Michael J. Miller
Climbing from the warmth of Snowbasin Ski Resort's tram out onto the windblown shoulder of 9,465-foot Allen's Peak, I can see the Great Salt Lake shimmering far below. I step into my skis and turn to glance down the steep pitch of the slope, wondering if I should have stayed on the lift. This isn't Snowbasin's toughest run. But it is the exact spot where the world's best skiers will start the Men's Downhill in the 2002 Olympic Games.
I'm nowhere near that good, but the soft snow, endless blue sky, and the skiers stacking up behind me convince me to point my skis in the general direction of the finish nearly 2 miles--and 2,959 vertical feet--below. I take my time, conservatively zigging and zagging down the steep black-diamond run. Of course the world's best won't be so prudent: They'll need to scream down the course at speeds approaching 90 mph if they hope to win a medal. But this winter I can take the course at my own pace, stopping to enjoy the panorama of wintry peaks stretching along Utah's Wasatch Front.
This isn't the only Salt Lake City Olympic site that's ready for a test-drive. Though they won't be needed until February 2002, nearly all of the Wasatch Region's Olympic venues are already completed and open for business. There's snowboarding and skiing on Olympic courses at Snowbasin and Park City Mountain Resort, and skiing at Deer Valley. Nordic skiers can kick and glide or skate-ski at the Soldier Hollow venue in the Heber Valley. The adventurous can squeeze into a bobsled for an icy ride down Park City's Utah Olympic Park track, while the curious can even learn the art of sliding a curling stone in Ogden.
Some of the world's elite will be competing here this winter. The Salt Lake Organizing Committee must test its venues before the Games arrive, so more than a dozen events--from bobsledding and figure skating to freestyle aerobatics and downhill racing--are scheduled.
And if all you're really searching for is to steep yourself in the snowy Rocky Mountain landscape, there's always a horse-drawn-sleigh ride or moonlit snowshoe hike followed by dinner in front of a roaring fire.
Technically, the 2002 Games belong to Salt Lake City, host of the opening and closing ceremonies, and home to the airport, and athlete's village. In reality, though, competition will take place all over north-central Utah.
Park City, which has long been on the international winter sports map, will be ground zero for most of the skiing, snowboarding, jumping, and sledding events. This season it's also the best base for trying the venues yourself or attending one of the test events.
Chat with people you meet both on Park City's slopes or in Main Street hangouts like O'Shucks Bar & Grill, and you might end up rubbing elbows with some of the athletes who will compete in 2002. Both Eric Bergoust, a gold medalist in aerials at the Nagano Olympic Games, and Joe Pack, a prohibitive medal favorite in the event at this point, live in the Park City area and hone their airborne twists and turns at Utah Olympic Park. Olympic ski medalist Picabo Street also lives in the area and, as director of skiing at the Park City Mountain Resort, cruises those slopes when she's not racing.