To many people, it certainly appears that way. The leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been encouraging their members to welcome the tens of thousands of Olympic visitors expected to throng the Utah capital in two weeks. Church leadership donated the use of land near the famed Temple Square for the Olympics medals plaza, a location that puts the plaza in a direct line with the Salt Lake Temple spires. They also donated the use of land near the Olympic Winter Sports Park. And the church is currently training 5,400 church members who will serve as volunteer hosts when the Olympics get to town.
But if you look below the surface, it becomes clear that far from being a church-sponsored festival, the 2002 Winter Olympics have presented something of a dilemma for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nearly three-quarters of Utah's citizens are Mormon. Yet for well over three years after the announcement that Salt Lake City's bid to host the games was successful, the church stood virtually silent about the games. Why? One reason church leaders did not speak about the games to their members until late 1998 may be the division that existed in the church hierarchy about whether trying to get the Olympics for Salt Lake City had been a good idea.
I learned about this division when I interviewed Church President Gordon B. Hinckley about the role of Mormonism in Salt Lake City back before any hint surfaced that bribery might have been involved in the city's successful bid to get the games. People were just beginning to get excited about the Olympics, so I asked Hinckley whether the church actively supported the effort to make Utah an Olympic site. His answer: "Our people were on both sides of the question."
And what was Hinckley's position? He replied that his position didn't matter. "They are coming and we are honored." When I asked whether he thought the fact of Salt Lake City's emergence as an Olympic site might undercut its symbolic importance as the center of Mormonism, he replied that he was "not at all worried."
"I am optimistic," he said. "The gathering here of people from all nations will be a significant thing." For that extended period of time, "Salt Lake City will be on the world map and Mormonism will be a part of that, inevitably." He continued, "It is going to be a great opportunity for us." Then he added: "We must seize that opportunity." He was not saying that the church ought to seize the Olympics as an opportunity for Mormon missionaries to convert visitors to Mormonism. Instead, Mormons are calibrating their actions and their words--downplaying, in fact, their urge to convert.
Coming to this position, and settling on the correct public relations strategy, apparently took a bit of doing. But by the time the church placed its own Olympic logo on its web site early in 2001, its approach to the Salt Lake City games was this: as the metaphorical patriarch of the culture, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be "gracious hosts," welcoming the world into its home.
In addition to sprucing up its public venues for visitors, this would call for the church to respond to requests for help with the Olympics in a great variety of ways. Besides donating the use of land for the medals plaza and the land at Bear Hollow, the church is also providing a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the opening ceremony. The choir will also participate in the "cultural Olympiad" that will be held during the Games.
Yet even if the substantial Olympic donations made by businesses owned by the church are added to its direct subsidy of the venture, the size of the Mormon bequest pales in comparison to the support extended by such major Olympic sponsors as Coca Cola and Chevrolet.
Still, people think these are the Mormon Olympics. Why? We can call one explanation the Conspiracy Theory. Although some 74.7% of the people who live in the larger Salt Lake metropolitan area are Latter-day Saints, within the city limits, a small majority of the citizens are not Latter-day Saints. Some in this group suspect a conspiracy.
It is not simply that they believe (correctly) that Mormon influence is responsible for the city's restrictive liquor laws. They are quite sure that Mormon control of the city allowed the church to close Main Street between Temple Square and the Joseph Smith Building, thereby extending the city's Mormon center significantly. They worry that the influence of the LDS Church will undermine civic protests during the games. More specifically, many charge that the LDS Church controls the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and that church leaders somehow connived with the committee to place the Medals Plaza in a direct line with the Temple spires so that this preeminent symbol of Mormonism would be photographed a zillion times during the medals ceremonies.
Despite more or less constant reassurances to the contrary from members of the church's Olympic Coordinating Committee, some Protestants expect the well-dressed young missionaries to seek potential converts among the crowds of Olympic visitors. And they worry that the church will not keep its pledge that proselytizing (and even the answering of questions about Mormonism) will be restricted to Temple Square.
People are curious about Mormonism, both as a faith system and as a culture. Yet it's important to remember that all Utah stories do not become Mormon stories, even when Latter-day Saints are involved. The 1998 site-selection affair did not become a "Mormon" scandal. Several of the people who were caught up in the activities the U.S. Government prosecutors still insist on describing as bribery were Latter-day Saints. But the story just didn't have "Mormon legs." Because it quickly became obvious that none of the principals was acting for the church, it remained a Salt Lake City story rather than a Mormon story.
But stories about Utah as the setting for the games do have Mormon legs--because the church has grown so much, because the faith is at once so distinctive and so dynamic, because Mormon history is so colorful, and because it has a "troubled legacy," especially as that legacy has to do with polygamy.
A review of what was published in earlier times about sites for the winter Olympics prior to the opening of the games reveals that such stories, usually illustrated with gorgeous pictures of snow-covered mountains and ice-covered lakes, often appeared in the travel sections of newspapers. Such heavily illustrated articles also filled pages in the glossy magazines that were popular before television became our primary visual news source. But the accompanying text typically concentrated on whether enough snow would fall to make for successful skiing and what would happen once the games began.
The stories leading up to this year's games have been different. For one thing, there have been more of them, especially in the news magazines. For another, they have been more visible--there have been cover stories (Time, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek) and lengthy articles (The New Yorker). In most of them, the Wasatch Mountains are pictured. But at least equally prominent have been views of Mormonism's Salt Lake Temple topped by its golden statue of the Angel Moroni. And nearly always there are pictures of Latter-day Saints--prominent figures, church leaders, everyday Mormons, and archival images that depict the Saints' heroic yet perplexing heritage. The fantastic growth of church membership and the institution's geographical expansion are noted. The church's extraordinary welfare activities have been featured prominently. So has its wealth and political influence. Nearly every time, accounts of the continuing presence of plural marriage in the Mormon culture region are also included. As a result, it's not surprising that the 2002 Winter Olympics are often described as the Mormon Games.
But all this is likely to change as coverage shifts to television, and as sports figures, competitive events, and Olympic security displace the story of the Latter-day Saints. Mormonism's belief system and its "troubled legacy" are both complicated stories that aren't easily translated to television's quick background descriptions of the Olympic milieu. Consequently, it is far too soon to take stock of how the showcasing of Mormonism is playing out during the 2002 Winter Games.
A cost-benefit analysis will likely show that the games have been good for Salt Lake City. But will they be good for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Remembering that initial difference among the church leadership about the Olympics, only time will tell which position was the right one.