SALT LAKE CITY — Thirteen years ago, as details of an international bribery scandal came to light, federal investigators and news reporters swarmed to the downtown offices of this city’s 2002 Winter Games organizing committee. Top management officials resigned. Potential sponsors bolted. Morale sank.
Robert Garff, chairman of the Salt Lake City Olympic committee, sought a “white knight” to lead the organization out of the humiliating mess. He homed in on Mitt Romney, a wealthy venture capitalist in Massachusetts who had lost a Senate race several years before.
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.
The Games needed a new face, but they weren’t going to fail, Garff said.
“It was a mess in a public relations sense,” Garff said. “It was very quick that people went to the throats of the previous bid committee chairmen. . . . The momentum, everything we had been working for, was skidding.”
There is disagreement about the extent of the skidding as organizing committee insiders and local officials look back on the 2002 Olympics through the prism of its overwhelming success. The Winter Games generated a $100 million profit and raised more local sponsor dollars ($494 million) than any previous Games, summer or winter. Salt Lake officials announced an operating budget deficit of around $380 million soon after Romney arrived; former chief operating officer Fraser Bullock — no relation to Ken — said he estimated it to be closer to $400 million.
Cindy Gillespie, the lead lobbyist for the 2002 Games and the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, said Romney publicized the financial struggles to “level with people” and establish trust. Others, however, expressed more skepticism about his motivations. Steve Pace, a vocal Olympic critic who directed Utahns for Responsible Public Spending, looked at the desperate financial proclamations as a tactic to set up the magnitude of the rescue.
“There would be 50 TV cameras and associated correspondents here covering the scandal,” Pace said. “He didn’t disabuse anyone of the notion he saved everyone’s bacon.”
Romney smoothed over perception problems by opening meetings to the public, preaching transparency, making himself visible and available, and reaching out personally to critics, the press, Congress and international Olympic officials. Fraser Bullock, a fellow Bain defector, labored behind the scenes as Romney operated in the public eye.
“Mitt Romney had a persona that was larger than life,” Garff said. “Wherever he went, he was able to use that persona to the betterment of the whole organizing committee.”
And perhaps most important, he connected with the local community. About 30,000 volunteers helped stage the Winter Games. Though the Salt Lake-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged its members to volunteer even before Romney arrived, some may have been swayed by Romney’s commitment to the church and his regional ties; he attended Brigham Young University as an undergraduate and had just bought a home in nearby Deer Valley.
“He really did give [locals] something to rally around,” Pace said. “There is a big emotional connection to him out here.”
Wayne McCormack, a professor at the University of Utah law school who coordinated the university’s involvement in the Salt Lake Games, said Romney and his team succeeded in restoring the confidence of university officials who had been disgusted by the allegations against the previous managers. (Two former bid officials were indicted on federal charges; the case was later thrown out.) But McCormack credited the organizing committee overhaul — not Romney’s particular presence or skills — for the improved state of affairs.
“You could have brought Humpty Dumpty in and the same change would have happened,” McCormack said. “It was inevitable. . . . I don’t mean to denigrate Mitt’s performance by any stretch. But to answer the question, did he cause it to happen? No, the organizational structure was such that it simply had to happen.”
Those who worked most closely with Romney say such statements wildly underestimate his impact. They say his vision, hands-on leadership and ability to communicate resuscitated an organizing committee stripped of confidence and morale and in dreadful financial shape.
“You’ve got a budget deficit, and all of the sudden no sponsors want to be a part of it,” Fraser Bullock said. “We were stymied in what we wanted to do. . . . [But] 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.”
Romney flew around the country enticing financial commitments from companies that had not previously invested in Olympic sponsorships, including big names such as Allstate, Sears Roebuck and Monster.com. He oversaw the arrangement of 53 local-sponsor deals, more than double the number for the 1998 Games in Nagano.
Mark Lewis, director of marketing for the organizing committee, remembered watching Romney slash budget items with a Sharpie pen and then practice the frugality he preached. He cut the $1.45 billion operating budget for the Games by 13 percent. Romney also traveled coach class on overseas trips, chipped in his $1 for the pizza slices he insisted upon at board meetings rather than catered meals, and rode in taxis rather than private cars.
“You cannot overestimate what Mitt contributed,” said Lewis, now a volunteer fundraiser for Romney in Montana. “I’m not saying other people didn’t play a role. . . . When you say [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady leads the Patriots to victory, that doesn’t mean you’re not complimenting the linemen, but there’s only one Tom Brady. Mitt was Tom Brady. Without him, this wouldn’t have gotten done.”
Yet Romney also took steps that could come back to haunt him in the Republican presidential campaign: He worked extensively to secure more federal funding for the Salt Lake Games than for any U.S. Olympics in history.
In his book, Romney complained that the organizing committee’s previous leadership had anticipated federal financing for security, transportation and other key Olympic elements — all of which fell outside the operating budget — but hadn’t actually secured the necessary appropriations from Congress.
Romney moved quickly, asking Gillespie, the Olympic committee’s lobbyist, “to bring in more federal funding than had ever been appropriated for any Olympics, summer or winter,” according to his book. He then personally made the case for that federal support with Utah’s governor at the time, Mike Leavitt (R); with the White House; and with senior members of Congress, including his onetime political nemesis, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Despite opposition from Sen. John McCain and other Republican leaders, the Winter Games’ federal budget grew from $200 million to about $600 million on Romney’s watch, according to his book. When various transportation and other works projects are included, the federal government spent an estimated $1.5 billion from the time the Games were awarded to Salt Lake City in 1995 until they took place in 2002.
In interviews after 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. Had the organizing committee been indicted, he said, the Games might not have gone off.
Others say too much was at stake for either the U.S. government or the International Olympic Committee — which had long before sold the U.S. television rights to the Games to NBC for $545 million — to allow the Salt Lake Olympics to fail. Indeed, former Salt Lake City mayor Deedee Corradini (D) said 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. . . . I would put Fraser in with him as having made the Olympics hugely successful. Would it have been as successful without them? It’s hard to say. . . . I think our Olympics would have been good no matter what.”