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Greetings from Utah



The Molympics have begun. A week into the Mormon Games, the world is still undecided over whether these are the most exciting Winter Games in decades or the most militaristic.

More than $300 million has been spent to make these Games safe from terrorism. Luckily, so far no Osama wanna-bes have done anything stupid and, luckily, the estimated 15,000 law enforcement officials who've descended on the Beehive State haven't sucked the life out of the party.

The news is all good -- at least if you read Utah's Deseret News. No one rehashes disturbing old news, like that little ol' bribing scandal that brought the International Olympic Committee to its knees. No stories about polygamy. Utah is a mind-your-own-business kind of place, where you don't ask about my wives and I won't ask about yours.

Utah is a little different than the rest of the world.

It is not known for its hipness.

At the cross-country skiing pressroom this week, one local volunteer was offended by a pornographic screen-saver on a computer belonging to a journalist. European journalists -- from countries where random sports such as luge, curling and the biathlon are big news -- are fuming at strict no-smoking rules and grumbling about American junk food.

What Utah is known for is its penchant for Jell-O and a weird concoction of mayonnaise and ketchup they drizzle on french fries.

It is, of course, home to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. With 11 million members worldwide, Mormons dominate Utah and 63 percent of the state's population belong to the church. Mormons control business and government. The governor and the entire state Legislature are Mormon.

But you wouldn't know it during these Games, where the LDS church has, oddly, kept a very low profile.

What has been more obvious is the invasion of Corporate America. Products and images promoting EDS, Coca-Cola, McDonalds and other official sponsors -- the suckers who pay for all the opulence -- are everywhere and all the best bars have been taken over for private parties and product promotions.

Greed is part of any Olympics and these American Olympics are no exception to the rule. Five-dollar parking spaces downtown go for $30. Volunteers are selling their official jackets on the Internet for $400 and official trading pins are going for $100.

And mini-scandals erupted almost immediately. There was a pre-Games brew-haha over distribution of free condoms to athletes. There was another spat when the Utah Animal Rights Coalition protested a rodeo and the roping of calves. And a real scandal threatened to explode over the delicacies of flying the World Trade Center flag at the Olympic Stadium during the Games.

With the world's eyes on Salt Lake, protesters have come out of the woodwork from both ends of the spectrum. Wackos from the left have been joined by wackos from the right.

Police, fearful of a riotous repeat of Seattle where anti-capitalist protests turned violent, quashed demonstrations, causing a stir. A compromise was eventually reached with the American Civil Liberties Union by creating eight penned-in, fenced-off "Freedom of Speech" demonstration zones to corral protesters. They, in turn, agreed to stay out of the downtown eight-block Olympic Square, site of the nightly medal ceremony and various rock concerts.

The world may not be seeing a whole lot of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but it is learning about another Salt Lake City. Nightclubs flourish. Single ads even highlight current LDS status. Downtown thrives with tony lofts. There's no denying the dramatic setting of the Wasatch Front, which has boomed to a California-like metropolis that stretches from Ogden to Provo,

The Games -- whether some want to admit it or not -- have ripped. Salt Lake City is suddenly the center of the world, attracting all the hottest bands -- from Creed and the Dave Matthews Band to Sting and Alanis Morisette. Nightly parties spill over into the streets of Park City and Salt Lake. The state, despite quiet protests from the Mormon Church, relaxed its draconian drinking laws during the duration of the Games. Several square blocks of downtown Salt Lake have been turned into drinking zones for what will likely be the most inebriated month in Utah's history.

And, if it all gets to be too much, the Nevada state line -- with its comparable peace and solitude -- is only 90 miles away.

Freelance journalist Andrew Hood is in Salt Lake City observing the Games.

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