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SALT LAKE CITY — The legacy of the 2002 Winter Games remains "palpable" in Utah, U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland said during a visit Wednesday that could determine if Salt Lake City can bid for another Olympics.
But Hirshland also cautioned that the USOC hasn't committed yet to trying for a future Winter Games during a speech to community leaders and Olympic athletes gathered for a luncheon at the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The USOC leader, hired in July, was in Utah along with other officials from the Colorado Springs-based organization to tour 2002 venues as part of an accelerated process to choose a city to bid for a future Winter Games, likely in 2030.
Besides the site visits, the USOC also plans to conduct a public opinion poll in each city to gauge support for an Olympics. The USOC had been expected to choose a bid city by the end of the year.
Hirshland thanked the backers of a Salt Lake bid "for your willingness to not only do it once, but to consider doing it yet again," and said the USOC officials saw firsthand Wednesday the legacy from 2002, "that is still real in this community, is palpable."
She said the USOC will remain "incredibly proud" of the continued athlete training and competition at the 2002 venues "regardless of whether we make a determination to bid for another Winter Games."
That decision is "not one any of us take lightly. It is a lot of work and you want to make sure you are setting yourselves up for a successful outcome," Hirshland said. She and other USOC officials did not take questions from the media.
Patrick Sandusky, the USOC's chief external affairs officer, did tell the Deseret News that a decision about a future Winter Games bid will be made when the USOC meets in San Francisco next month.
Gov. Gary Herbert, who had said in his speech at the luncheon that Utahns "not only have the know-how, we have the do-how" to put on another Olympics, said he believes the USOC is focused on naming a bid city soon.
"I think they are serious. How much, I don't know what the internal workings of the USOC are," he said. But naming a U.S. bid city avoids "the tug a war that goes on for years and years. So I understand the wisdom of that."
The governor said Utah is a clear front-runner because, based on the merits, "there's no place better. In fact, we are probably not only the best place in America to host the Olympics … we're probably the best place in the world."
Before heading to the soon-to-be expanded stadium, site of the 2002 Games' opening and closing ceremonies, USOC officials checked out the ski jumps at Utah Olympic Park and the pool that jumpers use for summer training.
They'd already been to the speedskating track in the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns before heading to the park. After lunch, the officials headed to the Salt Palace and Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Chris Sullivan, USOC vice president of bids and protocol, told the Deseret News midday that "everything is going very well."
The final event for the USOC before leaving was a rare joint session of the Utah Legislature. Hirshland told lawmakers during a brief speech that the Olympic movement is strong in Utah.
"To a person, everyone we have met today — public officials, civil servants, philanthropic leaders, citizens of the community, athletes who call this place home — everyone one of them has said to us, 'We're ready, we're willing, we're able. Let us prove it,'" she said to loud applause.
"So, I will stand here and take only a minute of your time to say, 'You're piling on,'" Hirshland said.
Fraser Bullock, chief operating officer for the 2002 Games and a leader of Utah's efforts to land another Winter Games, said the USOC leaders were able to see how the facilities continue to be used for training and competition.
"It's fantastic when everybody sees the venues and particularly the stories of athlete development, how children are learning how to skate and then progressing so that now they're training to become Olympians," Bullock said. "It's a fabulous legacy."
He was unfazed by Hirshland's comments earlier in the day about no decision being made yet on bidding for a Winter Games.
"They're going to bid again. The question is timing, whether is 2030 or 2034, they have every intention of bidding again," Bullock said. "All the body language is that they intend to select a city by the end of the year."
The site visit comes as yet another city, Calgary, is poised to drop out of the running for the 2026 Winter Games, set to be awarded by the International Olympic Committee next June.
The USOC has insisted it will not bid for 2026 to keep the focus on Los Angeles, host of the 2028 Summer Games. Los Angeles has a lock on domestic sponsorships for an Olympics through that date.
But with only two contenders left for 2026 that both face opposition and financing issues, Stockholm, Sweden, and Milan-Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, the IOC could end up turning to the United States to come up with a last-minute candidate.
"We've always know there's a remote possibility and it's probably still remote, but we're ready, willing and able if that opportunity does present itself," outgoing Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said.
Niederhasuer, who serves as co-chairman with Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski of the Salt Lake Executive Committee for the Games, said there is "still the L.A. problem" with stepping in sooner.
While backers of another Utah Olympic bid were upbeat Wednesday, the progressive Alliance for a Better Utah called for a better analysis of the possible negative impacts of an Olympics before moving forward.
"It's important to consider wisely the pros and cons of such a massive undertaking for our state and all the people who live here," said Lauren Simpson, the alliance's policy director.
Contributing: Dennis Romboy