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It was the morning of September 11, 2011 when Mitt Romney was driving past the Pentagon in Washington DC. The Pentagon was on fire, the smoke so extensive it filled Romney’s car. Romney was the head of the Salt Lake City Olympics Committee at that time, and was in DC to lobby, coincidentally, for more government support with security for the upcoming Winter Games to be hosted in Utah.

Romney immediately got on the phone with his COO, Fraser Bullock to talk “about the fact that in less than five months, we were going to host the world and how were we going to keep everyone safe.”

The Salt Lake City Winter Olympics went on to become, from a sports and business perspective, a relative success compared to other Olympics. But prior to the start of the Games, with 9/11 heavy on organizers’ and casual spectators alike, security was a major priority.

In fact, even if 9/11 had not occurred, the organizers and the US government had already invested heavily in security. After all, it was only about 5 and a half years earlier that a pipe bomb went off in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta on the evening of the ninth day of the XXVI Olympiad. Over 100 people were injured, including two who died.

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Mitt Romney, President George Bush and IOC Head Jacques Rogge
While the budget for security in Atlanta was $101 million, it more than doubled to $225 million for the Salt Lake City Games, according to this New York Times article. The Winter Games that year saw a security presence unlike any other Games. More importantly, a wide variety of federal, state and local authorities were coordinated in a manner that had been unprecedented, the result of painful lessons learned about the consequences of various relevant agencies not coordinating information and efforts pre and post 9/11. Here are a few or the major decisions to boost security at Salt Lake City 2002, according to the Times article:

  • Secret Service agents will be used to secure all areas used for Olympic events. In the past, their role was confined to protecting the president and other dignitaries. The expanded presence represents the federal government’s largest security investment, $27.2 million, according to the government report.
  • For the first time in an Olympics in the United States — this is the eighth since 1904 — all law agencies, as well as military commanders, will operate as part of a unified Utah Olympic Public Safety Command.
  • Airspace over northern Utah will be heavily guarded, with AWACs surveillance planes on routine missions, F-16’s from nearby Hill Air Force Base on alert and added radar operating at Salt Lake City International Airport, where plans call for commercial traffic to be stopped at various times, including the opening and closing ceremonies.
  • In another new effort, the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service are pooling resources to create an instant check on foreign visitors through a database that will let Customs officers determine immediately whether an Olympic athlete or official is on a United States watch list.
  • In addition, military forces will be stationed in and around the city. Mr. Romney said the commitment could reach up to 10,000 troops, including more than 2,000 from the Utah National Guard, the largest call-up ever in the state.

On February 8, only 151 days after September 11, the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Games commenced. In memory of the events that took place that beautiful Tuesday morning in New York, the tattered American flag that was recovered from the ruins of the Twin Towers was brought into the Stadium amidst an honor guard of Port Authority, NYPD and NYFD personnel who were in New York that day, with helicopter rotors thumping in the background.

Bullock said that there were objections from influential people about injecting a potentially powerful political statement like this particular American flag being displayed in an event that purports to be politically agnostic. But Bullock said that Romney had to twist a few arms to get to that decision because it “was the right thing to do.” And when the flag appeared, Bullock said, “the world really came together. It was a special moment for everyone.”

Opening Night Gala Presentation and World Premiere of "The Walk
New York, NY – September 26, 2015 – Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Philippe Petit at the Opening Night Gala Presentation and World Premiere of TriStar Pictures’ “The Walk”.
I lie against this narrow strip of unknown land, looking up, until I comprehend: it is a landing field for extraterrestrial vessels. No! A takeoff field: the clouds give it direction – a limitless runway into heaven. It is definitely not man-made, nor of any use to us humans. So uncertain is its length – call it height – and so alien its design, the dreaded word has now infiltrated my heart: Impossible! Impossible! Impossible! it pounds. I can no longer breathe. (From the book, To Reach the Clouds)

The Frenchman looked straight up and knew he had no choice – he had to lay a wire across the two towers of the World Trade Center, and walk into the void.

I just saw the film, The Walk, directed by Robert Zemeckis, based on one of my favorite books, “To Reach the Clouds“, by one of my life heroes, Monsieur Philippe Petit. I watched as if in a dream.

Philippe Petit color

Philippe Petit is not an Olympian, but he is an athlete nonpareil. The wooden balance beam that a female gymnast leaps and flips on is four inches (10 cm) wide. The steel cable that Petit walks is steel braided cable 5/8″ in diameter – essentially a toe or two wide. A woman on the balance beam would stand four feet (1.24 meters) above the floor. Petit danced on his wire 1,368 feet (417 meters) above ground. He crossed the 138 feet (42 meters) expanse between the two towers, not once, not twice, but 8 times. Petit traipsed, bowed, stood one legged, spun 180 degrees on this very highwire on that August 7 morning in 1972….for 49 minutes.

The “Coup”, as Petit has called this act of defiance and triumph, has a degree of difficulty unthinkable in any competition at the highest levels.

The Walk, as a movie, was a technical masterpiece. It is the first time in my mind that 3D and IMAX have come together with narrative and directorial vision to produce a story telling event of such visceral impact that you feel suspended a quarter mile high. (Yes, in the scenes depicting “the Coup”, my palms were sweating, and the nerves in my rear were tingling.)

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Joseph Gordon Levitt in The Walk
Petit is an inspiration. People can say “Do the impossible”. But Petit did.

It starts, as it does with all incredible achievers, with a dream.

You need dreams to live. It is as essential as a road to walk on and as bread to eat. I would have felt myself dying if this dream had been taken away from me. The dream was as big as the towers. There was no way it could be taken away from me by authority, by reason, by destiny.

Watch an interview of Philippe Petit from this fantastic documentary by Ric Burns called “New York – The Center of the World“, a history of the World Trade Center.

Philippe Petit doing the impossible.
Philippe Petit doing the impossible.

This is the movie I want to see this year. Even more than the first of the J. J. Abrams Star Wars trilogy. I want to see the Robert Zemeckis film – The Walk.

On the morning of Tuesday, August 6, 1974, a Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped out onto a wire that was suspended between the rooftops of World Trade Center Towers, and took a walk…a quarter of a mile in the air. He didn’t tip toe for a few seconds, or steady himself with shifts and drops against the winds that plied the space between the towers. No, he walked back and forth, for a total of 40 minutes, most certainly defying death. And he did it with joy. He danced, he jumped, he reclined and stared peacefully at the sky on his back on a steel wire about an inch in diameter.

He was happy.

We all aspire to something great, or at least something better than we currently experience. Olympic athletes are high-performance beasts who understand the power of visualizing achievement and victory, and using that as motivation to greater heights. But rarely would they be in a situation so off-the-charts unimaginable, so high in difficulty level, as the idea of walking on a tightrope between two towers so high they would often get lost in the clouds.

This act, or as Petit calls it, Le Coup, is so beyond the understanding of even the greatest of thrill seekers that the New York Times wrote an article describing it as art. The article quotes Colum McCann who wrote a novel called “let the Great World Spin” based on this act, and claimed that Petit “has the commitment and consciousness of an important artist.” His work “takes place primarily in the brain. The body follows the brain. He outthinks his body. And he takes over new spaces. He reappropriates public space. He turns our public spaces into things that we have to think about again.”

Was Petit’s Coup a piece of performance art? Was it an act of incredible athleticism? It doesn’t matter as it must inspire all who walk this planet.