By Matthew D. LaPlante
for Salt Lake Magazine

The opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics were still months away, but already Mitt Romney was thinking about the legacy they would leave behind.

On a crisp Saturday afternoon in November, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee president and CEO stood in the middle of the newly constructed Gateway Mall, flanked by the Davis High School marching band and a dancing water fountain designed in the shape of the Salt Lake Winter Games’ snowflake logo. Nearby, a cascading stream of water trickled between two sets of concrete stairs.

The Olympic Legacy Plaza, Romney told a crowd of about 300 people, would stand as “a tangible memory” of this Olympics.
As part of that memory, the names of 28,000 Olympic workers and volunteers would be inscribed on the plaza’s west wall.

But under Romney’s orders, two names would be left out. The banishment of Tom Welch and Dave Johnson, the two men most responsible for bringing the Olympics to Salt Lake City, was, as it turns out, a rather ironic attempt to sanitize history. Because in the decade that followed, no one has done more to remind the world of the questionable ethical origins of the 2002 Olympics than Romney.

Never mind that the scandal itself had little to do with Salt Lake City, never threatened the viability of the Games and was, in historical context, an Olympic-sized trifle. 

Notes Robert Garff, former SLOC chairman, “I never thought there was a time when the Salt Lake Organizing Committee was in danger of failing in its duties.” 

Since the late 1920s, civic leaders in Utah had been trying to bring the Olympics to Salt Lake City. In spite of winter conditions that were legendary among ski racers and jumpers, Utah’s provincial—even backwater—reputation always seemed to stand in the way.

But every four years the dreamers would start dreaming. And every decade or so, international interest would rise to the point that those dreams didn’t seem so dreamy. Salt Lake won the U.S. Olympic Committee’s blessing to bid on several occasions and volunteered to host the 1976 Games when Colorado voters abrogated in the face of soaring costs. Each time, the state’s proposal was rejected by the International Olympic Committee.

But in 1992, under the leadership of Welch, a lawyer, and Johnson, a car salesman, Salt Lake City came closer to holding the torch than ever before—losing to Nagano, Japan, by just four votes for the right to host the 1998 Olympiad. More than a decade later, a provincial investigation would reveal that Nagano had spent millions of dollars on an “illegitimate and excessive level of hospitality” for IOC members. The report estimated Nagano’s pot-sweetening expenditures at $24 million—or about $500,000 for each of the 46 votes it claimed.

But for Welch and Johnson, it didn’t take an investigation to know why Utah had lost out. The duo resolved to be the most gracious—and generous—of hosts when Olympic officials returned. The gifts they bequeathed on committee members in the following years included all-expenses-paid ski trips, cash payments, Super Bowl tickets, college scholarships and even plastic surgery.

And on June 16, 1995, in Budapest, Hungary, the IOC voted overwhelmingly to send the games to Utah.

The palm grease that helped make it happen wasn’t as extensive as what had come from Nagano—or any different than what had come from bidding cities going back for decades. Take Detroit’s bid to host the 1968 Summer Games: It was reportedly so excessive that it incited a backlash among the more scrupled voting members of the IOC, which chose Mexico City over Detroit by a vote of 30 to 14.

“The whole affair,” one member complained, according to press accounts in the fall of 1963, “had deteriorated to the level of a circus.”

Standing right under the big top was Mitt’s father Michigan Gov. George Romney, a crucial member of the team of civic leaders who fought to bring the Games to the Motor City. The elder Romney denied that Detroit had done anything untoward. He couldn’t explain, however, why Michigan needed to send 55 delegates to Germany to woo the 58 IOC members who were meeting there to choose a host city. According to minutes from the meeting, Norwegian IOC member Olaf Ditlev-Simonsen complained after the vote that rules should be in place to prevent bidding cities from “organizing cocktail parties” and “giving all kinds of presents.” Ditlev-Simonsen’s motion was sidelined to committee consideration. And the practices he railed against never seemed to stop.

That is, not until 1998. That’s when KTVX-TV reporter Chris Vanocur obtained a memo showing that the Salt Lake Organizing Committee was paying for the daughter of a Cameroonian IOC member to attend college at American University in Washington, D.C. The cards fell quickly after that. The IOC opened an investigation into the actions of its members. Ten were ultimately expelled from the organization. Welch had already left the Salt Lake Organizing Committee in 1997, and Johnson would resign soon after the IOC investigation was announced. And Romney—who recently had lost his bid to unseat Sen. Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts—was soon called into service by friends and business associates in Utah to act as the ultimate authority over all operations, marketing and fundraising for the Salt Lake Games.

Welch and Johnson would later be indicted in U.S. District Court on charges that they illegally bribed IOC members for their votes. The problem was, they hadn’t done anything illegal at all. Not according to Judge David Sam who scolded prosecutors for a case he felt was entirely lacking “in criminal intent or evil purpose.”

From the bench, Sam did everything but issue a formal letter of apology, noting that while Utahns partied with the world, Welch and Johnson had been deprived “of fully enjoying the fruits of your tireless efforts to bring the Olympics [to Utah].”

“My hope,” Sam told the defendants, “is that you will now be appropriately recognized and honored for your efforts.”

That never happened.

Fans of tend to think of the Olympics as pure athletic achievement in all its glory. Despite Sam's pardon and apology, it was unpalatable to many Americans that the Games could, in fact, be something to be bought. But the Olympics have long been a commercial and money-making machine, and Welch and Johnson played the field as it needed to be played to make Salt Lake's bid a success.

Still, Romney argued at a 2001 press conference that including the men on the Olympic Legacy Plaza's Wall of Honor “would send the wrong message to the citizens of the world about the ethical standards of our community.” And in order to establish and bolster his political image as the man with the right stuff to “turn around” the Olympics, Romney would have to continue to send that very same message.

And he did. Time after time. For a decade.

There’s not a lot of debate about the quality of Romney’s Olympic management. Even former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson—a rival presidential candidate (for the fledgling Justice Party) and polar political opposite of the socially conservative multi-millionaire—said Romney was “a great leader” of the Games. But Romney hasn’t branded himself as simply a great leader, but rather as a turnaround specialist. The story of his Olympic experience is an indispensable part of that meme. Within weeks of returning to Massachusetts, Romney was in full campaign mode, and already reminding folks in the Bay State (and telling those that hadn’t heard) that the Olympic Games had been on the brink of disaster and "beset by red ink and a lack of public confidence" until he took over.

And thus was born the first of many flips for a man who has come to be known for his flops.

Romney’s Sept. 27, 2002 newsletter to supporters somewhat blurrily recalled “how he erased a $379 million budget deficit, organized 23,000 volunteers, galvanized community spirit and restored integrity to the Games.”

Romney’s subordinates and supporters were even more gratuitous 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.”

Once the Olympic-saving aura was fixed, Romney didn’t have to say much at all. The media began doing it for him, describing his time as head of the Games as “triumphant” and calling him the “savior.” Romney could have let it ride. Instead he doubled down.

In 2004 Romney released his first book. He called it Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership and the Olympic Games. The inside cover read: “Sullied by scandal, on the brink of financial disaster, and with federal investigators, bankers and the press at its door, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee’s senior managers admitted the organization was paralyzed. But Romney had too much American patriotism to let it become a catastrophe for his country. So he accepted the biggest turnaround challenge of his life.”

And in his runs for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and 2012, Romney once again highlighted the scandal, describing it as a major crisis. In one television ad during the first run Romney said he “took on the bankrupt Olympics and turned them around.” On his campaign website, earlier this year, Romney claimed to have “salvaged the 2002 Winter Olympic Games from certain disaster.”

That’s a motif that Romney supporter Frasier Bullock—a partner in Romney’s venture capital firm who served as chief financial officer for the games at Romney’s behest—continues to advance today, providing the candidate room to use more humble words when speaking of the Games. At an event in Salt Lake City in February, Bullock told a crowd of former SLOC members that Romney was “the greatest leader in the history of the Olympics."

Former International Olympic Committee executive Dick Pound won’t go that far, but he believes Romney does deserve quite a bit of credit for the leadership he exhibited in Utah. The Salt Lake Organizing Committee “was really sucking wind at the point Romney took over,” Pound says. “They needed somebody to step in who was not part of the old gang, who hadn’t been a part of the bidding process.”

But had the scandal brought the Games to the brink of collapse?

“There certainly was no concern that would happen,” Pound says, noting that even before Romney arrived on the scene, the IOC had put its full support behind Salt Lake. To understand in proper context the challenge Romney faced in 2002, it might be helpful to revisit the Games his father was unable to secure for Michigan.

In the wake of the deadly Detroit riots of 1967, some expressed relief Olympic leaders had passed over Michigan’s largest city four years earlier. But the truth was that Mexico City had even bigger problems. In the summer of 1968, just 10 days before the Games were to begin, scores of student protestors and bystanders were killed during a protest that involved, among other complaints, the amount of money the government was spending while so many Mexicans were suffering without work or food. The government’s violent crackdown brought swift international condemnation and calls for a cancellation of the Games.

But the show went on. And more than 600 million people watched as Mexican hurdler Norma Enriqueta Basilio de Sotelo became the first woman to light the Olympic cauldron; as U.S. high jumper Dick Fosbury introduced the world to his revolutionary “flop”; as Tanzania’s John Stephen Akhwari completed a marathon on a dislocated knee; and as African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos took a shoeless, black-gloved stand for human rights after medaling in the 200-meter race.

In short, the Games were a success and left a lasting legacy on sports, culture and politics.

Since the Greeks lit the modern Olympic flame in 1896, every host city has been besieged by some degree of scandal, ill-preparedness or tragedy. The Games have survived two World Wars, The Great Depression, a series of Cold War boycotts and several instances of terrorism. And in almost all cases naysayers worried, as the torch came nearer, that the next iteration of the Games would be a colossal failure.

With just 100 days to go before the start of the 2004 Summer Games, Athens was in a state of total disarray. “The metro station to the park wasn’t finished and the whole area was a scruffy building site,” a BBC correspondent wrote.

Would the Greeks dishonor their heritage by botching the Games? Not by a long jump. As the torch was passed along, IOC President Jacques Rogge told the closing ceremony crowd they’d witnessed the “Dream Games.”

It almost always works out that way.

In Beijing—where environmentalists and health experts feared that thick, gray haze would spell certain doom for athletes—competitors and spectators were treated to two weeks of mostly blue skies as the Chinese closed factories and limited car travel to secure a good environment for the international spectacle.

Four years before the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, a British Columbian auditor general found the event was on pace to exceed by nearly $2 billion the original estimated price tag. The Games went on. And the biggest problem wasn’t organization but something that no Olympic host city can control: The weather was so warm that it was difficult to hold some events.

By contrast, consider what Romney inherited when he took over as head of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee in 1999: He had the full confidence of the IOC—leaders of which made it clear, as soon as the scandal broke, that Utah would still host the Games. He had tens of thousands of Olympic volunteers; $1 billion dollars in the coffers toward a $1.45 billion projected budget, with three years to go before show time; and a congressional sugar daddy named Sen. Robert Bennett, who alongside other senate colleagues helped direct federal funds to Utah projects in support of the Games. (Among the funds that stoked the ire of Sen. John McCain and other spending watchdogs was $2.2 million to improve Salt Lake’s sewer system, hidden inside an emergency appropriation to fund U.S. operations in Kosovo.)

Had the scandal really left a crisis worthy of the epic legend that has been built around it?

Anderson, who was brought onto the Salt Lake Organizing Committee after his election in 2000, said he never harbored any concern that the Games might fail.

That’s an assessment shared by his predecessor, Deedee Corradini. “I never felt the Games were at risk of not being successful,” she says.

Notwithstanding his fondness for Romney, Anderson says, “it’s not surprising that someone running for political office would raise his role in meeting the challenges we were facing.”

The challenges faced by the SLOC hardly rate in comparison to other Games. But with the exception of the Munich Summer Games in 1972—when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed by a Palestinian paramilitary group—no Olympiad is so inextricably linked to bad news. Punch “Olympic scandal” into Google and the second hit (after the obligatory Wikipedia register of every Olympic indignity) is about the 2002 Games. Search “2002 Winter Olympics” and the second reference is about the scandal.

Alas, Anderson says, Salt Lake’s association with scandal “may be continually reinforced by the fact that people are still touting Romney’s role in turning things around.”

That’s the torch that Utahns will always bear.