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With faith, fate and F-16s, games will go on

SALT LAKE CITY ���� Utah is on a mission. That’s nothing new along the Wasatch Front, where that big temple on the corner downtown has been cranking out missionaries since the days when traveling coach-class involved wood-spoked wagon wheels.

Nobody’s saying the current mission is anywhere as lofty in origin ����at least not publicly. But the chief evangelists, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and Salt Lake Organizing Committee CEO Mitt Romney, each seemed only a half-tube of Brylcreem shy of Jimmy Swaggart zeal when they sermonized Friday to the nation’s bio-terrified media: The Games will be played.

Any questions?

Well, yeah. About a million. Including some that already have prompted at least one newspaper columnist to call for canceling the Olympic Games, or to avoid the unthinkable financial fallout, delaying them one year.

Sacrilege, say Utah’s powers-that-be. Sure, fighter jets might obscure the view from time to time, but these folks’ eyes are on the prize ���� more so now than ever.

“Fate may have fallen upon this city, and this state, to be the place where the world will come together and heal,” Brother Leavitt said from the pulpit at an Olympics summit here last week. “We take that commitment quite seriously. And we are ready.”

Security will likely be at an all-time high for the Winter Games, Leavitt reiterated. Yes, they’re concerned. Yes, there will be false alarms, mistakes, alerts and scares. Yes, the federal government will have an even more pronounced role, sending more National Guard troops, Secret Service personnel, military gear and other hardware to protect the Games.

And there, they drew their own line in the Utah sand.

No, you won’t see machine-gun nests atop Squatter’s Brew Pub, nor will fans feel intimidated by a police-state show of force. No, fans and sponsors are not bailing out, or even asking to be excused from financial commitments. No, the athletes should not be concerned about their own safety, let alone anyone else’s.

“We are absolutely committed to holding the Games,” added Romney, Salt Lake’s official Olympic Games-show host. “We have not had a single conversation to consider what would happen under any other scenario. We will hold the Games. There is no good alternative.”

There’s an understatement.

For those of you who haven’t tried it lately, putting on your own Winter Olympics these days is a substantial investment. Most of Salt Lake’s $1.3 billion commitment is scheduled to be earned back from sponsors and television networks. No Games means the check ain’t in the mail, and never will be. There’s no insurance policy ���� at least one that absorbs more than a fragment of the fallout shrapnel.

The show will go on. It can’t afford not to. The bizarre thing is that, while all this confidence is being exuded, others continue to believe Utah is but one more terrorist event away from cancellation or delay. That’s the very economic meltdown scenario Games organizers always assure politicians and nattering-nabob critics will never, ever, in a billion years happen.

Utah’s Olympic chiefs are savvy enough to know that the glare of the spotlight cuts both ways. It just so happens that the light is being shined, for the first time, by a nation with good reason to wonder whether the wonderful old Olympic ideal, nations laying down arms to gather in peaceful competition, is anything less than an anthrax-age anachronism.

Now they are stuck with a simple choice: Bankruptcy, or pulling off the largest, most high-profile international event known to modern mankind starting Feb. 8, 2002����less than six months after a terrorist attack that has shaken the host nation to its roots.

All they need to do is reassure the entire world that the last and only great global power still has enough super in its tank to hit in the clutch.

Pressure? You bet. Uncertainty?

“None of that exists here,” Leavitt said. “There has been no diminishment of enthusiasm in our community, generally speaking.”

Blind faith? If it’s true, it’s a miracle. One simmering way down deep in the heartland of a country that could seriously use one about now.