollow Nordic Centre are alive and vibrant. UOLF venues offer sport programs for youth of all ages and abilities, serve as community recreation centers in three population centres, and provide world-class training facilities for Olympic athletes and global events. The venues fulfil Utah’s vision for lifelong participation in sport - inspiring Utahns to lead healthy and active lifestyles, and fostering a “Sport for All” culture.

Since hosting the 2002 Games, Utah has staged more than  175 international winter sports events including more than 60 World Cup events, as well as seven world championships and numerous other sporting and non-sporting events. Utah is now an established training hub for world-class athletes and home to three US sport governing bodies.


Utah’s environmental best practices, coupled with the International Olympic Committee’s focus on environmental responsibility, were reflected in the organising committee’s vision.

In collaboration with academics, the Salt Lake Organising Committee (SLOC) calculated all the potential energy used and emissions associated with staging the Torch Relay and the Games, creating the programme Olympic Cleaner and Greener. These credits were offset with emission-reduction credits. Olympic Cleaner and Greener and its partners permanently removed more than 243,840 metric tons (240,000 tons) of pollutants from Utah, the United States and Canada.

Part of the carbon emissions from the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002 were offset, 85 per cent of Games-time waste was recycled or composted, and 100,000 trees were planted in the state of Utah. In addition, 18 million trees were planted around the world through the Global Tree Race program. There were no fines or notices of violation of environmental and safety compliance in the staging of the Games.

SLOC used 5 existing sporting and business infrastructures in Salt Lake City to host the Games. Six competition venues were built from scratch for the Games, using minimal materials for construction to ensure energy efficiency. These were the Utah Olympic Park, Utah Olympic Oval and Soldier Hollow Nordic Centre. For example, the Utah Olympic Oval's roof design meant the overall volume to heat and cool the venue was reduced by more than 28,317 cubic metres. Other venues and facilities were either ready, rebuilt or renovated.

Economic impact

The State of Utah calculated that the Olympic Winter Games 2002 drove more than USD 5 billion in economic impact. The net tax revenue (additional revenue minus additional expenses) to state and local government amounted to USD 76 million for the 1996-2003 period. The Games generated 45,700 job-years of employment and USD 3 billion in personal income.

However, a mild economic recession in 2002 mitigated the immediate post-Games effects of the spending power. Predicted employment growth did not materialise in the immediate years following the Olympic Games. Tourism went up only slightly in 2002 to be followed the next year by a decrease, and skier days were actually reduced by 9 per cent in 2002.

In the long-term however, the worldwide exposure that Salt Lake City enjoyed thanks to hosting the Olympic Games, combined with upgrades in the tourism, leisure and sport infrastructure led to steady economic growth. It was reported in 2020 that Utah’s hosting of subsequent sporting events brought an injection of approximately USD 2 billion into the state’s economy. Tourism, meanwhile, was boosted, with Utah witnessing an overall 72 per cent increase in skier visits between 2002 and 2019.

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