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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Utah Youth Get Royal Treatment in Moscow

SALT LAKE CITY -- As the first day of events got under way Sunday at the Moscow-Utah Youth Games, Utah athletes were getting the celebrity treatment.

After Saturday's extravagant opening ceremonies, the athletes found themselves in demand by star-struck autograph seekers. The athletes signed American flags, shirts, hats, scraps of paper and even packs of cigarettes.

Attention paid to the Americans isn't surprising, however, given that Utah's contestants have been featured on Moscow television and in newspapers.

"This is just amazing," said 1,500-meter runner Jace Nye as he faced a crowd of giggling girls. "Signing autographs -- I've never thought of myself as a celebrity."

It's uncertain whether the same hoopla will surround Russian athletes when Salt Lake City hosts the games in February.

In Moscow, Utah athletes and dignitaries are routinely escorted by police cars, sirens blaring, with streets blocked for clear passage. The two-hour opening ceremonies featured several dancers with intricate costumes, a rousing folk dancing troupe, fancy lighting and wild music.

"That's going to be hard to duplicate," said Evan Excell, director of the Utah High School Athletic Association. "And that motorcade -- we could never do that in Salt Lake."

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov made sure the arena was full by recruiting youths from schools throughout Moscow and giving them color-coded T-shirts to aid the festive atmosphere.

"Moscow has vast experience in hosting youth games at the highest level," Luzhkov said in his speech at the ceremonies. "It doesn't matter who wins in these games ... we're developing friendship, which is the most important power in the world."

Still, all the pomp had Governor Mike Leavitt wondering: "How are we going to match this?"

"They probably spent at least a million dollars on the show, and we won't have that kind of money, not in the current budget situation," said David Winder, Leavitt's special Olympic assistant and pointman on the Moscow event.

Winder and Leavitt praised the show and said they have no problem with Luzhkov's aspirations. But they said Utah can respond.

"We'll just have to do it our own way," Leavitt said. "We have a great state and a lot of great talent."

Winder said he got the first hint that Moscow could be preparing something spectacular last year, when he went to Russia to see the previous youth competition, the International Athletic Youth Games of the 15 former Soviet republics.

The closing ceremony "blew us away," Winder said. "It was actually more powerful than even today's show."

He got advice from Ray Grant, the head of Utah's successful Cultural Olympiad of 2002.

"Ray said to me that we would never match them in spectacle, we can't duplicate the centuries-long Russian culture. So, now we have a bunch of different ideas we are working on."

Winder did not elaborate on those ideas, except for playing up Utah's Western heritage and possibly staging a full-scale rodeo.