An inside story of how Salt Lake City’s 2002 Olympic Cauldron came to be
Salt Lake City, UT (October 29, 2021) — Seeing Salt Lake City’s Winter Olympics cauldron Friday lit a memory in Spencer Eccles’ mind.
It was about 20 years ago. The clock was ticking, and Utah still didn’t have a cauldron nor the funding for one — well, an appropriate one. Sen. Mitt Romney, then serving as the president and CEO of the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, came to Eccles, a member of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and mayor of the Athletes Village that year, and quipped they had the money for one but it wouldn’t look good at all.
“At one point — and I’m exaggerating it here — but (he) tried to convince me that if our foundation didn’t step in with the funds for the cauldron, an important iconic symbol of the games themselves, that he only had enough money in the budget … to buy a couple of Weber charcoal grills, weld them together and hoist them up the Rice-Eccles Stadium flagpole,” Eccles said, chuckling. “And you might guess, that certainly got my attention.”
This wasn’t much of an exaggeration, Romney is willing to admit. He said there was about $5,000 left in the budget and he would need “millions” to ensure the 2002 Games had a respectable cauldron.
Of course, everyone who watched the Olympics that winter knows Salt Lake City wasn’t subjected to flagpoles and charcoal grills. Eccles, also the chairman and CEO of the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, helped raise the money needed to make sure Salt Lake City had one.
Now, as the 20-year anniversary of the Salt Lake City Games nears, the cauldron has officially been lit again — temporarily, at least — in a new plaza in a new location just outside Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah. Romney, Eccles and others who either worked behind the scenes to organize or compete in the games came together Friday afternoon to unveil the new Salt Lake City Olympics and Paralympic Cauldron Plaza and light the cauldron once more after it was recently refurbished.
A chaotic race to design and light the cauldron
Much of Friday’s event was spent reminiscing and sharing stories about the 2002 Games. When it comes to the cauldron, there are plenty of wild stories to share even after organizers moved past the flagpoles and grills thought.
WET Design, co-founded by University of Utah graduate Mark Fuller, was picked to design the cauldron. Eccles recalls the flame, extending over 10 feet, being visible throughout the Salt Lake Valley once the cauldron was lit. That, Romney said, took a lot of gas to fuel — so much he was told that “several people who were cooking had their ranges go off” when the first test lighting happened at the company’s studio in California.
The design itself was quite a challenge. Once the theme “light the fire within” was selected, organizers told Romney they probably needed a cauldron that reflected that in some way. An idea emerged of having it made of glass so that it could appear as if the Olympic flame was burning within. But that concept hit several logistical snags.
“Mark Fuller and his team said, ‘Well, it’s great to have a fire inside glass, but you know what fire does inside glass? It turns the glass black, so you’re going to have it quickly all black and you’re not going to see fire,'” Romney recalled Friday.
So, in order to make it happen, they were told they needed to include “a series” of nozzles pouring water down the glass. They’d also need a heating system for the water given the games are held in the middle of winter and it makes it easy for water to freeze.
The final product was built of tempered steel and 738 pieces of glass designed to be reminiscent of an icicle, assembled just in time to be lit on Feb. 8, 2002.
That night, however, wasn’t smooth sailing. Romney explained that to get the cauldron to light during the ceremony, you need to have a pilot light that ignites the cauldron. Two pilot lights were installed at the time to make sure that if one went out before the cauldron was to be lit, a second was still there.
“And just before the opening ceremonies, a big wind hit and blew out both pilot lights. And there was no way to get up there to get that thing lit,” Romney said.
He said there was a failsafe plan, though: “a little flint and a long string so if the worst comes to worst, you can pull that string and, hopefully, it will light the fire.”
That’s exactly what happened that night nearly two decades ago.
“There were a few of us with our hearts in our throats,” Romney said, recalling that night.
Refurbishing the cauldron
The cauldron was eventually moved to a spot by the stadium’s south end zone in 2003. Crews then removed it in February 2020 at the beginning of a project to expand seating at the stadium.
University of Utah President Taylor Randall said Friday that the 72-foot cauldron has since been “completely refurbished,” including all of the glass panels that now have LED lights. It was placed on a large pedestal that includes a water fountain feature itself.
Randall added that the flame has also been updated to be “clean-burning,” making it more environmentally friendly than it was originally. As Olympic music blared from the nearby stadium, it was again lit Friday in honor of the plaza’s reopening.
It stands next to information panels and artwork that compose the new plaza just outside of the stadium. All of the new items are free the view for the public.
Fraser Bullock, the president and CEO of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games and the chief operating officer and chief financing officer of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, said there is a plan to relight to cauldron on Feb. 8, 2022, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the opening ceremonies.
‘Our legacy is our future’
While the cauldron may invoke memories of what was needed to get the games off the ground, the 2002 Winter Olympics are still considered a gigantic success. Randall said that success likely helped push Utah as a winter sports destination even more.
In an age where host cities claim losses, the 2002 Olympics ended up becoming both memorable and profitable. The 2002 Games are remembered as an event that brought the nation — and the world — together just a few months after 9/11.
“I think many of my fellow teammates from ’02 will agree that this games was magical,” said Catherine Raney Norman, a four-time Olympian and chair of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games.
So it’s no surprise that Salt Lake City has pushed to host another Winter Olympics and Paralympics. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen.
Norman said at the very least, the 2002 Games carry an important legacy.
“I know the foundation that we laid in ’02 will continue to propel us and to inspire our youth,” Norman said. “I often hear (Bullock) say, ‘Our legacy is our future.’ Today, we’re surrounded by many of our athletes and community members who continue to live the Olympic and Paralympic values: faster, higher, stronger together.”