Utah is welcome to the winter olympic games

Essay by Ed Quillen

Politics – April 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

FOR THOSE OF US who remembered a similar scene 26 years earlier, there was something eerie about the finale of the 1998 Winter Games.

The 1972 Winter Olympics were also held in Japan, and the closing ceremonies at both Nagano and Sapporo symbolized the transfer of the torch to a city in the Mountain West of the United States for the next competition, four years hence.

The 2002 Winter Olympics are scheduled for Salt Lake City, Utah; the 1976 Winter Olympics were scheduled for Denver, Colorado.

But the 1976 games were held in Innsbruck, Austria, not in the U.S. In the fall of 1972, Colorado voters confounded the state’s establishment — its governor, legislative leaders, corporate presidents, and major newspapers — by passing an initiative which forbade spending state money on the Olympics. Without a subsidy, Colorado couldn’t put on the Olympics. Environmentalists saw this as a victory, protecting their beloved Rocky Mountains from the rapid development envisioned for the games.

The leader in the anti-Olympic movement, a young state senator named Richard Lamm, was elected governor two years later. Lamm went on to serve three terms — 12 years when the mountains west of Denver managed to get rather thoroughly and tastelessly developed without any help from the Olympics. But he did attain some national stature as “Governor Gloom” and as an articulate critic of federal policy toward the West.

Lamm and his colleagues provided regional leadership. He and neighboring governors — Ed Herschler of Wyoming, Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, Scott Matheson of Utah — formed the Western Governors Policy Office, and they worked zealously on behalf of their constituents.

One major threat of the time was a synthetic fuels program proposed by the Carter Administration as part of the “moral equivalent of war.” It meant huge oil-shale quarries and retorts, extensive coal strip-mining on the High Plains, massive disruptions of the social and cultural fabric of the Mountain West, and no local control, thanks to a proposed federal “Energy Mobilization Board.”

The governors mobilized themselves and killed the board, so that their constituents might have some control over their lives. Contrast those actions from a quarter-century ago to the current sad state of “leadership” in the Mountain West.

UTAH GOVERNOR MIKE LEAVITT may be the best of the bunch. He has presented a couple of interesting ideas. One would amend the U.S. Constitution so that state legislatures can propose constitutional amendments, and if three-quarters concur, the amendment goes to Congress for final approval. This would give states the ability to take the initiative on constitutional changes.

Another Leavitt initiative — one that has made some headway — calls for Western states to band together to offer an “Internet University.” It’s an innovative piece of public policy given that states are faced with population growth and limits on what they can spend on bricks and mortar for higher education.

But that was the pre-Olympics Leavitt. The Olympic Leavitt, when I heard him speak last spring, sounded more like an obnoxious patron at a sports bar. He was riveted by the progress of the Jazz in the NBA playoffs, and thrilled that Salt Lake City would host the 2002 Winter Olympics.

THE MAJOR WESTERN issue at that time — the merger between the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads that put his state under a transportation monopoly — “is a federal decision,” he said, and apparently no proper concern of the governor of Utah.

Colorado is the most populous of the mountain states, and positioned to provide some leadership, since both major parties’ national chairs are from Colorado — Republican Jim Nicholson and Democrat Roy Romer, who is also the governor.

But Nicholson’s energies go toward keeping his party from splitting over abortion, and Romer’s major accomplishment to date is a minor zipper scandal that didn’t succeed in diverting attention from the White House. Meanwhile, Romer hasn’t cared that coal miners in Colorado are laid off on account of the UP merger. Instead, he’s busy finding other corporations to do favors for — a Colorado site for shoe giant Nike, a tax to build a new stadium for the Denver Broncos, subsidies for high-tech companies to move to the already congested Front Range.

And such is political maturity in the West. A generation ago, a man who opposed subsidizing the Olympian orgy of commercial greed could gain a following and higher office. Now, arranging for that orgy is considered the capstone of a political career.

Ed Quillen lives in Salida, where he helps Martha publish Colorado Central and writes two columns a week for The Denver Post. He is a regular contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado.