Mitt Romney's proclamation that Salt Lake's Olympics are "not the Mormon Games" may not do much to change the perception outside Utah that the two are closely linked.
"I think it's a great and noble thing to say these are not the Mormon Games, but the whole world, let's face it, thinks of the LDS Church when they think of Utah," Mike Sweeney, a journalism professor at Utah State University, said Friday.
"Especially when you're telling journalists something in front of their eyes is not what it appears to be . . . as long as there are connections to the Mormon Church that are evident to any visitors to the Games, they may think they're the Mormon Games."
That's what Romney, the president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, wants to stop. At a hastily called press conference Friday, Romney said it was "divisive and demeaning" to characterize the 2002 Winter Games as the Mormon Games.
Sweeney, though, said such statements may serve only to focus more attention on the issue. "That's human nature. You tell someone to ignore something or not pay attention to it and they immediately have their interest piqued," he said.
So was it a smart move for Romney to condemn the term Mormon Games? "Only time will tell. I think that it is smart to try to deal with it. I'm just not sure that coming right out and saying this was the best way to do it."
The term has appeared recently in a number of newspapers. USA Today reported last month that the church is using the Olympics to "drive home the point that church President Gordon B. Hinckley, considered a prophet, has made publicly: 'We're not weird.' "
Romney surrounded himself at the press conference with more than a dozen SLOC trustees, athletes, minority leaders and religious officials, and pointed out he was the only member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the group.
He also thanked the church for contributing the use of a downtown parking lot for the medals plaza, where athletes will receive their Olympic medals in nightly ceremonies, as well as property near Park City that will be used as a park-and-ride lot.
"In my view, the donations we were requesting from corporations owned by the Mormon Church was entirely in proportion to their economic presence," he said, calling some of the questions about its relationship with SLOC "pretty bizarre."
One questioner, Romney said, suggested the LDS Church was getting special treatment because it has a calendar which mentions the 2002 Games. Also brought up was the fact that an LDS Church leader brought up Romney's name, among others, to take over SLOC.
"The characterization of Olympic matters as Mormon or non-Mormon is in my view both divisive and demeaning," he said, to the contributions made "by all of the communities of faith . . . . These are not Mormon Games."
Such a declaration is unprecedented, according to Ed Hula, the Atlanta-based editor of Around the Rings, an electronically published Olympic newsletter with a worldwide readership.
"I don't remember Billy Payne saying the Atlanta Olympics are not the Redneck Olympics. Or not the Coca-Cola Olympics," Hula said. "Should Beijing get (the 2008 Summer Games) will they have to declare, 'These are not the Communist Party Olympics?' "
The 1996 Summer Games were mocked as the Coca-Cola Olympics after Atlanta defeated sentimental favorite Athens, Greece. Some Olympic insiders felt the ancient city was cheated out of the centennial Olympics by American corporate interests.
Hula said it's careless to connect the church to the 2002 Games. "I don't think there's anything, if you look at how they're being organized and presented, that would classify them as Mormon. You can't hold a Games in a city without support of the largest institution."
Howard Berkes, a National Public Radio reporter based in Salt Lake City, said Friday's statement won't put an end to stories about the relationship between Olympic organizers and the LDS Church.
"Will there not be stories now about whether people can get a drink, whether it's fair not to have beer sales at the medals plaza because it's church-owned, whether the organizing committee is deferring to the church and is that appropriate? Those stories are still going to be done," Berkes said.
NBC, the television network that paid a record $545 million for the right to broadcast the 2002 Games in the United States, plans to showcase the Wasatch Front during its coverage in a series of scenic shots that will be aired before and after commercials.
"Is the church going to be part of that? Yes. Is the church going to dominate that? No," NBC Sports spokesman Mike McCarley said. "If the Olympics were held in Rome, you would see shots of the Vatican, but you would also see shots of more things."
Church spokesman Mike Otterson said the issue is not new — and not of much interest outside the state. "I believe a lot of this is fostered by some local press. I really don't believe most of the U.S. or foreign press is concerned about this."
Ted Wilson, a former mayor of Salt Lake City and the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said he thought Romney's statements were directed at journalists outside of the state.
"I don't believe he'd bring it up locally. We're already divisive enough," Wilson said.