In years past, the Games have coped with terrorism, boycotts and doping. If the bribery allegations are true, ``this could be the largest single negative in the entire Olympic movement,'' said historian John Lucas, who has chronicled the controversies of the modern Olympics.
No one is suggesting Salt Lake would not have won on its merits; the IOC vote in its favor was overwhelming. The city received 54 of 89 votes on the first ballot, far ahead of Quebec City; Sion, Switzerland; and Oestersund, Sweden. Nor is there serious talk of moving the Games away from Salt Lake.
Even so, the scandal is painful, particularly for Salt Lake, with its ulta-wholesome reputation stemming from its Mormon-dominated culture.
``We're taking some chiding because of our squeaky-clean image,'' said Shelley Thomas, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) for the 2002 Olympics. ``This community prides itself on its integrity.''
The city's image is very much at odds with the scenarios that have emerged after charges were voiced last month by a veteran Olympic official: an SLOC member pleading with a local physician to perform free cosmetic surgery on a member of the IOC; the son of an IOC member getting a city government internship here in 1994; tuition paid at American University for the daughter of another IOC member.
The U.S. Justice Department, the International Olympics Committee, the U.S. Olympics Committee, and the ethics panel of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee all are investigating. Only the Justice Department can issue subpoenas or file criminal charges. Its investigation into whether tax laws were violated is expected to take several months.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Olympics Committee panel, led by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, began meeting in Washington on Tuesday. Dick Pound, the IOC vice president who is heading that group's probe, arrived here the same day. The results of those investigations are expected by mid-February.
The SLOC's initial investigation puts the amount of money involved in the questionable payments at $400,000, Thomas said. That amount represents 2.6 percent of the $15.3 million the committee spent over seven years in its pursuit of the 1998 Winter Games, which went to Nagano, Japan, and then of the 2002 Games.
The SLOC has identified 13 people who received benefits, including six who are related to selection committee members, and three Sudanese athletes - two track-and-field team members and their coach - who received money to train at the Olympics facility in Colorado Springs, Colo., Thomas said.
Rules forbid IOC members from accepting gifts worth more than $150. In fact, a 25-page set of ethics guidelines now governs the selection process, but it was not in effect when Salt Lake was chosen.
After the scandal broke last month, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch banned IOC members from flying to cities bidding to become Olympic sites.
Bribery has been rumored to be part of the site selection process for years, said Lucas, the historian from State College who is the official lecturer for the International Olympic Committee.
While stressing that he had no direct knowledge of such activities, Lucas said, ``We've heard about automobiles and silver-fox coats, so it's been going on for a long time. . . . Mr. Samaranch may have thought he dealt with it [the $150 gift rule], but who knows what goes on in penthouse rooms?''
Utah residents take some comfort in that. ``I'm sure that if it's going on here, it's been going on [elsewhere] for years,'' Linda Bartholomew said. ``I don't think that Salt Lake should be tainted.''
Bartholomew, 45, who runs a preschool in Spanish Fork, about an hour south of Salt Lake, was in the state's capital to take her 12-year-old son, Drew, to see The Nutcracker and other big-city attractions.
Their visit involved negotiating a construction-clogged Interstate 15 - being upgraded so as to be ready for the Olympics - and crossing streets torn up to make way for a new light-rail line.
Across town, at the University of Utah, the old football stadium was demolished to make way for a glittery new facility to host the opening and closing ceremonies, and the brick buildings that will be the Olympic Village are rising from a muddy hillside nearby.
``Before all this happened,'' Bartholomew said, ``my biggest worry was that local people wouldn't be able to attend the Olympics'' because of the crush of out-of-towners.
Now, she said, ``I'm hoping this won't ruin something that's always been positive.'' Those close to the Games worry that both the Olympics and the city could have their images damaged.
Already, communications giant USWest, a prime SLOC sponsor, has expressed concern, asking committee president Frank Joklik for a detailed response to the allegations. In a sternly worded letter, USWest general counsel Mark Roellig reminded the committee that the value of its sponsorship was dependent upon ``these powerful symbols of commitment, determination and fair play.''
It is feared that other sponsors might be equally jittery.
``It would be an enormous embarrassment for someone like Coke or USWest to pull out completely,'' said Stephen Pace of Utahns for Responsible Government, a citizens watchdog group.
But Thayne Robson, a University of Utah economist, said he doubted the scandal would seriously affect sponsorship of the event, which is projected to pump as much as $2.8 billion into the state's economy.
``The Olympics is still one of the most widely watched and best advertising venues for people who want to put their message out. There is nothing quite like the Olympics to reach into 190 different countries around the world,'' said Robson, who heads the school's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
Nor should Salt Lake itself - which was booming before its announcement as an Olympic site - worry too much about financial fallout of the scandal, he said.
As for the city's reputation, Robson noted wryly, scandal never stopped tourists from flooding into places like New York or Chicago.
The most significant effect of the bribery allegations probably will be on the selection process itself. That process dates back to the days when the IOC comprised aristocratic white men, Lucas said, whose wealth generally made them unsusceptible to bribes.
``But as you democratize the IOC - which is a good thing - you run the commensurate risk of corruption,'' he said.
Lucas is drafting a letter to Samaranch in which he will suggest making site selection the business of a small subcommittee of the 115-member IOC, ``men and women, poor and rich, who are incapable of being bought.''
Without such reforms, Lucas said, he feared the loss of something that, after attending every Olympics for the last 45 years, he held dear.
For all their controversies, he said, the Games ``have a certain mystique, integrity, and idealism about them. There is a certain powerful and real sense of internationalism, cosmopolitanism, fair play, and sport for all.''
If that is damaged, he warned, and sponsorship begins to wane, the consequences could be grim.