2016-07-27
When the Mormon Church donated one of its parking lots near the Salt Lake Temple for an Olympics medals plaza, suspicions were immediately aroused that the church was looking for some free worldwide TV exposure. "I can see it now," resident Chuck Jones complained in a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune . "The camera comes in for a tight shot of the medal winners, pans slowly up to a tighter shot of (the angel) Moroni atop the Temple spire, thus showing the world the real reason that Utah fought so hard, long and feloniously to obtain the Games."

Wrong, church spokesman Michael Otterson said. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no intention of using the medals plaza, or any part of the Olympics, as a recruitment tool. In fact, a large opaque canopy behind the stage will be shielding the Temple and the rest of the downtown skyline from television cameras, he said.

The controversy was short-lived, but it is nevertheless illustrative of how Utah's 2002 Winter Games have been slowly reapplying pressure to the religious fault lines that have crisscrossed this mountain state almost since the day that Brigham Young arrived with the first caravan of LDS pioneers in 1847.

The Olympics are certain to bring the LDS Church one of the biggest one-time bursts of publicity in its history. But the potential for backfire is great, scholars say, and the church has been taking extraordinary care to ensure that the 2002 Games, already tainted by a bribery scandal, won't furthermore go down in history as "the Mormon Olympics."

Missionaries won't knock on hotel room doors during the Games, Otterson said. Nor will the church make any special effort to evangelize the flood of world visitors. Instead, the LDS Church and its members, who make up about 70 percent of Utah's population, will make every effort to be "good hosts" from Feb. 8-24. "We will respond if questions are asked of us," Otterson said. "If we have an opportunity to talk about ourselves in a neutral way, we will. But we won't cross the line over what's tasteful and appropriate."

Religious division has always been part of the civic landscape of Utah, from the armed federal invasion of Salt Lake City in 1858, to today's politer disagreements, which mostly revolve around occasional non-Mormon attempts to amend the state's restrictive liquor laws. No changes are forthcoming, even as a thirsty world is preparing to flock in. The church also upset the American Civil Liberties Union recently when it bought a section of Salt Lake City's historic Main Street and turned it into a plaza where smoking and public protests are forbidden.

With the Olympics on the horizon, however, the church has sought to draw clear boundaries for itself and its members. The LDS leadership never took a public position on the 1995 bid effort that brought the Games to Utah, Otterson said. And aside from the donation of some land parcels, the church's only significant contributions to the Games will be four performances of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, a showing of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a letter sent to local church members pointing out the need for volunteers.

About 75 percent of the 30,000 volunteers are expected to be Mormons, a testament to the LDS Church's legendary spirit of communal organization and public-mindedness. There is no organized effort among Arizona's Mormons to show up at the 2002 Winter Games, but Roberta Stapley of Mesa is one of hundreds who will be making the trip. "I feel it's something that Heavenly Father wants me to do," the 53-year-old family and marriage counselor said. She notes that her mission is a personal one, however, and not in response to a formal church call for service.

Stapley will work out of the media center at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building across the street from the Temple. Her job will be to answer questions from the legions of unaccredited foreign journalists assigned to write feature stories on the church in addition to their sports coverage. "Anyone who wants to know anything about the church, we want to aid them," she said. "It is an American Olympics, and I want America in a good light."

Even if the Winter Games are infused with religious overtones, it won't be anything new, said Mark Dyreson, a professor of sports history at Penn State University and the author of a recent article touching on the subject for the International Journal of Olympic Studies. The founder of the 1896 Olympiad revival at Athens, a stalwart Catholic and patriotic Frenchman named Baron Pierre de Coubertin, made liberal use of quasi-religious pageantry to promote a vision of a progressive world of industry that drew upon the strength of traditional Greek ideas.

Utah has the same opportunity to redefine itself before the world, Dyreson said in a phone interview. It was founded as "Deseret," an isolated haven for a persecuted faith. But it can now be a shining example of American normalcy. "They are going to push the middle-American, suburban line," Dyreson said. "They are going to be proselytizing for Utah as a good place to raise your family and do business. But it will be a schizophrenic show: 'We are different and unique, but we are just like everybody else.' "

The only other time the Olympics were held in the world capital of a major religion was in Rome in the summer of 1960, when the Catholic Church took a semi-active role as a host. Pope John XXIII blessed the athletes from every nation in St. Peter's Square and watched the semifinals of the canoe races from a balcony of his summer residence.

The 1996 Atlanta Games also were used as an unofficial vehicle of religious expression, but by a multitude of evangelical Protestant sects. An interfaith group called Quest '96 encouraged evangelism and prayer around the city, as well as providing housing and special assistance for the needy. The Southern Baptist Convention used thousands of volunteers to show visitors around one of the Bible Belt's largest cities.

It is inevitable that many television shots from the Games will include the Salt Lake Temple, said Sandy Baldwin, the United States Olympic Committee president. But that is because "architecturally, it's the most interesting building in town," she said. Baldwin said Mormonism at the 2002 Games "won't be any more noticeable than anybody going to a predominately Catholic country would realize the presence of Catholicism. I don't see any parochial influence at all in these Games."

If anything, Utah is home to a faith that is particularly receptive to of sporting competition, said William Baker, a professor of history at the University of Maine and the author of the book If Christ Came to the Olympics . Mormon Church founder and President Joseph Smith was a strapping, athletic man who enjoyed games and was a champion wrestler, Baker said.

That tradition carries on today in the person of well-known LDS athletes like quarterbacks Steve Young and Ty Detmer, Suns basketball coach Danny Ainge, football coach Andy Reid, football tight end Chad Lewis, skater Barbara Lockhart, outfielder Dale Murphy, wrestler Rulon Gardner and pro-footballer turned actor Merlin Olson. "The Mormons have a long history of affirming the unitary realities of body and soul," Baker said. "Brigham Young and Joseph Smith were big into dancing and hunting and all kinds of sports.

Utah, and by extension the Mormon Church, is guaranteed to get publicity simply because they landed the Games, Baker said. Bribery scandal aside, all the Mormon Church needs to do from this point is present a cheerful face to the outside world, proudly show off the infrastructure of Salt Lake City and let the attention come rushing in, he said. "It will be a net gain for them in terms of publicity, even if it's lukewarm or moderate," he said. "But they are going to have to be very discreet about putting their faith into the Olympics and not beat people over the head with it."

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