Jon Huntsman Sr.’s vision of creating an event that would attract hundreds of seniors to Southern Utah annually to engage in competition with each other in what he named the World Senior Games has become, over three decades, likely the most successful event of its kind in …well…the world.
Fulfillment of the prominent Utah businessman-philanthropist’s conviction that seniors could be lured to a remote but appealing corner of the West to demonstrate that their competitiveness remained strong despite advancing years will be played out again this fall for the 30th time.
Thus the City of St. George, along with officials and volunteers of the event itself, prepare to entertain almost 11,000 seniors during the first two weeks of October with athletes from every state and many nations. In fact, as Michelle Graves, Director of Sponsor Relations for the Games, emailed me: “Our goal this year is to host 10,950 athletes, which is the number of days in 30 years,” a goal only 400 ahead of the participant total for last year. “We also hope to host 30 nations, one for each year.”
I am registered again this October to be among the competitor in the 100 meters, against other “old guys” of my age (competition in all events is on the basis of five-year increments, as in 50-54 on up). But in addition to track and field, others of the thousands on hand will be participating in events ranging from archery, badminton and basketball to cycling, tennis, swimming and softballr.
The appellation “World” that Huntsman’s marketing acumen attached to the games’ name has, without doubt, been a key attraction for seniors willing to travel to a spot that you don’t get to easily so they can have the satisfaction of competing with the best of peers of their age.
I don’t know whether the intent of Huntsman and his wife, Karen, in their commitment to these games was because of the goodwill it has obviously fostered or economic development for the picturesque region known as “Color Country,” or “Red Rock Country.”
But the fact is both have occurred. The population of St. George was about 25,000 when the games were first held and has now grown to more than three times that at just over 80,000.
As long-time readers of the Harp are likely aware, participating in these games has held an appeal for me since I first learned of them in 2002, wanted to be a part of something called “World” games, and came to run in the 100 meters and 200 meter events a year later, to my surprise finishing sixth in the 100.
It’s what attracted me back in 2011 after colon cancer surgery, needing to prove something to myself, and was amazed to finish third in the 100 meters in the 70-74 group. And again last year, when I finished second in 75-79 100-meter runners.
These games are a success story that Huntsman himself, now 79, probably couldn’t have envisioned. And except for those aware of Huntsman’s life of giving and caring, people might well be surprised that a multibillionaire who was in the process of building the world’s largest chemical company of its kind and developing a noted cancer hospital in Salt Lake City would have the time or interest to worry about it.
This Harp is, in fact, as much about a regard I have for Huntsman, whom I have never met, as the regard I have held for more than a dozen years for the annual gathering of senior athletes he has been committed to fostering and supporting, making it possible for me and others to test ourselves in peer competition.
A person like Huntsman is particularly important at a time when anger and hostility seem to have become what too many people bring to interactions with each other, rather than goodwill and regard.
Huntsman, a leader in his Mormon church, is a two-time cancer survivor who founded an institute with the goal of curing the disease and dispenses his substantial wealth to an array of causes, in addition to having taken the Giving Pledge, the promise taken by the world’s richest people to give away more than half of their wealth.
Huntsman’s philanthropic giving now exceeds $1.2 billion but he suggests he has a long way to go since his stated intent is to give all his wealth away.
Huntsman is wont to sum up his view of the non-giving wealthy thusly: "The people I particularly dislike are those who say 'I'm going to leave it in my will.' What they're really saying is 'If I could live forever, I wouldn't give any of it away.'