Salt Lake: the city behind the winter OlympicsBy Daniel Jeffreys, Daily Mail
Last updated at 10:41 11 February 2002
Salt Lake sparkled in crisp sunshine yesterday as thousands of athletes gathered for two-and-a-half weeks of Olympic competition. But for one group, the great prize has already been won.
The Church of Latter Day Saints, which most people call the Mormons - although 'the LDS', as they like to be known, reject the title - has its headquarters in Salt Lake City.
For millions of Mormons, the use of Salt Lake as the Olympic venue is an astonishing triumph which they believe will rapidly accelerate their expansion.
The Church is already the fastest-growing religion in the U.S., and in the past ten years its global membership has increased fourfold to 11 million.
Yet all is not well under the shadow of the city's mountains.
Critics say the Mormons are an oppressive force who run the state of Utah as if it were a part of the Church, sidelining and punishing those who are not members of the faith.
They say the Mormons have subverted the Olympics for their own ends, using the Games as a global advertisement for their religion - all the while trying to hide its polygamist past and the strange sexual preferences of its founding fathers, Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, who between them had more than 60 wives.
There are many here who think the clean-cut men and women who mingle with the Olympic crowds, looking for every opportunity to make converts, are part of a secret army who seek nothing less than global domination and are prepared to use their enormous wealth to corrupt and undermine those who stand in their way.
And away from the Olympic venues, hidden-in small towns throughout Utah, are pockets of fundamentalist Mormons who practise what they say is the true faith, building incestuous clans with polygamous patriarchs who think nothing of marrying their teenage nieces and threaten those who do not accept their rules with the violence of 'blood atonement'.
Many Mormons go so far as to believe that the choice of Salt Lake City as the Olympic venue was actually the fulfilment of a prophecy written by Brigham Young.
'We shall build a city and temple to the Most High God in this place,' wrote Young in 1890. 'Kings and Emperors and the noble and wise of the earth will visit us here.'
True to this prophecy, the Mormons are a subtle but pervasive presence throughout the Salt Lake Olympics.
Around the city, banners proclaim: 'Friends to All Nations - the Church of Latter Day Saints.'
The head of the Salt Lake Olympics organising committee is Mitt Romney, a prominent Mormon who, many say, has been looking for any way possible to use the Games to promote the Church's message.
Even the medal ceremonies, the focal point of the Olympics, will carry his fingerprints. The Mormons donated a large parcel of land they own in Salt Lake for the Games to use as the medal plaza.
Many Olympic officials wanted the plaza to be laid out with a backdrop of the glorious Wastach Mountains.
But Romney lobbied, successfully, to have the plaza placed on a North-South axis so that the backdrop will be the Salt Lake Temple, the Mormons' spiritual home.
Every event on the plaza stage will feature the Temple spires in the background - a priceless free advertisement for the Church.
Few Mormons had any doubt about the benefits hosting the Olympic Games could bring to their evangelical faith, and they were prepared to use corruption to realise that goal.
Mormons campaigned intensely to win the Games for Salt Lake - so hard that the Salt Lake Bid Committee boosted its candidacy by dispensing more than a million dollars in cash and gifts to members of the International Olympic Committee.
Two of the Salt Lake committee's leaders, David Johnson and Thomas Welch, both prominent members of the Church, were indicted on bribery and other charges.
It was expected that their trial might implicate other leading members of the Mormon establishment, including Michael Leavitt, the Governor of Utah.
Last August, however, the judge in the case, David Sam, who is also a Mormon, threw out the key charges.
This kind of enormous influence, which the Mormons seem to wield without hesitation, is why so many in America see the Church's use of the Olympics to spread its beliefs as something dangerous.
They believe the Mormons have political ambitions that stretch far beyond Salt Lake City.
In his book on Mormonism, Harold Bloom, Professor of Humanities at Yale, wrote that a time may come soon when American Mormons are so numerous and so wealthy - the Church has assets of more than £40 billion - 'that governing our democracy becomes impossible without Mormon co-operation'.
What that would be like can already been seen in Utah, in matters both large and small. The state's alcohol laws reflect the Mormon creed that drinking is ungodly.
In restaurants, a diner is not allowed to have more than two drinks on the table at one time. Beer must have a low alcohol content and nobody can order a double of anything.
It's a restriction which has been deeply annoying to many visitors who have come to enjoy the Games and have a rollicking good party.
The Utah branch of the American Civil Liberties Union has challenged the drink laws many times, to little avail.
It says the Church has built a state which is actually a theocracy - a form of government, like that of the Taliban, where laws are derived from holy texts and in which unbelievers have fewer rights.
It is no surprise the Mormons have such a pervasive hold over Utah's statutes, which critics say they have used to curtail the rights of women, blacks and homosexuals.
Virtually all statewide elective offices, from Governor down, are held by 'Saints', as Mormons often call themselves.
The Utah state legislature is overwhelmingly made up of white Mormon males. Three-quarters of the state's judges are Mormons.
'The fact is, we live in a quasitheocracy,' says James E. Shelledy, editor of the Salt Lake Tribune.
'80 per cent of office holders are from a single party - Mormons are overwhelmingly Republicans - 90 per cent of a single religion, 99 per cent of a single race, and 80 per cent of one gender.'
The Mormons have tried to keep their iron grip on Utah from the public eye as the Olympics approached.
And they have put vigorous effort into keeping one issue in particular off the global stage - polygamy. At this Olympics, it is the curse that dare not speak its name.
The Mormons have an extremely ambiguous attitude towards plural marriage, which is still a powerful social force in Utah, practised by more than 80,000 men and women.
Polygamy was foisted on the Mormons by Joseph Smith, the first Mormon, whose name is still plastered all over Salt Lake City centre.
In July 1843, he said he had been given a revelation: 'If any man espouse a virgin, and desires to espouse another, and the first gives her consent, it is not adultery in God's eyes even if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law.'
After Smith's 'revelation', polygamy flourished among Mormons - and stirred up hatred among non-Mormon Americans.
Smith himself was killed by a violent mob of antipolygamists.
Despite Smith's gruesome demise, his disciple Brigham Young, who became head of the Church, remained a passionate adherent.
He took 55 wives, an aspect of his life which is ignored in his official church biography.
In the 19th century, more than a thousand Mormon men were sent to prison for practising polygamy.
In 1890, this persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to sanction the nation-wide confiscation of all Mormon property, essentially sentencing the religion to death.
Luckily, that same year, Wilford Woodruff, then the Church's new president, had another fortuitous revelation.
It instructed him that God wanted the Mormons to abandon polygamy, and so they did, receiving statehood for Utah as their reward four years later.
'The Mormons never wanted to abandon polygamy,' says Kaziah Hancock, a former polygamy wife who now campaigns against the practice in Salt Lake.
'They only gave it up to survive. One day, when they are powerful enough, they will bring it back.'
Mention polygamy to any of the fresh-faced Mormons strolling around Temple Square in their identical black coats and they will blush a deep red.
Yet Smith and Brigham Young, the Church's most prolific polygamists, are still the most venerated 'saints' in official Mormonism.
Polygamists are automatically excommunicated from the Church, and Utah law also states the practice is a felony. Yet few are ever prosecuted.
'They could stamp out the practice if they wanted to, but they turn a blind eye,' says Connie Rugg, who was threatened with death by her husband when she escaped an abusive polygamist marriage in 1977.
Some of the few non-Mormons in Utah's state government tried to clean up the polygamists before the Olympics.
A bill was introduced which would have made it a felony for a parent to allow a minor child to enter into an unlawful marriage.
The move backfired horribly. The Utah polygamists descended on the Salt Lake government buildings by the hundreds, arguing the state was trying to turn their religious beliefs into a crime.
They won, the first legal victory for polygamy in Utah since 1890, and now the world will see dozens of pro-polygamy rallies as part of the 'entertainment' provided by the 2002 Winter Olympiad.
Many of those who fear 'the Saints' say the soft Christmas lights which still surround the Salt Lake Temple mask a harder reality: that the Mormons crave power on earth as much as they want salvation in heaven.
'That's what really scares me about this Olympics,' says Vicky Prunty, a former polygamy wife who is now a member of an antipolygamy group.
'It is a staging post for them in becoming America's dominant political force.'
Prunty says that once that happens, there will be another lucky 'revelation' and polygamy will once again be part of the Church's teachings.
Which is why, for the Mormons, this Olympics is not about gold medals or downhill racing - it is about winning influence, using an Olympiad that many of the faithful believe was a gift from God, handed to them so their laws could be spread across the globe.
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