It’s not only the Olympics that could be coming to Utah in 2034 — there’s another event hosting the Games brings

Chris Waddell, a former Paralympian, speaks to students at McPolin Elementary in Park City on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023. He presented his program “Nametags.”
Chris Waddell, a former Paralympian, speaks to students at McPolin Elementary in Park City on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023. He presented his program “Nametags.” | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

It’s not just the Olympics that Utah may be hosting in 2034 — it’s also the Paralympics.

What’s become one of the world’s biggest sporting events, the international competition for athletes with disabilities is set to follow the 2034 Winter Olympic Games, just like the Paralympics did when Utah hosted in 2002.

Back then, seven-time Paralympian Chris Waddell, was hired as the “face of the Paralympics,” lighting the Paralympic cauldron during opening ceremony at the University of Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium with fellow Paralympian Muffy Davis.

Waddell said a big part of his job for organizers of the 2002 Winter Games was introducing the Paralympics through speeches to a wide variety of groups, including school children, union members, corporate executives and big donors.

“For me, it was an opportunity to share the story of what the Paralympics meant,” the sit-skier who won three medals at the Salt Lake Paralympics said. “The more audiences we got, the more potential we had for fans.”

Paralympians Muffy Davis, left, and Chris Waddell, right, light the cauldron during the 2002 Paralympic Opening Ceremony Thursday, March 7, 2002. | Jason Olson, Deseret News
Paralympians Muffy Davis, left, and Chris Waddell, right, light the cauldron during the 2002 Paralympic Opening Ceremony Thursday, March 7, 2002. | Jason Olson, Deseret News

Now a member of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games that’s behind the bid just named the preferred host for the 2034 Olympics and Paralympics, Waddell said the Paralympics promise world-class sport.

Related

“It really is that simple and is similar to the Olympics in that respect,” Waddell said. But there’s also what he called “the human part of the Paralympics. As someone with a disability, it’s easy to feel isolated and separate” from those who don’t.

But as an athlete with a disability — a skiing accident in college left him paralyzed from the waist down — Waddell said he’s able “to put a product out there that helps shape the way that they see you and your competitors.”

That can also impact how “they see the person on the street or someone who might come in for an interview, or anything like that. Hopefully, you’re not seeing the limitation first, you’re seeing the person first,” he said. “Sport can be a tremendous vehicle for that.”

Promoting the Paralympics

First, though, people need to pay attention to the Paralympics.

Although the event’s profile has risen over the years, going from just a few hours of television coverage even a decade ago to more than a thousand hours available via streaming, there’s still work to do.

Fraser Bullock, the president and CEO of the bid committee, said there are plans to promote the Paralympics more in 2034. The 2002 Games were the first where the same organizers staged both the Winter Olympics and Paralympics.

Chris Waddell competes in the 2002 Paralympics games in Utah shortly after the completion of the2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Chris Waddell competes in the 2002 Paralympics games in Utah shortly after the completion of the2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Thanks to that experience, Bullock, the chief operating officer of the 2002 Games, said 2034 organizers are “already starting from an elevated position” when it comes to the Paralympics.

Then, he said, “the profile was good, but compared to today, it’s much, much higher already going in. But then the other thing we can do is profile the athletes and their stories, because their stories are so compelling.”

That means showcasing Paralympians alongside Olympians in the lead-up to 2034, including in programs proposed for school children intended to teach Paralympic as well as Olympic values.

Bullock said the Paralympics will be more integrated into the pre-Games promotions this time around so the public will be ready for the 10 days of Paralympic competition that follow the 17 days of the Olympics.

Expect ‘modestly priced’ 2024 Paralympic tickets

Especially Utahns, who are the biggest market for Paralympic tickets, which are usually lower priced and more readily available than tickets to Olympic events, which can cost thousands of dollars.

Not every Paralympic event was sold out in 2002, but Bullock recalled attending the men’s gold medal sled hockey match between the United States and Norway that filled what was then the E Center in West Valley City to the rafters.

“It was absolutely jam-packed, with chants of ‘U-S-A, U-S-A,’” he said, then “complete mayhem and euphoria” when the U.S. team won its first-ever gold medal in sled hockey by defeating Norway 4-3 in a shootout victory.

“It didn’t feel any different than the (Olympic) Games, because it was two teams of incredible athletes competing at their very best for a gold medal,” Bullock said. “Just exactly what you want to see.”

He’s hoping to see even more enthusiasm for the 2034 Paralympics.

“Our objective is to pack the arenas so that the athletes can feel the energy from the crowds.” Bullock said, part of the bid committee’s pitch to make the Games “experience incredibly special for athletes.”

That promise helped Salt Lake City advance in late November to the next stage of the International Olympic Committee’s selection process. The IOC’s final vote on the site of the 2034 Olympics and Paralympics is set for July.

Between now and then, Utah’s bid team will be finishing the required pile of paperwork and negotiating contract details. Tickets sales are a major source of revenue for the privately financed Games, which are now expected to cost more than $2.45 billion to stage.

Related

For the Paralympics, Bullock said tickets to the “vast majority” of events should be modestly priced. Just like the Winter Olympics, which now have 40% more events than in 2002, the size of the Paralympics has grown.

“We would like to keep the prices very accessible for the public,” he said. “Given we have more sessions, we think we can create a nice balance of filling the arenas but still making the tickets accessible.”

‘Cheering for the underdog’

There may be plenty of Utahns ready to buy Paralympic tickets in 2034. Waddell said those who attended the 2002 Paralympics were transformed into life-long fans of sports they hadn’t even known existed.

“So many of them said to me, ‘I will never miss the Paralympics again,’” he recalled, crediting “a personal connection to the athletes. Sometimes, we’re all cheering for the underdog, right? That’s kind of who we are as fans.”

Paralympians understand the need to sell their sports, Waddell said.

“You’re coming into a developing entity and so as a result, you are an integral part of that development.” he said. “You feel that ownership, you feel a responsibility to continue to promote the (Paralympic) Games to anyone you might meet.”

Waddell, whose Paralympics career spanned the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France, to the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece, won medals over the years as both as a sit-skier and a wheelchair track athlete.

Now a speaker, TV host, podcaster and author, he’s never stopped promoting the Paralympics. Recently, Waddell presented his foundation’s “Nametags” program to the third, fourth and fifth graders at McPolin Elementary School in Park City.

The motto he uses to teach resilience, “It’s not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you,” really resonated with the young students, said Kelley Urankar, president of the school’s parent teacher organization.

“I think it was really eye-opening for the kids,” Urankar said, especially accompanied by seeing a world champion athlete that uses a wheelchair. “They know that they are not limited by anything.”