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Romney To Highlight Olympic 'Rescue' At 10th Anniversary Of Salt Lake Games

Mitt Romney, then the president of the 2002 Salt Lake Organizing Committee, greets attendees at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Utah.
Roberto Schmidt
AFP/Getty Images
Mitt Romney, then the president of the 2002 Salt Lake Organizing Committee, greets attendees at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Utah.

The Romney campaign has confirmed that the Republican presidential hopeful will attend an event in Salt Lake City next month commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 2002 Olympics.

The event gives the struggling campaign the chance to underscore one of Mitt Romney's signature accomplishments. "I worked at one company, Bain, for 25 years," Romney said in a debate and campaign ad. "And I left that to go off and help save the Olympic Games."

On Feb. 18, Romney will speak at the keynote event marking the Olympic anniversary. "A Tribute to Salt Lake 2002 featuring Stars on Ice" will include Olympic ice skaters and other athletes and will be held in the arena that hosted figure skating and short-track speed skating competition during the games.

The news release announcing Romney's appearance came from the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation, but some of it sounds a bit like a campaign announcement.

In fact, "our team ... worked with Mitt's [campaign] staff on the press release," says Fraser Bullock, a former partner at Bain Capital and Romney's chief financial and operating officer at the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee.

The following paragraph was not written by the Romney campaign, Bullock says. But it contains what could be considered campaign-style exaggeration:

"Early on, the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games faced several challenges including an uncertain financial outlook and the prospect of being cancelled following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks," the news release says. "By the end of the competition, critics praised the event as one of the most successful Winter Olympic Games ever held."

There's no question the Salt Lake Olympics were struggling financially in the wake of the bribery scandal involving the city's bid for the games. Romney was brought in as the new CEO of the Olympic Organizing Committee and immediately instituted tough budget discipline.

But it's a stretch to say there was any serious consideration given to canceling the Olympics.

In fact, just last week, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who took charge of the effort to rescue the Olympics following the scandal, told Terry Gildea of NPR affiliate KUER that there was no question about holding the Olympics as scheduled, despite the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Within a couple of days I flew to Washington and met with President Bush," Leavitt recalled. "I said to him, 'I think this is an important moment.' And he ... gave the clear order that we would move forward and that the federal government needed to be as fully engaged in this as possible to ensure that nothing stood in our way."

Bullock acknowledges no real threat of cancellation. "We were always resolute in holding the games and never wavered for a moment," he says in response to a question about the claim in the news release.

"There were questions behind the scenes of whether we could safely host the games," Bullock adds. "Some [Olympic] teams were so concerned they considered withdrawing from the games. Some sponsors canceled large ticket orders and the media was posing this question."

Bullock is also quoted in the news release about Romney's upcoming appearance at the Olympic anniversary celebration.

"Mitt Romney has experience turning around tough situations, and the Salt Lake Games were no exception," Bullock says. "The Salt Lake 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games were one of the most profitable games ever."

Romney did restore sponsor and public confidence in the Olympic committee and erased a $400 million deficit. His operating budget finished with a $100 million surplus. But not included in that budget were hundreds of millions of dollars spent for security and transportation infrastructure — money not paid back with Olympic revenues.

Romney had no control over that spending, and his aides openly said some of the infrastructure projects were not needed for the Olympics. So, Romney deserves credit for the budget surplus, but it's also a stretch to say the Salt Lake Olympics were "profitable."

NPR had a more detailed look at Romney's Olympic experience on Jan. 13. At the time, the Romney campaign would not say whether Salt Lake Olympic commemorations would be on the candidate's February schedule.

Bullock tells NPR he believes Romney is holding a fundraiser in Utah the night before the Olympic anniversary event. Utah has been a consistent and major source of funding for Romney's two presidential campaigns. That reflects the Olympic halo and Romney's prominent membership in the Mormon Church, which is based in Salt Lake City.

The Romney campaign has not responded to NPR's questions about a fundraiser during the visit to Utah.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.