From Gathering Place to Visitor's Center: Power, Politics, and Salt Lake City's Olympic Legacy Park

By Gerlach, Larry R. | Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

From Gathering Place to Visitor's Center: Power, Politics, and Salt Lake City's Olympic Legacy Park


Gerlach, Larry R., Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies


"Reality is a bitch. It's all about vision, a gift and this big wooden horse waiting outside the gate." --Salt Lake City Weekly, 18 July 2002.

While it is the Games themselves that first attracts and then sustains our attention, the aftermath--the legacies--reveal much about the planning and preparation for the Games, the communities that host them, and the Olympic organizers' commitment to historical memory. The Salt Lake Bid Committee and its successor, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC), understood that it was indefensible, unconscionable really, to expend massive amounts of time, energy and, especially, financial resources simply to host two weeks of athletic frolic on snow and ice while fundamental human needs--housing, education, social services, health care--were chronically underfunded. Hosting the Games must provide the community with a residual pay-off of lasting value, a tradition kept by virtually every Olympics since 1896. (3)

The 2002 Games left residents of greater Salt Lake City with a surfeit of tangible legacies. Some were directly related to the Olympics--the sport venues used by elite athletes for training and competition as well as by the public for recreation, iconic memorabilia such as the ceremonial cauldron in which the Olympic Flame burned during the Games and the innovative Hoberman Arch that curtained the stage where medals were awarded, and various kinds of historical records ranging from documents to photographs. Others were community enhancements such as an improved transportation infrastructure featuring highway renovation and a new light rail system, cultural artifacts ranging from statuary to artwork, and new housing for college students and low-income families. Perhaps most important were the intangible legacies--exciting memories of the Games (bid, skating and doping scandals aside), the civic pride of being in the spotlight of world media, and, especially, the psychic gratification of having hosted a preeminently successful Olympics.

But at Games-end Salt Lake City's paramount legacy objective was yet to be realized: an enduring memorial that would in tangible and intangible ways immortalize the glories of the Games and the host city's unique place in Olympic history. Chief among the numerous ideas for perpetuating memories of Salt Lake 2002 was a "living legacy," a park that would serve both as green space for public gatherings and a memorial sanctuary replete with Olympic memorabilia.

The inspiration for Salt Lake's memorial was Atlanta's Centennial Park, appropriately named in commemoration of the first modern Olympics in 1896. During the 1996 Games the twenty-one acre park, constructed in a formerly run-down section of downtown Atlanta, served largely as a commercial pavilion, but afterwards became a "people's park" featuring landscaped open space as well as small amphitheater, a skating rink, an interactive fountain, playgrounds and a variety of Olympic tributes. Atlanta organizers envisioned the park as the Games' enduring legacy, an Olympic memorial that would also rejuvenate a largely abandoned, crime-ridden urban area by stimulating entertainment and commercial development. William P. "Billy" Payne, CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, reportedly called the park his "proudest achievement." (4)

A former Utahn, Sherman R. Day, managing director of Legacy and Olympic Programs for the Atlanta organizing committee, sparked Salt Lake's interest in a memorial park. Day, who supervised the construction and development of Centennial Park, gave Salt Lake City Mayor Deedee Corradini a personal tour of the facility during the 1996 Games. She came away not only impressed with how the park had transformed a run-down section of the city, but also inspired by Day's characterization of the communal space as an American version of the promenades and plazas of past European host cities. "That's the future of the redevelopment of the inner city, to have people come back downtown," he predicted. …

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