Cover Story

Going for the gold

Mormons are mobilizing to turn this year's Winter Olympics in Utah into a public-relations extravaganza for their church

Issue: "The Mormon Olympics," Feb. 16, 2002

in Salt Lake City-Frequent visitors headed back to Salt Lake City for the Olympic Winter Games will notice something distinctly different from the moment they set foot in the airport. It's not just the fortress-like security or the ubiquitous "Salt Lake 2002" banners. Indeed, the most noticeable thing about the airport is what isn't there: Mormons. Technically, of course, the Mormons are still there, standing behind ticket counters and information booths. This is a state, after all, that Mormons built literally from the ground up. But the missing Mormons at the airport are the missionary variety, the white-shirted, name-tagged fellows who once tried to claim your soul while you were waiting to claim your bags. Welcome to the new face of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As tens of thousands of athletes and journalists descend on sleepy Salt Lake City for the 2002 Games, church officials are determined they should take home something besides medals and T-shirts. Indeed, the stiffest competition over the next two weeks may be the competing images of one of the world's fastest-growing religions. "We hope that during the Olympics we can become known for who we are," says Richard G. Scott, one of the 12 "apostles" at the apex of the church's leadership. "While our doctrine differs from others, we believe every man has the right to worship according to his faith. There have been misunderstandings over the years, and we hope that this is an opportunity for some of that to be clarified." Never one to miss an opportunity, the church is rolling out what may well be the biggest concentrated public-relations effort in the history of organized religion. President Gordon B. Hinckley famously announced months ago that missionaries would not proselytize in Utah during the Games. Instead, the emphasis is on being welcoming hosts to the athletes, spectators, and especially the media. Some 350 volunteers are providing members of the media with a level of service that can only be described as coddling. Need a professional-quality, close-up shot of the angel Moroni standing atop the temple? You can have it in a day. Want to talk to an average Mormon family? Better plan on having dinner in their home tonight. Don't know how to find something in town? A church driver will pick you up at your hotel and deliver you to your destination. There's no pressure to convert, no questions about what you may believe or the state of your soul. "This is not about a conversion process," stresses Michael Otterson, the church's official, year-round media spokesman. "The conversion process is a very intense, one-on-one experience that lasts for weeks or months. When we're working with journalists, we're simply providing information. We hope that they get the picture sufficiently that they can represent us accurately. That's all you can ever hope for." Well, maybe. But there's no denying that an international flood of positive stories would be incalculably valuable to the church, which for years has struggled to portray itself as mainstream, respectable, and, most of all, Christian. Nearly a quarter million converts were baptized into the LDS church in 2000, but those numbers could seem paltry by comparison in the years following the Olympics. Smiling, polite, and well-taught, the 60,000 Mormon missionaries around the world have proved adept at winning converts, if they can just get in the front door-and nothing oils the hinges like a little PR. The LDS media effort is housed in the Joseph Smith Center, an ornate 19th-century edifice across the street from the temple. This is most journalists' first official contact with the church, and it's a memorable one. Marble columns surround a three-story atrium crowned by a stained-glass ceiling. Nearly 20 crystal chandeliers shimmer overhead as a string ensemble provides live music. Just off the atrium, in the church's Media Resource Center, four Asian journalists in long blue parkas are stuffing their pockets with bagels and cookies. The refreshments are free, like everything else here: computers, high-speed Internet access, parking, even long-distance phone cards. Just down the street, the state of Utah has its own media center, but it's a pay-as-you-go affair. Church and state may be separate, but they're clearly not equal. Nearby, two young producers from a Japanese television network are conferring with three media volunteers. The producers speak English as much as possible, but when they get stuck, they switch to Japanese and their hosts nod in understanding. Thanks to its international missions network, the church has a host of multilingual volunteers ready to help reporters in Russian, Chinese, Tagalog, and almost any other tongue imaginable. My own hosts, Malcolm and Helen Warner, have it easy, since they need to speak only English (although Mrs. Warner, I later learn, speaks five languages). They're an older couple from Canada, recently retired and volunteering their time during the Games to help reporters understand their religion. Like almost everyone else I come in contact with, the Warners are gentle, genuine, lovely people. Mrs. Warner marvels that after six years in Salt Lake, "I don't think I've ever heard a vulgar word." They know secular reporters may find it hard to appreciate such niceties, but the Warners are eager to help open their eyes. During the Christmas holidays, for instance, they spent an entire week with a reporter from Canada's Vancouver Sun. They took him to Sunday services and missionary training classes, let him hear the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir, helped him research his heritage in the sprawling genealogical library, and introduced him to the church's much-imitated welfare programs. For all their efforts, the Warners-and the church-were rewarded with a long, two-part story in one of Canada's biggest papers. Though a big chunk of the copy focused on the state's arcane liquor laws ("What do I have to do to get a drink around here?" is a theme common to almost every newspaper article), the reporter's grudging respect for his hosts was unmistakable. "The Latter-day Saints stand for many good things," he concluded, "and the church's fine record of helping those in need around the world is unassailable. Despite the differences they'll have with so many of the people who will visit their city next month, the Mormons will likely be great Olympic hosts. Even heathen journalists will like them, if not completely understand them." "Well, I hope he enjoyed his stay," Mrs. Warner says modestly, although she has to be thrilled with the results. "We certainly enjoyed having him." That's the attitude that will likely make these the friendliest games on record. Every Olympic city mounts a massive PR campaign, trying to convince its citizens to be happy hosts despite the logistical nightmares that come with millions of visitors in a two-week span. Commerce is the usual selling point: Put up with the inconvenience, goes the pitch, in exchange for billions of tourist dollars. The pitch is different in Salt Lake. Be nice to our visitors, the faithful are told, because it's part of your calling. Religiously motivated Mormons have been eagerly anticipating these Games for years, and at last the time has come for them to host the world. "It goes clear back to the book of Isaiah, which says that Zion would be established at the tops of the mountains and that the nations of the world would come there," says Henry Eyring, another of the Mormons' 12 apostles. "Here we are in the tops of the mountains and people are coming up to see us. In a sense we expected it." That sense of expectation built to a crescendo once Salt Lake was selected in a controversial bidding process. (The LDS church itself, which maintained a neutral position on attracting the Games, was never implicated in the bribery scandal.) Although church officials backed down on their original plan to buy large blocs of ad time on NBC, they never wavered in their determination to mount a more subtle PR offensive. For viewers at home, the presence of the church will be inescapable. LDS leaders loaned Olympic organizers 10 acres of prime downtown real estate as home to the medals ceremony. Every time the television cameras zoom out from a winner's smiling face, the spires of the Mormon temple will loom in the background, silhouetted against snow-capped mountains in the background. (So beautiful is the sight that church leaders adopted it as their official logo for the games: It's recreated on millions of pins and T-shirts and press releases, along with the slogan, "Friends to all nations.") That may be the most enduring image of Mormonism from the 2002 Games, but it will hardly be the only one. Most of the 9,000 officially accredited members of the media began arriving on Feb. 4, four days before the first competition. With plenty of free time in a quiet town, journalists were expected to focus on a faith they knew nothing about. Indeed, a week before the opening ceremonies, Mr. Otterson, the church spokesman, could already count 472 media requests for interviews with the 12 apostles-a number that was sure to mushroom as the Olympic torch neared its destination. Most of the journalists converging on Utah are sports reporters used to covering the accomplishments that result from years of sweat and dedication. Focused on results, they'll find much to admire in Salt Lake. The city-safe, clean, and beautiful today-was carved from an inhospitable wilderness by true believers looking for a Promised Land. Mormon families are usually strong and close, education levels are high, and bilingualism is the norm. The church welfare system is both extensive and effective, and clean-living Mormons have among the longest life expectancies in America. As for theology, the few reporters who delve into the subject will be hard-pressed to find the Mormon distinctives. Once exclusive and critical, the church now tries to identify with the Christian mainstream. Its preferred moniker is simply "The Church of Jesus Christ"; reporters are discouraged from using the terms "Mormon" or "Latter-day Saints." Even the Book of Mormon (missing, oddly enough, from the expansive literature table in the Media Resource Center) has been reprinted with the inclusive-sounding subtitle, "Another Gospel of Jesus Christ." It's all rather suspect to evangelical Christians who remember the bad old days in Utah. Harley Johnson, pastor of the Jordan Valley Baptist Church outside Salt Lake, remembers when Mormons he met on the sidewalk would spit and call him a "dirty Gentile." His friend Pastor Lloyd Larkin of the Trinity Baptist Church says he received death threats at the rate of one a month when he first moved to the state 30 years ago. Although both men have seen a distinct thaw in relations with their Mormon neighbors, "Society here is just dominated by the church," says Mr. Larkin, sitting in a coffee shop south of Salt Lake City. "People don't even realize it a lot of the time." When Trinity Baptist first applied for a building permit several years ago, it was the first non-LDS church ever in the Salt Lake suburb of Riverton. Sixteen families near the building site signed a petition seeking to block construction of the sanctuary. "Why do you want to build a building where you're not wanted?" one woman asked Mr. Larkin during a hearing before the zoning board. A few miles away on Temple Square, church officials are doing their best to project a far more accommodating image. "One of the basic tenets of the church is that God allows every man to worship Him according to the dictates of his own conscience," says Mr. Scott, the church elder. "While our doctrine differs from others, we believe every man has the right to worship according to his faith." But surely he will admit that the church's ultimate goal, once the Games are over, is still the winning of converts? It seems like an easy enough question, but the answer is guarded: "We believe all the serious religions benefit man," says Mr. Scott, a soft-spoken, grandfatherly man. "But our perspective is that there has been a fullness of truth given to the church that allows individuals to live more peacefully, happily, with greater productivity in life. For that reason, we want to share it. It isn't 'Look, you've got to change your beliefs.' It is truly more a perspective of benefiting the individual. So we would want people who see that as a benefit in their own personal lives to study the doctrines of the church." That's an extraordinarily soft sell for a church that has grown to 11 million members through its aggressive evangelization efforts. But it's a message that's sure to resonate with the church's primary audience for the next two weeks: the secular press. Reporters from around the world will come to this Mormon Zion and find a church that appears reasonable and mainstream. Indeed, with a week to go before the first winner mounted the dais in Temple Square, France's leading newspaper, Le Monde, had already declared the LDS church the recipient of the "gold medal for public relations." In the long run, that's likely to prove the most valuable medal of all.

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