Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney considers his management of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games as the turnaround point in his career. He even wrote a 2004 memoir entitled, "Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership and the Olympic Games".
In the book, Romney exclaims, “I led an Olympics out of the shadows of scandal” and it has been his recurrent mantra on the campaign trail for the 2012 election. Romney continuously cites his Olympic experience as a prime example of his managerial expertise and a reason he should replace Barack Obama as president. In his victory speech after the Florida primary sealing his nomination, he said, "My leadership helped save the Olympics from scandal."
Romney’s subordinates and supporters go even further in their assessment of Romney’s Olympic role. Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s deputy campaign manager, told the Boston Globe that the former Olympic chief “rescued the Olympics and restored pride in the United States at a critical time in our history.” Fehrnstrom added, “He organized and ran the Winter Olympic Games in 2002. He’s run a state successfully. I think that’s a big difference between these two.”
But while Romney and his surrogates deem his salvaging of the scandal-plagued Games a turnaround point in his career, in Utah an alternative view of Romney’s contributions has taken hold, with some questioning whether he overstated his contributions and the extent of the crisis.
In interviews after the conclusion of the Games, Romney said the plight of organizers was so daunting he might never have taken the job had he realized the depth of the crisis. But according to an April 2012 article in Salt Lake Magazine, before Romney took over as Salt Lake Games chair, the IOC made it clear that despite the scandal, Utah would still host the Games. Furthermore, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) had already raised $1 billion dollars toward a $1.45 billion projected budget, with three years to go before the Opening Ceremony.
Former Utah Governor and Republican presidential candidate Jon M. Huntsman Jr. criticized the selection of Romney’s as not being “open, fair and honest,” and described his selection of organization leaders as “cronyism at its peak.” Former Salt Lake City mayor Deedee Corradini acknowledges Romney simply did “fine work” preparing a games that slipped and fell but was never gravely wounded. “I don’t remember him as a savior of the Olympics,” she said. “He came in and did a good job. He did a very good job.” She added, “I think our Olympics would have been good no matter what.”
Some who worked with Romney contend that fixing Salt Lake's problems was primarily an image problem. Ken Bullock, who represented the Utah League of Cities and Towns on Salt Lake Olympic Committee’s (SLOC) board, said "Mitt, he was a great image for the Games; he did instill confidence in people, but to say he saved us, that's misplaced." He continued, “People should remember the Games, not the individual.” Others who worked closely with Romney say such statements wildly underestimate his impact.
Fraser Bullock, no relation to Ken, also helped Romney run the Games and is a major donor to a super PAC that is supporting Romney's presidential aspirations. Bullock recalls of Romney stepping in as Chairman, “You’ve got a budget deficit, and all of the sudden no sponsors want to be a part of it,” and added, “We were stymied in what we wanted to do….Mitt got out there and made it happen, personally. I had nothing to do with that. He just did it, and without that, we would have failed. He was tireless.” Another former Salt Lake City Mayor, Rocky Anderson – a Justice Party presidential candidate and polar political opposite of Romney - said Romney was “a great leader” of the Games.
Not everyone declared Romney performance worthy a gold medal. David Wallechinsky is an author and the vice president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. He says that Romney improved the situation in Salt Lake, but that the claim that he "helped save the Olympics" is too broad. “The bribery scandal was a low point for the Olympic movement, but it wasn’t an existential threat. It wasn’t going to threaten the Olympic movement, which survived two world wars, major boycotts and terrorist attacks,"
But Romney claims that he was a turnaround specialist, not just a great leader. It can be argued that too much was at stake for either the U.S. government or the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to allow the Salt Lake Olympics to fail. Long before the scandal was revealed, U.S. television rights to the Salt Lake City Games were sold to NBC for $545 million. That being noted it begs two questions; If the Olympics were never in any real danger, did they need saving? And, Is Romney’s stance that he saved the Games true if the Games were never truly in jeopardy?
Romney maintains that the Games were profitable, but were those profits overstated and the result of creative accounting? Romney worked extensively to secure more federal funding for the Salt Lake Games. According to his book, he directed Cindy Gillespie, the Olympic committee’s lobbyist, “to bring in more federal funding than had ever been appropriated for any Olympics, summer or winter.” Romney personally made the case for that federal support with Utah’s governor at the time, Mike Leavitt (R); the George W. Bush administration; and senior members of Congress, including his onetime political opponent, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and friendly Republican senators who helped direct an additional $1.3 billion of taxpayer money purportedly for security concerns.
The truth is the appropriation paid for much more than security, like $70 million given to the Utah Athletic Foundation to maintain Utah’s Olympic venues in perpetuity, a horse adoption program, a new sewage system, reconstruction of the freeway system, a light rail system, new parking lots, housing for news media covering the Games and weather forecasting - all of which fell outside the operating budget.
"To me, it was obvious he had a plan, an agenda, and the Olympics fell right into it. He never told me he'd run for governor of Massachusetts. But I knew he was an ambitious man who had his mother's good looks, his father's charisma and his own intellect. I knew he was a man going somewhere." - Robert Garff, chairman of the SLOC for the 2002 Winter Olympics
In his book Romney also said he “wanted to serve the community, not run for office,” though just a month after the Games ended he announced his candidacy for governor of Massachusetts. The narrative he puts forth of his Olympic experience is an indispensable part of that tale.
The challenges faced by the SLOC hardly rate in comparison to other Games. Throughout history, the Olympics have been laced with scandals, some more egregious than the Salt Lake’s bidding controversy. Type “Olympic scandal” into Google and see for yourself.
By all accounts, Mitt Romney did help the Salt Lake City Olympics image after the embarrassing scandal was revealed and he brought the 2002 Winter Olympics to a successful conclusion. But it is a stretch to suggest the future of SLC Olympics themselves were at stake before Romney’s time as CEO and the facts show as much.