Reporter’s Notebook: Dullness, efficiency going hand in hand

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When I told a friend I was going to Salt Lake City to cover the Olympics, she told me a friend of hers had raved about the place: “He just feels so cool when he goes there.”

Sure, Utah shows up on no one’s list of the world’s hippest places. The state’s boundaries may not form a perfect square, but its reputation does.

This is a place whose local foods can be roughly divided into the mayonnaise-based, the corn flake-based and the Jell-O-based. A place where, for a significant chunk of the population, a cup of coffee is considered out of line.

Still, it could be argued the state gets a bad rap, and considering the international spotlight on them, Utahns could be forgiven if they tried to spice things up. To their credit, they haven’t. They seem to have decided that being steadily boring is the best way to show off.

Journalists are always quick to write about things that degrade the quality of their experiences, but so far Salt Lake has given them no material to work with. The easiest way to make us write nasty stories is to screw up the transportation grid.

And the thousands of volunteers have dealt with us clueless outsiders with a smile we don’t deserve instead of the derisive sneers we probably do.

It’s still early. Those buses could start stranding writers at faraway mountain venues, and by Day 12 or so, that’ll probably seem like an interesting story to some of them. Those volunteers could drop the niceness schtick at any moment.

But until then, a pleasant, unobtrusive dullness is as much gospel as the Book of Mormon.

Joshua Benton

There’s a jiggle in their walk; Salt Lake residents eat twice as much Jell-O as U.S. average

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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SALT LAKE CITY – Olympic Host City isn’t the only important title Salt Lake City has won in the last few years. Just as valued in the hearts of many is its status as Jell-O Capital of America.

“Out on the East Coast, there are a lot of closet Jell-O eaters,” said Lynne Belluscio, director of the Jell-O Museum in Le Roy, N.Y. “In Utah, they’re very upfront about it.”

Salt Lake City residents eat twice as much Jell-O per capita than the average American. So when Belluscio’s museum put together a traveling exhibit touting Jell-O history – complete with recorded narration from long-time spokescomic Bill Cosby – picking its first stop wasn’t difficult.

The exhibit, downtown at the ZCMI Mall – that’s Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution, an only-in-Utah name – has been drawing crowds since opening on Feb. 6.

“We love our Jell-O,” said Janice Brown of Salt Lake City, who said she helped teach her children to read by using alphabet-shaped Jell-O molds. “It’s quick and it’s easy, and kids want to eat it.”

Just as Salt Lake City had to battle against other cities to win these Games, its Jell-O title has not gone unchallenged. In 1999, word came down from Jell-O HQ that increased Farm Belt sales had pushed Des Moines to the No. 1 spot.

The city responded. Two Brigham Young University students launched a campaign to take back the title. Gov. Michael Levitt proclaimed an annual Jell-O Week, which concluded Saturday. And state legislators, bravely putting aside budget, crime and education issues for a moment, passed a resolution declaring Jell-O the official state snack food. Bill Cosby himself appeared at the state capitol to lobby on gelatin’s behalf.

All the hard work paid off, and Salt Lake City has shoved the Iowa usurpers back to second place. (Oklahoma City is third.)

Exactly why Jell-O has so grabbed Utah by the throat is a point of discussion. Belluscio posits the strong familial bonds of the Mormons as a reason. In many families, Sunday meant Jell-O as much as it meant church. “If you ask people where they get their Jell-O recipes from, it’s always their mother or their grandmother,” she said. “These are long-standing family traditions.”

Some say Jell-O is a convenient dessert to fix for large Mormon families, or that it’s easy to make for the regular church potluck dinners.

Still others suggest that Jell-O and other desserts have filled the vice void given over elsewhere to alcohol or coffee, neither of which is allowed in the diets of observant Mormons.

“If you have a party, you don’t serve wine, so you have 10 desserts instead,” said Pam Hicks of Provo, whose daughter Rachel still has fond memories of 1993, when watermelon flavor was introduced.

Belluscio also noted that Utahns are more “unabashedly creative” with gelatin than folks most other places, adding cottage cheese, mayonnaise, sour cream and other ingredients that can blur the line between Jell-O-as-dessert and Jell-O-as-salad.

Utah’s Jell-O fame has crossed over into the market for Olympic pins, which are always a hot trading item at any Games. Several green Jell-O-themed pins have been released. Those from the first set made have boomed in value from $7.50 to a dot-com-like $150.

“You can’t find anyone willing to trade their green Jell-O pins,” said Jean-Paul Beland, a pin enthusiast from Montreal hawking his duplicates downtown. “Every day people ask for them. I’ve got four, but I’m keeping them all for my collection. They’re not for sale.”

Utah residents are quick to point out green Jell-O isn’t the only highlight of local cuisine. There’s fry sauce, a ketchup-pickle juice-mayo combo invented by a local drive-in in the 1940s. And don’t forget funeral potatoes, a casserole of hash browns, corn flakes and sour cream customarily served after someone dies.

But no other food seems as deeply ingrained into Utah culture as the noble gelatin blob. “We’re Jell-O people,” James said. “When someone’s sick, you take them Jell-O. It’s just what you do.”

Less than 1% test positive

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SALT LAKE CITY – Less than one percent of 3,639 athletes tested in the last 13 months had banned drugs in their system, according to data released Friday by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

WADA released the names of the 16 athletes – eight winter sports competitors, eight summer, and none American – who have been sanctioned since the start of 2001 because they tested positive in out-of-competition tests. Seven of the eight winter athletes – four Finnish skiers, an Italian snowboarder, a Polish bobsledder, and a Russian skier – are banned from competing at this month’s Games.

The eighth, Latvian bobsledder Sandis Prusis, had his ban overturned by an arbitration panel. One other winter athlete, Vancouver Canucks defenseman Mattias Ohlund, also tested positive, for the diuretic acetazolamide. But it was discovered he had taken the drug for legitimate medical purposes, to help him recover from eye surgery. However, since he had not informed officials he was taking the drug beforehand, he received a formal warning. He will be allowed to play for Team Sweden.

Four other summer sports athletes have tested positive and have their cases currently pending before their sports’ international federations. Two of those four are unidentified American gymnasts who tested positive for marijuana.

Joshua Benton

Security is name of Games; Extensive measures taken to ensure safety

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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SALT LAKE CITY – Mark Burton rents armored vehicles. His business depends on people feeling insecure.

But at these Olympics, he’s finding most people don’t need a bulletproof windshield to feel safe.

“We had a lot of tire-kickers asking about them early on, but I think with all the security for the Games, people are thinking they might not need them after all,” said Burton, CEO of International Armoring in Ogden.

Security for these Games is a very visible $310 million project, from the National Guard troops with M16s to the endless parade of metal detectors across downtown. And while only time will tell if they’re successful at preventing an attack, the precautions do seem to have succeeded in their secondary goal: making people feel safe.

“I feel as safe here as I do at home,” said Charles Coughlin, a consultant from Boston. “It’s like there’s a mini-Army here to protect us.”

The sheer number of security personnel – more than 4,500 military troops and police from 59 local, state and federal agencies – could be enough to discourage any would-be troublemaker. In contrast, there are about 2,300 athletes at the Games.

Compared to the last Winter Olympics in the United States – 1980 in Lake Placid, N.Y., which used only about 1,000 security personnel – it’s quite a buildup.

Signs of extra security downtown are obvious. Just try to mail a letter or throw something away. All of the public mail boxes and most of the trash cans have been removed to give terrorists two fewer places to stow a bomb. Manhole covers are welded shut throughout the Olympic area.

Official Olympic sites are surrounded by high fences and guarded. Even non-Olympic sites downtown, such as the Mormon temple and government buildings, are sending visitors through the familiar gates of a metal detector.

The Guard troops are the most obvious sign of the increased federal involvement in these Games, but there are many less visible signs. For instance, there’s a round-the-clock direct video hookup between the Games’ security command center and FBI offices in Washington to allow for constant monitoring of events in Salt Lake.

And when a suspicious package was discovered in a downtown parking garage Thursday, the Black Hawk military helicopters suddenly hovering overhead were evidence that officials plan to take no threat lightly. (The package, a bag packed with wires and flares, was determined to be a hoax and was exploded by officials.)

Officials say they’ve made Salt Lake City as safe as it reasonably can be. “We may not eliminate risk entirely, because there is no such thing as an absolute fail-safe guarantee in Salt Lake City or anywhere else,” U.S. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said Thursday.

The larger-than-normal federal role comes along with the Games’ status as a national security event, a designation usually reserved for papal visits and political conventions. The federal government is expected to pick up about $250 million of the security bill.

The Games have been used as a platform for terrorists before – the Israeli athlete murders at Munich in 1972, the Centennial Park bombing at the Atlanta Games in 1996 – and officials are hoping the Utah games won’t fall victim to the same problems.

CIA Director George Tenet told a Senate committee Wednesday that an attack on the Games would fit al-Qaeda’s “interest in striking another blow within the United States that would command worldwide media attention.”

Passengers flying into Salt Lake City are being required to stay in their seats for the last half hour of their flights in order to prevent a Sept. 11-style cockpit assault. At midnight Thursday night, a new 90-mile-wide no-fly zone went into effect around the city.

Flights into and out of the city’s airport are being canceled altogether during Friday night’s opening ceremony. Those who bought $885 tickets to attend the ceremony were asked to arrive at parking lots four hours before Friday night’s celebration.

Burton’s company normally sells its armored vehicles instead of renting them. He sells relatively few within the United States; more common customers are businessmen fearing urban violence in places such as Mexico or Brazil.

But for the Games, he decided to rent out two vehicles: a 1998 Chevy Suburban for $750 a day and a 2000 Ford Crown Victoria for $600. (The Crown Vic has what Burton calls “head-of-state-level” armoring, designed to stop even high-caliber bullets.)

But despite some early interest, he said he was surprised that more people weren’t interested in renting. After several weeks of waiting, he’s found two business executives to rent them, but he’s still not sure if the vehicles will be rented for the entire length of the Games.

The show of security at the Olympics is what has made people feel safer, he said. He’s also a volunteer at the Olympic Village. “I’ve never been patted down so many times in my life,” he said, “and I spend a lot of time in places like Venezuela, Israel, Ecuador. I think it’s fantastic.”

The flurry of frisking and metal detecting could sour the peace-and-goodwill spirit of the Games for some. But most visitors seem to be willing to take the extra scrutiny in stride.

“Sure, there’s a risk,” said Janie Tomasson, a teacher from Sweden. “But you can’t live life being too cautious all the time.”