Romney accepted the challenge of running the Salt Lake committee, leaving the enormously profitable Bain Capital for Salt Lake City, the spiritual center of gravity for his Mormon faith. Over the next three years, he helped turn what had been a public disgrace into one of the most successful Winter Games in history.
That reversal would become a cornerstone of his political biography — and the subject of a book he wrote about the experience — earning Romney a reputation as a turnaround artist with extraordinary management skills.
Today, even Romney’s critics concede he helped drive a remarkable about-face for the Salt Lake Games, which was remembered Wednesday in a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the opening of those Olympics.
But in Utah, another view of Romney’s contributions also has taken hold, with some questioning whether he overstated his contributions, and the extent of the crisis, for political gain.
“What’s offensive to me is he made it about him and not our community and not our state,” said Ken Bullock, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns. “People should remember the Games, not the individual.”
Romney, whose campaign did not respond to multiple interview requests, has said repeatedly that political considerations did not figure into his decision to take on the job. With his high-level executive skills, with a connection to the community but not touched by the scandal, he was so much the obvious first choice that all he had to do was say yes.
In his book “Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership and the Olympic Games,” Romney said he “wanted to serve the community, not run for office,” even though just a month after the Games he announced his candidacy for governor of Massachusetts.
Romney has also said in campaign ads that he left his job at Bain to “go off and help save the Olympic Games,” remarks he has echoed in various public forums.
Nonetheless, Garff, the former Salt Lake City Olympics chairman, said “it was fairly obvious” to those around him that political ambition at least partly fueled Romney’s decision. “The Olympics, and turning the Olympics around,” Garff said, “it was bigger than life and would give him a platform from which to jump.”
According to Garff, who displays a replica Olympic torch on a wall of his 12th-story office overlooking downtown Salt Lake, the Games were not in danger of being canceled despite federal indictments and other fallout from revelations in the winter of 1998-99 that Salt Lake officials gave cash, scholarships and gifts to International Olympic Committee members who voted in 1995 to send the Olympics to the city.