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Going for the Gold

The Games Come to Salt Lake City

The Olympic Winter Games makes its fourth trip to United States soil this month when the world's finest winter sports athletes converge on Salt Lake City, Utah.

There is no doubt that the work of Landscape Architects will be seen throughout the city, as the world turns their eyes to Salt Lake. There are 18 venues that will host sports. This special section gives insight into how two of these sites, the Utah Olympic Oval and the venue for the Nordic events, will add to the rich history of the Winter Games in the U.S.

In 1932 Lake Placid, New York served as the sight of the first Winter Games in the States. That year the U.S. won six gold medals, four silver and two bronze, more than any other participating nation. In 1960, Squaw Valley, Calif.. provided the scene where the U.S. won 10 medals. Lake Placid played host once again in 1980 when the U.S. won 12 medals. This was also the scene for the U.S. ice hockey team's stunning victories over Russia and Finland to win the gold.

Never before has a city the size of Salt Lake City been selected to host the Olympic Winter Games. Never before has a city been named as host to the Olympic Winter Games by such a wide first-vote margin as was made on June 16, 1995, when the International Olympic Committee selected Salt Lake City to stage the Games. Of the 89 votes cast, 54 went in favor of Salt Lake City.

After three appearances before the IOC and five before the United States Olympic Committee, Salt Lake City's quest will be spectacularly capped when some 80 nations participate in the Opening Ceremonies and Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee declares: "Let The Games Begin."

Utah Olympic Oval

The Utah Olympic Oval made its debut in March of last year, hosting the World Single Distance Speed Skating Championships. Skaters broke five world records as well as 127 personal records and 57 national marks. The combination of the altitude where there is less air resistance, the dry air and the building's design make the Oval's ice exceptionally fast. The building, which has a unique cable suspended roof, contains a 400-meter speed skating oval and two full-sized ice sheets. The Utah Olympic Oval is the highest in the world at an elevation of 4,675 feet.

Traveling along Bangerter Highway, 12 miles southwest of downtown Salt Lake City, drivers cannot help but notice the striking image of two-dozen, 108-foot-tall needles lining the sides of a massive structure. Soaring above the building’s roof, the needles seem to pierce the Salt Lake Valley sky.

In preparation for the upcoming 2002 Olympic Winter Games, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee built an enclosed speed skating oval in the middle of the suburban Salt Lake City community of Kearns. The life of the Utah Olympic Oval will extend far beyond the Olympics as a speed skating and hockey training and competition facility for Kearns, the Salt Lake Valley, and the world.

Gillies Stransky Brems Smith (GSBS), a Salt Lake City-based firm, designed the 255,000-square-foot building to meet rigorous athletic performance requirements. The five new world records set at the March 2001 World Speed Skating Championship demonstrate a successful effort. "Call it official. Utah is the new home of the fastest ice on earth," stated The Salt Lake Tribune on March 11, 2001.

The Oval has some natural "fast ice" advantages. At an altitude of 4,675 feet, the air is thin enough for reduced air resistance (and faster skaters). At higher altitudes, less air is trapped in the ice, so water molecules are packed closer together (denser ice means a harder, more consistent, faster surface). Also, Utah’s dry air allows for a condensation-free, therefore smoother, ice surface.

To these natural advantages, GSBS and Layton Construction added some man-made features to the Oval to give speed skaters an extra edge: 1) A "superflat" concrete slab so that all of a skater’s energy can be directed forward, 2) A smooth concrete slab under the ice to minimize distortions in the ice, which create a bumpy surface for the skaters, and 3) A sophisticated slab cooling system for consistent temperature throughout the ice sheet to avoid "soft spots" that cause a skater’s blades to catch.

The Utah Olympic Oval inspires a double take from even the most casual observer. The 108-foot-tall needles, while providing for a dramatic exterior design, have an important functional role: they are the towers supporting a cable suspension system similar to that of the Golden Gate Bridge. With the cable suspension system, a lighter, smaller roof could span the 300-foot width of the Oval without columns. This required 35% less steel (953 tons) than a tradition truss roof. With a thinner roof structure (three feet instead of 18 feet) there is 22% less air volume to heat and cool. The Oval’s mechanical systems can maintain the optimum performance temperature of 55 F, a level not easily achievable in other ovals because of their massive air volume. The Utah Olympic Oval has been designated a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design building by the United States Green Building Council. Only 12 such buildings exist worldwide.

The Utah Olympic Oval’s cable suspension towers reach into the sky, catching the eye of tourists and locals alike. GSBS’s inviting treatment of the Oval’s landscaping helps ground the building in a pleasing way. Though the landscaping will be impacted by the temporary facilities associated with the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, it will prove to be an important and dynamic element of the enduring legacy that the facility will offer future athletes and the community.

Enhancing the Oval’s towers, enclosure and landscaping is a lighting scheme designed by Spectrum Lighting Design, a division of Salt Lake City-based Spectrum+Bennion. The firm also provided other engineering and design services including technology design and electrical engineering.

Exterior building and landscape lighting were designed to complement and enhance the emotional resonance that the powerful architecture of the building creates and to illuminate the grounds for the safety and security of the Oval and its guests.

During the Games, high-rise buildings will be wrapped in pictures depicting Olympic athletes in action. Colorful banners will line the streets leading to Olympic venues. Downtown businesses and neighborhoods will show off Olympic logos, mascots and other inspirational images. Decorated pylons will surround venue entry points, information kiosks and stage areas. Salt Lake City's budget is approximately $400,000 to decorate for the Games.

The grounds received seasonal lighting. Trees and shrubs were uplighted. At night, the pedestrian pathways become luminescent ribbons, drawing the visitor’s gaze from one glowing bollard to the next until the shining edifice of the Oval bisects the sight line. It’s at this point that visitors seem to pause in wonderment at the sight before them.

Rarely does a structure’s roof present such an intriguing emotional tableau. The roof’s support system is literally turned inside out—exposing cables, support masts and even giant tent stakes driven deep into the earth and firmly mooring the cables to provide just the right amount of tension to hold up the roof. Tension. It makes the Oval’s enclosure possible and it creates the entire artistic and emotional scene. Highlighting that tension between physics and physical constructs is the building’s exterior lighting.

Designed for easy maintenance, the exterior lighting is placed low on the building, meaning that the building’s powerful structural elements are uplit. The needle-like masts that soar into the sky during the day appear to be blasting off at night. The Spectrum Lighting Design team recognized that this nontraditional building would present unusual safety issues—that’s why virtually all of the Oval’s major structural elements received lighting from multiple sources. For instance, cables stretching out and away from the building and the anchors where the cables are securely staked to the earth received uplighting like the ground’s trees and other landscaping, creating a cohesive, yet striking scene.

Whether on a winter’s night, with the lighting system glowing over snow-covered trees and shrubs, complementing the bright beacon of the Oval, or on a spring afternoon with the landscape in bloom, the Utah Olympic Oval will be an impressive landmark to the citizens of the Salt Lake Valley and to the people of the world.

Michael Raddon is the Communications Coordinator for Spectrum+Bennion, located in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Bringing the Touch of an LA to the Winter Olympics

The panorama that is the American West captures the eye like no other. Colossal vistas, sprawling mountain ranges, and vast expanses of desert defy description. But in many places throughout the region, human-made scars rip across the landscape. Power lines, housing developments, road cuts, and mines have left permanent marks that can't be concealed, are difficult to reclaim, and draw scorn from many who see them.

So when organizers of the 2002 Winter Olympics started scouting locations for the various event venues, environmental considerations held a high priority. Aware that the venue sites will be scrutinized by local residents and conservation organizations for their environmental integrity long after the games are over, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) made an early commitment to plan and build sites carefully.

One site that received close examination is the venue for the Nordic events — cross-country skiing and biathlon. Known as Soldier Hollow, it is the largest of all the Olympic sites, occupying more than 200 acres that accommodate 25 kilometers of trails and a myriad of permanent and temporary facilities for athletes and spectators.

Jerry Anderson, managing director of venue development for SLOC, explained that environmental concerns quickly eliminated the committee's first choice - a golf course site in a narrow canyon just east of Salt Lake City. Because the canyon is a primary source for the city's water supply, major construction work in the area could not be allowed.

SLOC looked at eight other sites and finally settled on Soldier Hollow, a valley within the 24,000-acre Wasatch Mountain Park owned by the state of Utah. It is located in the Heber Valley about 20 miles south of Park City where the Olympic downhill skiing events will be held.

After the site was chosen, SLOC hired water quality and wildlife specialists to conduct environmental assessments of the site. Meetings with residents of nearby communities were used to explain and gather support for the project. At those sessions local residents stated adamantly that they wanted environmental impacts to be minimized, and they didn't want to see hillside scars caused by construction of the cross-country trails.

In its search to find a firm for final venue and course design and construction administration, SLOC looked for companies that had designed major trail systems in sensitive environments. EDAW, the San Francisco-based international landscape architecture firm won the bid. The design work was performed by the firm's Fort Collins, Colo., office which specializes in parks and trails.

Preliminary Design

Athletes and officials applauded Soldier Hollow as one of the best designed Olympic Winter Games courses because spectators rarely lose sight of the skiers. With a capacity of more than 15,000 spectators, Soldier Hollow is one of the largest Olympic venues. Situated in Wasatch Mountain State Park, it features 23 kilometers of trails as well as a target and shooting range for biathlon. SLOC is the first organizing committee to combine the cross-country and biathlon venues.

While Nordic skiing receives scant attention in the U.S., it is hugely popular in Europe. Thousands of people ski in weekend events and tens of millions view competitions on TV. Nordic also comprises the largest competition in the Olympics with 25 medal events.

With the opportunity for the first time to develop a course from scratch, Olympic officials were intent on building a world-class course that will draw international events for years to come. Because of its rolling terrain and big mountain backdrop, the Soldier Hollow site appeared ideal to Olympic planners, Anderson said. To commence work on the course, officials from SLOC, the International Olympic Committee, the International Ski Federation, the International Biathlon Union, and competition experts from around the world walked the property numerous times and staked the initial layout.

The detail work was then turned over to Jon Aalberg, a SLOC official and former Olympic cross-country skier, and Phil Hendricks, EDAW's lead designer and a former competitive cross-country racer. "A lot of different people were involved in the planning. This was a major collaborative effort," Hendricks said. A complex overlay of facilities provided a wide range of landscape design challenges. Here are some of the items that had to be considered:

• The competition course includes tracks for 25 events ranging from a 3-kilometer sprint to a 50-kilometer marathon, and each event must abide by international competition standards.

• Biathlon, an event that combines skiing and target shooting, includes a major rifle range that can be viewed by spectators.

• Facilities to transport and accommodate 20,000 spectators per day.

• Permanent and temporary facilities to accommodate hundreds of race officials, athletes, and international media.

"This was a very complex project, a 100,000-piece jigsaw puzzle," Hendricks said. "I'd never been involved with something like this; it was a once-in-a-lifetime project."

Designing the Race Course

With the general layout of the course staked, Hendricks and Aalberg were guided by two primary issues as they worked on the final layout: environmental concerns; and detailed international competition guidelines that govern course design. Those two concerns were often at odds and complicated the design process. Competition guidelines stipulate course characteristics: length and grade of straight-aways, ascents and descents for each event; radius of curves; trail width; distance of each event, etc. Course routes were first sketched on topographical maps, a relatively easy process. But out on the site, incorporating many of those details proved difficult.

So he and Aalberg walked every section of the course dozen of times, always carrying armloads of survey stakes with them. As the pair walked the course again and again, they considered natural features and the necessary characteristics of the race course. Adjustments were made nearly every time they went out — but it wasn't as easy as just moving the stakes. Shifting the course alignment to avoid a natural feature often changed the slope gradient for the track, which in turn, required modifications of other sections of the course.

"One small change, literally, would affect the whole course and contiguous courses," said Hendricks. "We looked at every inch of the course over and over again. The design was really done by feel. We had to be aware of the land and pay close attention to how skiers would feel on the course. It was painstaking, challenging, and fun process."

Blending With the Landscape

To reduce large cut-and-fill slopes, the design team decided to build stone retaining walls with the course crossing over the tops. As construction work started, the designers searched for stone; but they could not find a nearby quarry that could deliver large quantities of rock of the correct color. In a meeting one day, Hendricks heard SLOC officials discussing a construction problem at another venue, the Utah Olympic Park 20 miles north near Park City. Crews were trying to figure out what to do with thousands of tons of rock excavated during construction of the ski jumps. He went to the site after the meeting and found that the rock was the exact color needed for

Soldier Hollow.

Nearly 4,000 tons of rock were used for the retaining walls, culvert headwalls, for the walls of two course bridges, in the pedestrian promenade, and for accents all around the site. When viewed from a distance, the retaining walls on the course resemble the natural outcroppings and blend with the landscape.

"It really fit environmentally," Hendricks said. "With sustainability principles in mind, we like to say that we recycled rock."

Moving Water

Drainage was another major consideration. No water can be allowed to flow over or to stand on any part of the course — if standing water freezes on the course, it presents a hazard for skiers. The problem was compounded because the course is built at a low elevation to conform with competition rules - maximum elevation is 5,905 feet. This area of Utah is a high-desert environment, so snow melts quickly. To keep the trails well drained, run-off from hillsides is being diverted in culverts at dozens of locations, and the entire course is mounded to move water off the track.

Wetlands mitigation posed another environmental concern. A three acre area had formed over the years in a spot where water leaked from an unused irrigation ditch. To accommodate the course design, the ditch was eliminated which resulted in drying up the wetland. A slightly larger wetland area was created in another location at the site of a natural spring.

Native Seeds

All the trees planted are native varieties — Gamble oaks, cottonwoods, pine, willows, plums, dogwoods, rabbit brush, native plums, and sagebrush. The plantings will serve a dual purpose on the course. Most important, they will provide some shade over "hot spots" on the course that are highly exposed to the sun.

The second purpose is to provide more perspective for spectators and TV cameras. At most other cross-country skiing venues, skiers quickly disappear into thick forest after leaving the starting line. But unlike courses in Europe and more northern climes, the Soldier Hollow layout is wide open, so spectators sitting in the stadium will be able to see skiers on more than two-thirds of the course. As the racers move along the course, the clumps of plantings will help spectators track the competitors' progress.

"Without the trees and shrub masses to give some perspective, the skiers wouldn't look like they're moving on certain sections of the course," Hendricks explained.


A highlight of Nordic events is the biathlon competition which features cross-country skiing and target shooting with rifles. At other Olympic sites, the biathlon course is completely separate from the regular cross-country course. To conserve land, to meet budget constraints, and to improve spectator viewing, the courses for the 2002 games are built adjacent to one another and share a short section of the course and the stadium.

During the two weeks of the games, the courses will be in constant use for training and competitions. Consequently, there can be no intersections where racers from two different events would be required to slow down. To keep the two courses close and to eliminate any conflicts, a bridge will carry biathlon skiers over the cross-country competitors — a first for an Olympic Nordic venue. Besides solving a potential problem for athletes, the bridge makes the area more visually interesting.

The highlight of the biathlon course is the shooting range which measures 100 meters by 50 meters. Because the competitors are using live ammunition, the range was built to conform with safety standards of the U.S. federal government, and the International Biathlon Union. A protective fan-shaped berm surrounds three sides of the course and is built with a 45-degree slope. The spectator viewing area is from the stadium, behind the firing line.

The range features 30 shooting lanes, each 3-meters wide and 50-meters long. Each lane is separated by a string of colorful markers which present a dazzling and festive contrast against the snow and the sky.

Handling the Spectators

An estimated 20,000 people per day will travel to the Soldier Hollow venue during the games. Holding down traffic on area roadways and keeping impacts low for the sensitive environment at the park site, are top aims of SLOC and Utah officials. Olympic officials devised a transportation plan to minimize the number of vehicles that enter the Nordic venue.

Automobiles will be parked in Heber City, a small town about five miles north. An existing parking lot there will be expanded temporarily, then restored to its natural condition after the games. From Heber City spectators will ride buses to the venue.

Fans will enter the venue by walking under the Biathlon course bridge and into an expansive plaza paved with interlocking pavers and colored concrete. In some areas, the plaza is patterned into the angular snow-flake design that serves as the Olympic logo.

A series of steps leads from the entry to the pedestrian promenade that is flanked by trees and patterned with low stone walls. The promenade directs spectators to the stadium and past vendor tents. Fans can watch events from grandstands or from

infield areas.

Because of budget concerns, Olympic officials were hesitant to build an extensive entryway. But after attending the 2000 summer games in Sydney, Australia, and seeing first-hand how people congregated in the attractive public spaces at venue sites, SLOC devoted resources to the plaza design and construction.

"We felt it was important to create a very pleasant front door for the venue," Hendricks said. "The plaza really makes a statement that welcomes spectators. It will look great in people's pictures, and it will look great on TV."

Other Facilities

Clustered around the start/finish line are a variety of facilities to accommodate athletes, race officials, and the media. EDAW relied on Olympic officials' experience at sites around the world to design a layout that separates the officials and athletes from the spectator areas. The Competition Management Building, the only permanent structure on the site, houses timing equipment, a computer system and telecommunications gear.

Olympic officials estimate that as many as 300 trailers will be brought to the site. These will carry broadcasting and security equipment, house a medical clinic, and hold ski gear for the teams. All the temporary facilities are positioned to be out of sight, as much as possible, from spectators and TV cameras. The ground where the temporary structures are located will be replanted afterward and restored to a natural condition.

The Aftermath

Finalizing the design consumed nearly two years, and construction lasted 18 months. "This was a massive undertaking that took an incredible team effort," Hendricks said. "There were so many things that had to be considered. We had to tend the environment, figure out how to move people, build a comfortable and attractive place for fans. And we had to build a race course that would not just meet requirements, but that would provide an enjoyable and challenging course for the athletes."

The use of Soldier Hollow will extend far beyond the 16-day Olympic events — the site was designed and built to provide "legacy" uses. "There's always a concern that Olympic venue sites won't be used after the games are over," said SLOC’s Anderson. "But because we devoted the resources to build a world-class facility, Soldier Hollow will be used and admired long after the games are over. It is much more than an Olympic venue, it’s a great facility for the state of Utah."

Lewandowski is a freelance writer based in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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December 8, 2019, 8:06 am PDT

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