The 2002 Winter Olympics have brought the world's top athletes to Salt Lake City. Running parallel to the Games is a Cultural Olympiad. This is nothing new. The arts have been part of the modern Olympic movement since 1896. Visitors to Salt Lake City can expect exhibitions in art galleries, dance and music performances and outdoor sculpture in city parks. Among the top attractions are an exhibition of Greek antiquities at the Utah Museum of Art, commissioned theater works on the American West by distinguished American playwrights, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Canadian and American cowboys in an Olympic Command Performance Rodeo. The Olympic Arts festival actually got underway before the Winter Games and runs through mid-March. VOA's Rosanne Skirble was at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah for the debut performance of the Cultural Olympiad - a musical tribute to the Olympic spirit.

Kurt Bestor and Sam Cardon are musical collaborators. So, when they were asked by the Cultural Olympiad to compose a tribute to the Olympic spirit they set to work scoring stories of athletic performance. The result is "Keepers of the Flame." The nine compositions each representing a different athlete uses a broad pallet of musical genres touching on jazz, classical, gospel and ethnic traditions.

As Sam Cardon puts it, he and Kurt Bestor simply closed their eyes, visualized the athletes and scored the music. He says, for example, the energy of boxer Muhammad Ali, an Olympic gold medallist in 1960, comes alive in piece called "Rise". "If you think about an athlete in the gym and he's working out on the punching bag," he says. "There's a certain rhythm ... and you may recall from the concert that the drummer started out in the same way. And as Muhammad Ali increases his skill level you hear this drum solo increasing in its velocity and virtuosity, and it's a really incredible experience in that one little piece to describe his growth and development.

"And then we immediately went to try to do something that would capture his roots. And the gospel did that very well. We had this wonderful animated choir there, the Baptist choir from here in town. It brought a certain level of energy to it. Part of the charm of this wonderfully brash athlete was his willingness against all odds to think of himself as a champion and he never thought of himself as anything less than the greatest."

Kurt Bester says when Muhammad Ali takes his boxing skills and braggadocio to Africa he is welcomed as a hero and citizen of the world. The music takes us there. "You have the world drums, and you have the people singing," he says. "What they are saying in Swahili is 'Ali. He is the greatest.' And, when you watched him light the [Olympic] flame in Atlanta with his Parkinson very visible, he really had become the greatest. Not because he could beat other fighters now, but because he could [live with] his Parkinson and be a man that everybody looks up to."

"Keepers of the Flame" is about personal achievement that goes beyond what seems humanly possible. In "All I Heard was Thunder," Kurt Bester says the composers take listeners along at breakneck speed with Austria's Franz Klammer. The music recreates the athlete's gold medal performance in the men's downhill ski race at the 1976 Winter Games in Innsbruck. And, like the race, the song lasts exactly 1:44.73.

"We wrote a very wild violin solo," says Mr. Bester. "He [told us] in an interview that all 'I heard was thunder as I came down on that very exhilarating run. We tried to take a violin and make it feel as if it was as exhilarating as that."

Kurt Bester says he was most touched by the story of Bosnian runner Mirsada Buric, favored to win the women's 3,000 meter race at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. A piece called "Sarajevo" follows the athlete whose training was interrupted by war and her imprisonment in a concentration camp. "I envisioned that it would start with a dawn and the sun would rise on this bombed out city," he says. "So you hear in the very beginning a little of the ethnic from the mosques. Then the sun rises and we envisioned she would be running and so the beat starts and the song really does capture the flavor of that area in several fronts. First, we used indigenous instruments and those things kind of made you felt that you were there. And, then we wanted something positive, the fact that she was running through the heart of the city and the heart was still beating."

Mirsada Buric who now lives in the United States, was a guest at the performance. Synchronized with the music were video clips and still photos of the era, which she says brought back difficult memories of her worn-torn country.

Buric: "My goal was to make it to the Olympic games and tell the world what was going on in Bosnia. I couldn't train in the stadium because there was sniper fire constantly going on. So, the best protection was running on the streets of Sarajevo because buildings could somewhat protect you."
Skirble: "You reached the Games. How did it feel to be there? How did it feel to run?"
Buric: "I think that I won a gold medal just by being there. The circumstances that surrounded my coming to the Olympic games and everything else that was involved just being there was a victory for me. I think I did great. I finished the race. That was my goal. I told myself that I would complete the race under any circumstances which I did."

Mirsada Buric is an Olympic hero one of the nine Olympic heroes celebrated in "Keepers of the Flame." Composers Kurt Bester and Sam Cardon hope the music communicates the emotion, the struggle, the determination and the courage of what it takes to be an Olympic athlete.