Does Romney deserve Olympic bragging rights? (Fact Checker biography)

at 11:00 AM ET, 11/03/2011


(Win McNamee, Getty Images)

“He revamped the [Salt Lake Organizing Committee’s] leadership, trimmed the budget, and restored public confidence. He oversaw an unprecedented security mobilization to assure the safety of the athletes and millions of international visitors, staging one of the most successful games ever held on U.S. soil.”

— Mitt Romney’s official campaign Web site, explaining the GOP candidate’s work as chief executive of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, which planned the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Romney took control of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee after an alleged bid-rigging scandal that tarnished the group’s reputation and caused two of its top leaders to resign. He claims the SLOC was facing a potential doomsday scenario, with fundraising stalled and planners struggling to close a massive budget gap.

“It was the most troubled turnaround I had ever seen,” he wrote in his book, “Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership and the Olympic Games.”

We looked back at the planning stages of the 2002 Winter Olympics to gauge the accuracy of Romney’s characterization. We also looked at the outcomes of the Salt Lake Games to determine whether his claims of success are true.

The Facts

Romney was always upfront about the challenges facing the SLOC, and he had good reason to paint as grim a picture as possible. His early characterizations helped lower expectations and positioned him to appear all the more heroic for any successes that would come.

Romney, who earned tens if not hundreds of millions at Bain Capital, the private-equity firm he co-founded, claims he accepted his new job out of a desire to serve, but critics say he was angling for success in the political arena. The New York Times wrote in 2007 that he was “still smarting from losing his first bid for public office,” an attempt to unseat the late Sen. Edward Kennedy in the 1994 Massachusetts Senate race.

Past news accounts suggest that the SLOC was indeed running a multimillion-dollar deficit when Romney took control, but reports about the size of the budget gap in 1999 ranged from $185 million, cited in a USA Today article, to $300 million, cited by the Associated Press, not to mention a vague “several hundred million dollars” in the Deseret News. Romney said in his book that the deficit was $379 million.

The SLOC’s post-Olympics reports showed variance as well. Romney wrote in “Turnaround” that the organization finished with a surplus of $56 million. The SLOC reported the same number in April 2002 but then adjusted the figure to $76 million in September of that year.

The SLOC’s revised number matched the pre-Olympics projections by Utah’s Governor’s Office of Budget and Planning. Coincidence or fuzzy math? Only one thing’s for sure: No Olympic committee likes falling short of expectations--and no state wants to look like it made a mistake hosting the games.

The $76 million figure matched pre-Olympics projections from the Utah Governor’s Office of Budget and Planning, which had estimated that the Games would generate exactly that much money for state and local governments (see page 3 of the report). Years after the Olympics, the office reported that same figure as the actual amount generated (see page 1).

We found no independent reports to verify the IOC’s claims, but we know that Salt Lake City and the state of Utah did not incur massive debt like other host sites such as Athens and Montreal. In fact, the SLOC handed the Utah legislature a check for $99 million to cover the state’s expenses for the Games.

Number crunchers can manipulate data to say just about anything, but it seems fairly certain that the SLOC at least broke even on the second-most-expensive Winter Olympics up to that point — the final budget was $1.3 billion.

It’s worth noting that the media hardly mentioned the SLOC deficit until Romney took control of the Games. He admits to bringing attention to the issue in a section of his book titled “Publicizing our Shortfall,” though the context is that he wanted transparency.

Was this the “most troubled turnaround” Romney ever faced? Hard to say, because Bain Capital doesn’t release the kind of information we’d need to make a comparison. But we do know that Romney produced much larger profits at the private-equity firm, which managed average returns of 113 percent on realized investments while he was leading the company.

The Boston Globe interviewed several people involved in the planning process who felt the Games were bound to be a success by the time Romney showed up to rescue them. After all, the SLOC had already secured $1 billion in committed revenue when he arrived.

Romney introduced some innovative marketing ideas and took a proactive role in helping the SLOC net an additional $300 million in sponsorship funds, but that increase represents about 23 percent of the total — hardly the lion’s share.

Critics say the table was mostly set when Romney arrived. In fact, the chairman of the SLOC told the Globe, “In my mind, there was no sense of panic.”

A report from the U.S. General Accounting Office also showed that the federal government threw $1.3 billion at the Games, funding projects ranging from safety and security to venue enhancements and highway work -- although Romney told federal officials he didn’t want and didn’t need some of the highway projects.

In terms of revamping the SLOC leadership team, the two members most connected with the bid scandal — the former chief executive and the vice president — had already resigned by the time Romney showed up. Romney kept most of the core planning group intact while making a few changes near the top, mainly naming a new chief operating officer and enlisting a friend from Bain to examine the budget. He also brought in a new board of directors and opened the meetings to the public.

As for budget cuts, the IOC report says Romney and his staff reduced expenses by about $180 million dollars, or 12 percent.

Romney appears to be correct that he oversaw an unprecedented security mobilization. The IOC reported a security budget of $350 million for the 2002 Winter Olympics, which was the largest of its kind in the history of the Games. No major incidents occurred during the event.

Romney’s campaign pointed out several passages in “Turnaround” to show that Romney has not hogged credit for the Games’ ultimate successes.

“Every person who joined the Salt Lake Organizing Committee had their own unique experiences, just as valid and important as mine. While we each had different tasks and different challenges, we all share in the success of the whole.”
Romney published the book in 2004, a year after becoming governor of Massachusetts.

The Pinocchio Test

Romney may have exaggerated the SLOC’s problems or exhibited a showman’s instinct while fixing them, but he still helped turn a tarnished and financially troubled Games into a success. He doesn’t deserve all the credit for that endeavor, but nothing that we’ve found indicates he made a flat-out false statement or misled voters with the gist of his message. His remarks earn a rare Geppetto checkmark.

Geppetto Checkmark

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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