Originally created 02/12/02

Protesters run rings around Salt Lake City



SALT LAKE CITY - The International Olympic Committee's motto is "Faster. Higher. Stronger."

The unofficial Olympic motto is "Sell. Protest. Pander."

It's the credo of the untold thousands who've landed in Salt Lake City's 25- degree, mid-February tundra to sell their product, their political perspective or their hate. In these shadow games, pitching a message has become an Olympic competition for those who feel overshadowed by the event's official corporate sponsors.

From the capitalistic to the idealistic, an unlikely all-star team of the angry, the oppressed and the business-savvy has alighted upon this rare assemblage of 9,000 journalists, hundreds of international politicians and tens of thousands of well-heeled patrons. Animal-rights activists, massage therapists, anti-abortion protesters, small-business owners - they're all here.

Few have anything to protest about sports. Yet that doesn't stop them from dressing as wayward cows, driving rolling billboards of aborted fetuses around town or creating mammoth tubes of goo in a desperate scrounge for table scraps dropped from the banquet of the five rings.

In many cases, the pitchers resorted to extreme measures after being shunned on the official Olympic playground.

Like the folks at Symbiosis, a 4-year-old Salt Lake-area start-up that wanted to be an official Olympic sponsor. Nope, Olympic officials told them. You're too small.

Desperate to alert the world to the necessity of their product - a lip balm called Chap-Grip that the chapped can clip to their clothing or bags - they've opted for a media-pandering stunt. They've concocted "World's Largest Lip Balm," a 45-inch-high, 16-gallon version of their finger-sized product, and are inviting the lips - and cameras - of the world to partake.

One problem: Since it's not an official sponsor, Chap-Grip can't appear on official Olympic sites. So sometime this week, after the official unveiling of World's Largest, they will erect their waxy edifice in a Wal-Mart parking lot within eyeshot of a Park City venue. However, they're still searching for a pair of "celebrity lips" to endorse the product.

"Maybe some people have hygienic issues with rubbing their lips on it," said Chap-Grip spokeswoman Rebecca Young.

Such are the trials of the Olympic pitching competition.

It's hard to get any message through the cacophony of voices shouting at the Games. Salt Lake City officials were so concerned about the number of protesters drawn to the Olympic flame that they set up seven official "protest zones" around the city to herd the sign-wavers into.

To get some stage time in the zone, groups had to apply to the city, agree to abide by a lengthy set of rules ("No hockey sticks") and disperse after one hour to make room for the next group.

"One of the major reasons that a lot of these groups are here is because they feel that their message will be overshadowed by all the corporate sponsors," said Janelle Eurick, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. Her organization spent five years on a plan to give voice to different groups here. So far, she and city officials have been pleased.

Shuffling the various groups on and off the protest zone stage, however, has been a job for a Broadway director. Usually a police officer does it.

"OK, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), let's wrap it up," said a police officer patrolling the zone near the Opening Ceremonies. "You've got five more minutes before we bring in the next group."

Obediently, members of PETA and the Utah Animal Rights Coalition -who are protesting the inclusion of calf-roping in a rodeo that's running concurrently with the Games - gathered up their "Meat is Murder" signs. A man dressed as a cow - "I'm the one that got away" - pulled off his spotted head and sucked in a breath of air. This show was over.

"It's been OK,' said PETA organizer Kristie Phelps of the zones. "But a lot of people just walk by you and say, 'Oh, those are just the protesters,' and lump us all together. It's not the best way to get out our message."

While Phelps was talking, apparently her colleagues didn't clear the zone fast enough for the next group. One member of the oncoming Westboro Baptist Church said, "C'mon, get out of here, you stupid animal-rights people."

The appearance of the organization from Topeka, Kan., outside Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium, tested the Olympic spirit, if not the bounds of free speech. As representatives from 77 nations gathered to celebrate their commonality a block away, the Westboro faithful held up signs saying, "God Hates America" and "God Hates Fags." In five languages for the benefit of the international audience.

So what do the group's concerns about homosexuals have to do with the luge?

"We're here because this is an international audience, and they should know (what) they're in for should they decide to follow America," said Margie Phelps, a spokeswoman for the group.

A few passers-by stopped to exchange shouts, but most ignored them.

A few blocks away, an unrelated group from the West Coast Baptist College near Los Angeles found few takers for the pamphlets they were handing out. "I figured a lot more people would be taking them here," said 20-year-old Stephanie Price, who traveled 13 hours on a bus to pass out flyers. "I think people think we're Mormons."