Salt Lake City Awaits Decision 'Cautiously' : Olympics: Amid front-runner reports, city will find out today about 2002 Winter Games.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The view from the balcony was certainly the Danube River, but inside the hotel room here Thursday, International Olympic Committee members were sitting next to plastic pine trees laden with fake snow, listening to country music, munching salsa-dipped tortilla chips and gazing at a four-wall mural of Salt Lake City's Wasatch mountains.

After nearly three decades of bidding for the Winter Olympic Games, Salt Lake City makes what it vows will be its last try today when the 96 members of the IOC vote by secret ballot for the city that will have the Games in 2002. Salt Lake City's hospitality suite at the Marriott hotel in Budapest is part of the last-minute effort to remind the voters of the Utah city's frontier image.

"The official line is that we are cautiously-- cautiously --optimistic," said Bob Bills, a member of Salt Lake City's bid committee. "We've been told that we're the front-runner, but not by the IOC. And until that decision is made. . . . "

After pausing to greet two visitors in fluent French and Spanish, Bills said, "We're relaxed, but we're not laid back. We are, once again, putting our best foot forward."

Salt Lake City, which narrowly lost its bid for the 1998 Olympics to Nagano, Japan, in balloting four years ago, is competing this time against Quebec City; Sion, Switzerland, and Oestersund, Sweden. IOC officials acknowledge that Utah's biggest city, which received the top marks in an IOC evaluation of the nine original candidates last year, is the odds-on favorite.

But the committee is unpredictable. Salt Lake City, also the front-runner in 1991, lost then to Nagano because the IOC was reluctant to choose another U.S. city so soon after awarding the 1996 Summer Games to Atlanta.

Salt Lake City would be the largest city to get the Winter Games, and the first American city since Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980. The last two Winter Olympics have been held in Europe--in Albertville, France, in 1992, and Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994. The 1988 Games were held in North America, however, in Calgary, Canada.

The IOC will hear final, hour-long formal presentations from each city this afternoon, although most delegates already have visited each of the prospective venues. Then, the delegates will vote.

No one knows for sure what factors will be considered most important, but Salt Lake City has a lot going for it.

It already has fulfilled its promise to build five new venues, and four more are under construction, all within a 60-mile radius of the city. Backers of the bid say they have just about made their city Olympic ready.

Among their selling points is the proximity of the venues to the city; the modern infrastructure, from freeways to an international airport; a population that speaks many foreign languages, thanks to the many former missionaries among its largely Mormon population, and the city's Western flavor.

Backers of the Utah bid also have tried to counter the argument that Salt Lake City, with its large Mormon population, is too tame. At the hospitality suite, for example, guests are pointedly offered wine and coffee, which Mormons do not drink.

One important factor in the voting will be the local backing for each city's bid. The city's official delegation has been joined by about 400 private citizens who have come to Budapest to show their support.

People in Utah have generally favored the effort, although the last poll showed support at less than 60% for the first time, down from a high of 73%. Some residents have questions about the final cost. The bid committee's projected budget of $798 million is to be met by proceeds from a voter-approved diversion of sales tax for construction, with the rest coming from private financing. Others are concerned about the environmental impact in Park City, which would be the site of the skiing competition.

And, after four unsuccessful bids, Salt Lake City is not inclined to try again. If it doesn't win this time, said Tom Welch, head of the bid committee, it will stop bidding, at least for the foreseeable future.

The IOC may still not be entirely comfortable with returning to the United States for an Olympics only six years after the Atlanta Games. But if the committee chooses Oestersund, that would bring the Winter Games back to Scandinavia only eight years after Lillehammer.

Swedish cities have bid numerous times unsuccessfully, making Oestersund a sentimental favorite. But its mountain for skiing is considered too far away from the other venues.

Sion was runner-up to Denver in voting for the 1976 Games and was offered the chance to step in as a replacement when Denver voters subsequently decided not to support the Games. But Sion said no then, and the Games went to Innsbruck, Austria.

Quebec, however, is considered a weak candidate because of the sentiment that seeks to separate the province from the rest of Canada and signs that residents there may not be overwhelmingly supportive. They are still paying taxes to cover the $3-billion loss of the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.

* Times staff writer Randy Harvey contributed to this story.

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