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2000s: The First Decade — Salt Lake Olympic legacy endures

SHARE 2000s: The First Decade — Salt Lake Olympic legacy endures
Mitt Romney welcomes visitors and athletes to the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Mitt Romney welcomes visitors and athletes to the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

The First Decade — Fourth in a series: A new millennium was born amid concerns about the Y2K bug. Far more real fears unfolded on Sept. 11, 2001. Deseret News and Associated Press writers today continue a series of essays examining the major developments of the past decade and their impact on Utah and beyond.

When Mitt Romney gets recognized as he travels around the country, it's typically not because he ran a strong race for the GOP presidential nomination last year.

Back on the campaign trail for other Republican candidates — and, many believe, for another bid for the White House — Romney is most often remembered for something else entirely: the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

Even as the decade comes to a close the memories of the first major international event after 9/11 are as fresh as ever.

And Romney, a wealthy Boston businessman with limited political experience when he took over the Salt Lake Games, understands.

"People felt such a sense of relief that there was not a terrorist event, and the fact that the Games were so successful, they aren't going to forget that," he said. "I'm still hearing time and again, 'Those Games were the greatest experience of my life.' "

It's a sentiment that holds true for Romney, too. "The Olympic Games were the high point of my professional life," he said.

What's remembered about the Salt Lake Games is the spirit Utahns displayed to a world severely shaken by the attacks on the United States.

The spectacle began with an emotional opening ceremonies that paid tribute to the tragedy, then celebrated the world's ability to pull together and triumph over it.

For the next 16 days, millions of fans around the world tuned in to cheer on the performances of the world's greatest winter athletes, witnessed by tens of thousands of visitors.

But it was the simple act of reaching out to the athletes and other visitors who'd come to Utah that made the Games so special. The official Olympic volunteers, in their bright-colored parkas, along with everyday Utahns, made a lasting impression.

People marveled at how many foreign languages were spoken here, largely because of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionary program — and that the state was so hospitable to all, including drinkers.

"It was a remarkably impressive personal experience to connect with the people of Utah," Romney said. "The Olympic experience changed the perspective of Salt Lake and Utah to the world."

The state that had been known mostly by outsiders for its pioneer Mormon heritage suddenly had a new and lasting image.

"People used to think of Brigham Young and long black coats," Romney, himself a member of the LDS Church, said. "Things have changed … Utah is part of the world community, not separated from it."

Romney, who made his fortune turning around troubled businesses, always viewed the value of the Games as more than just new sports facilities or the bottom line.

"That was never an important part of the calculation for me," he said. "The Olympics was about lifting the people who touched the Games. The Olympics was an opportunity to serve the world."

But Utah's success didn't come easy.

After several failed bids, including one for the 1998 Winter Games that went to Nagano, Japan, Salt Lake City finally won over the International Olympic Committee some 15 years ago.

What Salt Lake bidders did to secure those IOC votes, however, put the 2002 Games to their first test.

Allegations that IOC members were bribed with gifts, scholarships, travel and other inducements surfaced before the decade even began, sparking an international scandal.

It wasn't until after the Games, in December 2003, that the one-time leaders of Utah's Olympics, Tom Welch and Dave Johnson, were finally acquitted of federal charges filed in connection with the scandal.

Romney had already taken over the organizing of the Games when the next crisis came: the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that raised questions about whether the safety of Olympic participants could be secured.

He is obviously proud of what was accomplished, and continues to talk about the Games. Romney's upcoming book, "No Apology," makes the case for American greatness and includes some of the same stories from the Olympics he told when running for governor of Massachusetts and later, president.

"After stumbling badly at the beginning, Utah showed it could stand up and perform masterfully," Romney said. "In some ways, the stumbling made the ascent afterward even more remarkable."

e-mail: lisa@desnews.com