As the 2002 Winter Games open in Salt Lake City the world, so to speak, is on Utah's doorstep. While emphasizing that neither he nor the Church is the official host for the Olympics, President Gordon B. Hinckley stands at the door with a warm greeting for all visiting Utah during the Games, which began Feb. 8 and will continue through Feb. 24 .
"We'd like to hold out our hand and say, 'Come and enjoy this great international party,' " said President Hinckley in an interview with the Church News as he spoke of the festivities attendant to the Games. "It isn't our party; it belongs to Salt Lake City and this community. We're part of this community, so we're celebrating with everyone else and welcoming people here."
The Church remained neutral until the determination was made that the 2002 Winter Games would be held in Salt Lake City, he said. "But once that decision was made we backed it with contributions of manpower, facilities, space, resources — everything that was requested of us to make of this a tremendous party for the world. We hope that all will enter in and have a wonderful time, and that the results that will follow will be pleasing to all who have participated.
"We urge our people to be friendly and gracious and hospitable in every way; not to try to proselytize them (the visitors) but to just welcome them and extend a hand of friendship and outreach. Let them feel that this is the greatest place in the world, this land of tremendous beauty, inhabited by good people, diverse in their beliefs and doctrines but united in this great undertaking which is taking place here."
Commenting on the fact that the route of the Olympic torch relay followed the last miles of the Mormon Pioneer Trail, President Hinckley noted the contrast between conditions endured by the Pioneers of 1847 who entered the Salt Lake Valley as outcasts, alone in the wilderness, and the current circumstances with an estimated 3.5 billion people viewing the Olympics and as much media attention is focused on the Church and its members.
"To see this place as the site of the International Olympic Winter Games is a tremendous thing," he said. "I'm so grateful that Salt Lake City won the award of the Olympics and that everyone, so far as I can observe, has the desire to make of this a great successful undertaking, a party for the entire world. I hope with all my heart all who come will have a good time, will catch the flavor of this area and participate in the spirit of the Olympics — the honoring of the best in the world in terms of their sports and, hopefully, they'll regard it as the best place in which to stage it."
President Hinckley said that everyone can learn something from the Games, namely: "If we discipline ourselves enough we can improve ourselves, but we must make the effort. We must go through the process of training and strengthening ourselves and improving our skills. To me it seems to be a lesson for all — that we all can do a little better than we're doing. We can all reach for that great top post out there, that gold medal that lies at the end of the process of effort, and make something of ourselves. This ought to be an inspiration to all of us. I think it will be. . . . It applies to everything and anything. Whatever you do, do well. Be good at it. Stand a little taller. Be a little stronger. Be a little smarter. Be a little wiser. Be a little better."
Many Church members have had roles in staging the Olympics; among the most visible is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, of whom President Hinckley said: "We all regard the choir as being a group of exceptional musicians. . . . The quality of their performances is excellent in every respect. I think it's only to be expected by those who come here that the Tabernacle Choir, so widely recognized, will have a place in entertaining them while they're here." Further, he said of choir members: "They're champions in their own right."
While President Hinckley expressed pleasure that so much attention is being drawn to Utah, he isn't surprised that the day has arrived when "the largest audience" gets a glimpse of the state and its capital. He spoke of a statement Brigham Young made in 1849 when "our people were discouraged and cold."
"Gold had been discovered in California, and many wanted to go there," President Hinckley said. "He stood before them and urged them to stay here and, among other things, said that this would become the great highway of the nations, that kings and emperors would visit us here. Well, we're seeing that happen. These people are coming, dignitaries from many nations. The public media are all well represented. Salt Lake City and this area are going to be showcased in a way that we've never seen before. And it will be a wonderful thing, I'm satisfied of that. I'm glad to be around when it's happening."
President Hinckley, 91, described himself as "an old man," and added, "I wish I could run [with the Olympic torch]." However, he noted, it was scheduled for him and his counselors, President Thomas S. Monson and President James E. Faust, to hold the torch in their hands during the relay's passage in front of the Church Administration Building in downtown Salt Lake City.
The Church, he said, is doing all it can to help make the experience of coming to Salt Lake City a good one. "We're putting on this tremendous gala in the Conference Center. We're keeping the Family History facilities open. The choir, with guest artists, is performing in the Tabernacle. We're trying to do everything we know how to do to make of this a great affair, working with others, both members of the Church and non-members, setting aside any differences that some people might perceive, to work together to accomplish a great end."
When the Games are over, he said, he hopes that all who have been here "will have a better feeling concerning this place. They'll recognize the beauty of this wonderful part of the world, which we've long recognized and been so proud of. I think they'll recognize the industry of our people. I think they'll recognize what has been accomplished here. I think they'll see Utah and Salt Lake City in a better light than they've ever seen before. I think they'll come to know that we are contributors to the society of which we are a part, the world's society, that we have a contribution to make and that we're a group of people out here who are worthy of some measure of respect and confidence as they witness the great things that have been accomplished here."