After more than the usual quota of "will they, won't they", the 2002 Winter Olympics will take place as planned in and around Salt Lake City from 8 to 24 February. For Britain, Alain Baxter will compete in the slalom, Lesley McKenna and Melanie Leando in the snowboarding and Alex Coomber in the skeleton bob. But while medal prospects are modest these are world-class athletes deserving enthusiastic support.
Salt Lake City is the capital of Utah, one of the least densely populated US states. Settled in 1847 by Brigham Young and his Mormon pioneers, it is dominated by the Temple. At the airport, weeping relatives still wave goodbye to youths in suits starting gap years dedicated to spreading the word in faraway places, but Brigham Young's score line – wives 4, alcoholic drinks 0 – has been eroded out of respect for the tourist dollar.
In the winter, this is spent mostly in 14 ski resorts within an hour's drive of the airport. When it comes to easy access, Utah's skiing is in a class of its own. The state also claims "the greatest snow on earth". Immodest perhaps, official certainly, given that it is written on every local car licence plate. In some years it is also true, with 10.2m of powder regularly recorded in the Wasatch Mountains where the Olympic competitions will take place.Only three of the 14 resorts have been chosen to host competitions, but in such a tightly knit area, all will get a share of the Olympic bonanza, at least in terms of any overspill of guests. The lucky three are Park City, Deer Valley and Snowbasin. The first two are established favourites, joined by a shared mountain, though divided by opposing philosophies. The third is an outsider, selected for the men's and women's downhill and super-G races by virtue of God-given vertical feet from the top of the mountain to the bottom.
When Salt Lake won the Games in 1995, Snowbasin was the town hill for Ogden, a strict Mormon community to the north of Salt Lake City. Its facilities were limited to simple chairlifts, an alcohol-free cafeteria and a few Portakabins, but the mountain delivered the goods. The subsequent $80m (£112m) investment includes white-knuckle descents on the expert slopes served by the new John Paul Express lift, named for a 20-year-old Ogden boy who died with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy in the Second World War.
With no on-mountain accommodation at Snowbasin, the nearest lodgings are at Ogden or Huntsville, neither of which is renowned for its nightlife. Those who want to watch the alpine events in the course of a skiing holiday should check out Park City, Deer Valley and The Canyons, adjoining resorts half an hour's drive from downtown and minutes away from the Utah Winter Sports Park, the venue for the ski jumping, luge and bob-sleigh competitions.
Park City, which will host the giant slalom and snowboarding events, is a historic mining town. In its heyday, circa 1900, self-made silver millionaires celebrated their good fortune by boozing, gambling and whoring their way down Main Street. Nowadays, the challenge is to down a shot of Wild Turkey in every bar on this colourful street and walk away to tell the tale. As yet, no one has achieved this, or so the locals claim.
Mind you, it would have been even harder to achieve 20 years ago, when beer was unavailable on the mountain throughout Utah and wine had to be liberated from locked cabinets in the corner of restaurants. Matters have improved since then, but even today supermarkets don't sell wine or spirits and drinkers must pay $5 for a two-week "club" membership before they can be served in a public bar.
Although smarter chain hotels such as Marriott have opened in Park City, the lodging is mainly in the spacious semi-motel mode. Deer Valley is more aspirational, with de luxe ski-in, ski-out billets and minions poised to carry skis from the car park to the lifts. The veteran Norwegian Olympic gold medallist Stein Eriksen provided the accommodation blueprint with a plush pine lodge, backed up by gourmet dining and a magnificent wine list. With Deer Valley due to stage the Olympic slalom, aerials and freestyle events, Eriksen's place is spawning imitators at a phenomenal rate.
On the other side of Park City, The Canyons is fighting its way into the equation, with a no-expense-spared redevelopment. If these three close neighbours were in Europe, they would have been joined Trois Vallées-style, but in America, where resorts are owned by single corporations, co-operation comes a poor second to lift-pass sales.
In Trois Vallées terms, The Canyons has the snow quality and the variety of terrain of Val Thorens, while Deer Valley's immaculate corduroy surfaces, designed to flatter the elderly rich it courts so blatantly, make Courchevel's hi-tech grooming look sloppy. Park City rebels can snatch a bit of free skiing in Deer Valley via the Empire Canyon lift system, but don't even think of it on a snowboard. Under the current management, single plank is strictly taboo.
The organisers insist that all the Olympic venues will be open for business, with the slopes 98 per cent available to non-combatants throughout the Games. However, those who prefer to distance themselves should consider Snowbird or Alta, linked at last for the 2002 season by new lifts and pistes. This creates one of the world's great powder areas, up there with Jackson Hole, Whistler, Chamonix and St Anton, but the new pass is available only to skiers. Futuristic Snowbird welcomes boarders, but stuffy Alta rejects them unreservedly. In the late Nineties, the traditional Alta Lodge was refurbished on the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" principle, the aim being to ensure that its guests noticed no change of any kind. In contemporary America, this may be heart warming, but it's hardly a recipe for round-the-clock fun.
Crystal Holidays (020-8939 5400; www.crystalski.co.uk) offers seven nights in Park City, The Canyons or Snowbird, from £659 per person in February, including return flights to Salt Lake City from London Heathrow, accommodation and a six-day Skiutah lift pass.
The Olympic schedule and tickets are available from www.saltlake2002.com. Further details about Utah and the Olympics are available from Salt Lake visitor information services (001 801 524 0563; www.saltlakeinfo.org) and Skiutah (www.skiutah.com).