Editor's note: First in a two-part series looking at GOP presidential campaign Mitt Romney's Olympic legacy in Utah. Read Part 2 here.
SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns who remember Mitt Romney as the leader who turned around the troubled 2002 Winter Games might not recognize the Mitt Romney running for president.
But with his appearance at the 2012 Summer Games in London this week, voter attention is likely to shift to Romney's time as Utah's Olympic leader and what it says about how he'd run the country if he's elected in November.
Both supporters and critics of Romney's three years as the CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee say his experiences in Utah offer insights into what he would bring to the White House.
Utahns say they miss Romney's self-effacing sense of humor, evident with the unveiling of an Olympic pin proclaiming “Mitt happens,” and his joining in a champagne toast to an inclusive rather than a “Mormon" Olympics — with a flute of orange juice.
Lost in the presidential campaign is the charisma that Romney — the man brought in as the “White Knight” to save the Games — used to win over critics and woo new supporters following revelations that Utah bidders tried to buy the votes of International Olympic Committee members.
Romney the candidate has been criticized for being disconnected from voters because of his privileged background and personal wealth. He’s made clumsy references on the campaign trail to his wife’s pair of Cadillacs and his friendships with NASCAR owners rather than car racing fans.
Just about everything on Romney's resume, from his prep school antics to his time as the head of Bain Capital, has been attacked first during the hard-fought GOP primary race and now by President Barack Obama's re-election effort.
So just what was Romney's approach as he took over the 2002 Winter Games amid bribery allegations that challenged an Olympic world centered around money and power?
Finding the real Romney
Running for president differs from being at the helm of an Olympics, if for no other reason than, unlike for a partisan candidate, virtually everyone is pulling for the success of the worldwide sporting event, including in Utah where Romney benefited from sharing the state's majority faith.
“I don’t know. It’s just that politics is a tough business,” said John Bennion, a fellow Mormon who worked with Romney at Bain Consulting in Boston and oversaw ticketing for the Olympics, describing the perceptions of the candidate Romney.
Now a vice president of a Utah-based venture capital firm led by Fraser Bullock, another member of the "Bain mafia" who joined Romney at SLOC, Bennion points to a reason why the campaign makes it difficult to identify perhaps Romney's greatest strength:
"It's all about sound bites," Bennion said, but Romney's expertise is data-driven analysis.
“I think Mitt is trying to find that middle ground where he can get elected without compromising his values,” Bennion said. “That’s just not an environment that’s going to play to Mitt’s strengths, when voters who are nowhere near his intellectual level are going to decide.”
Bullock, who was Romney’s No. 2 at SLOC as chief operating officer of the Olympics, said Romney has had to tone down his personality since throwing his hat in the ring.
“I wish the rest of the world knew Mitt as we did,” Bullock said. “He’s just a blast to be around.”
It’s a sentiment shared by one of Romney’s opponents in the presidential race, former Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson. Anderson, a longtime liberal Democrat, is running as the nominee of his newly formed Justice Party.
Anderson appeared in a campaign commercial for Romney’s successful run for Massachusetts governor after the Olympics and has steadfastly refused to criticize his performance as the Games’ leader.
“I think anybody that was there and was at all intimately involved, either as an observer or a participant, had to be really impressed by the enormity of the task and the way that Mitt sort of swooped in and took it all on,” Anderson said. “I don’t think the Mitt I knew is coming across in this campaign.”
Olympics to White House
Those who knew Romney during his Olympics days said his three years as the chief executive officer of SLOC are telling.
“I always found him very unique because he was a leader and an executive. People focus very much on the management activity and don’t focus on the broader picture,” said Cindy Gillespie, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist who oversaw federal relations for SLOC and later served as a top adviser to Romney during his term as governor of Massachusetts.
Romney, she said, did more than use his executive skills to balance a budget shortfall in the hundreds of millions of dollars. He also got the beleaguered organizers to focus on the Olympians coming to compete, not all the constituencies they’d sought to please.
When organizers cited the commitments and expectations from the world’s Olympics officials, a list that included first-class treatment for IOC members and their families, Gillespie said Romney would stop them.
“Mitt would say, ‘That’s not what I asked. I asked, what are these Olympic Games? Why are we hosting these Olympic Games?,'” Gillespie said. “Whether you agree with our choices or not, Mitt Romney came in with the understanding it’s not just a budgetary exercise.”
The royalty and other world leaders who make up the IOC ended up being housed at the Little America Hotel, not the lavish, newly built Grand America Hotel across the street, and were served hot dogs and chili when they retreated to their private lounges at the Olympic venues.
“His priority was not the Olympic family,” said Cathy Priestner Allinger, an international sport consultant in Vancouver who served as SLOC’s managing director for sport, the first woman to hold that title at an Olympics. An Olympic medalist in speedskating, Allinger said she’d seen athletes take a back seat to the VIPs during previous Games.
“Mitt got it. He just went, ‘Yeah. It’s simple,’" Allinger said of the choice between providing better food for athletes versus laying out a fancy spread for the IOC members and their guests. “There’s a lot of tradition in the Olympic movement. Mitt is one of the few people I know who took it on. He challenged and wasn’t intimidated by it.”
Ed Eynon, the Salt Lake Olympic Committee's human resources boss and now a resort developer in the Palm Springs area, remembers Romney deciding to skip the pomp usually associated with a formal ceremony to invite the world to attend the Games, held at the IOC’s Lausanne, Switzerland headquarters in February 2001.
“Mitt sent me. I was it. He sent a video of himself. The IOC was stunned,” Eynon said, since organizing committees usually sent an entourage. Romney also chose to participate in a number of IOC meetings via videoconference, rather than travel to various far-flung corners of the world.
Eynon said that frugality — which extended to Romney’s habit of skipping what he saw as costly cab rides on some of the trips he did make as the Olympics boss — helped free up money for real needs, such as providing Games-time volunteers with better uniforms and hot meals, rather than the T-shirts and sack lunches initially budgeted.
“If he ever got in the White House, that would absolutely mirror what he did in the Games,” Eynon said. “When Mitt says he would cut nonessential things … I would take him at his word.”
The bigger picture
Randy Dryer, a lawyer who oversaw the development of Olympic venues for the state, said that over time, Romney agreed to invest more money in those facilities to ensure their continued use post-Games.
Spending money on permanent, rather than temporary, needs like lighting at the venues demonstrates Romney's ability to look long-term, Dryer said. "I think he's a bottom-line sort of guy. But it's bigger than the bottom line — how's history going to view him?"
Gillespie said Romney’s ability to focus on what’s important and give up what isn't, no matter how much pressure there may be not to, will win over voters.
“I think people out there are clamoring for that right now,” she said, suggesting Romney would answer the question of what services the federal government should provide with the same kind of “bigger-picture” leadership.
“Mitt is really good at understanding that. He got all of us at SLOC to see what we were trying to do, why we were trying to do it, and to believe in it again,” Gillespie said. “A lot of what he did focused on all of us having that clarity, that strong sense that what we were doing mattered.”
Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who’s heading the planning for Romney’s transition to the White House, said the results of the Olympics speak for themselves.
“Discouragement was replaced by belief. The $400 million deficit was replaced by a $100 million surplus. The 2002 Winter Olympic Games are widely respected as among the best ever put on,” Leavitt said.
Romney accomplished this, he said, by applying the principles learned at Harvard Business School and put in practice building a personal fortune estimated at $250 million: Start with tearing apart the books and bringing in experts from both the finance and Olympic world.
"I heard Mitt over and over again giving a speech talking about the need to separate 'want-to-haves' from 'need-to-haves.' He set clear priorities, made hard decisions and stuck with them."
Today, Leavitt said, the “country is disheartened. We have a massive deficit that will only be solved by restoring confidence and making the hard choices between ‘want to have’ and ‘need to have.’"
But former Sen. Bob Bennett, who has long backed a Romney run for the presidency, was less certain his experience running the Olympics would translate to running the country.
“There’s absolutely no similarity at all,” Bennett, a Republican who lost his re-election bid in 2010, said. He recalled a story told about President Jimmy Carter’s decision to bring his liaison with the Georgia Legislature to serve in the same role with Congress.
While the Democratic administration acknowledged that was like moving from a farm league baseball team to playing for the Yankees, others said it was more like showing up on an NBA basketball court swinging a baseball bat and wearing cleats.
“It’s an entirely different game with entirely different rules,” Bennett said. What will count, he said, is advice from people who know Washington, including Leavitt, who served in President George W. Bush’s Cabinet.
Bennett said when he took Romney around the Capitol to meet key members of Congress soon after he was hired, “his competence was just obvious. He was completely on top of the problem. Any questions they might have, he had answers for.”
Romney, though, “is not a natural politician,” Bennett said. “He’s looked a little bit awkward at times. But he’s also demonstrated a capacity to learn,” bringing together a stronger campaign team this election.
Nerd, bully or Bond?
Not everyone associated with the Salt Lake Games is a Romney fan.
“Everyone had this love affair with Mitt,” said Ken Bullock, head of the Utah League of Cities and Towns and a member of the SLOC board who believes he’s been unfairly castigated for raising questions over the years about Romney’s leadership.
Bullock described a meeting where Romney attempted unsuccessfully to talk state and local leaders into letting Olympic organizers skip the promised repayment of $59 million in tax dollars used to build venues.
“We went outside the door and he got quite animated, I guess would be the word,” Bullock said. When they went to a quieter place to talk about the issue, Romney asked why there was continued friction between them.
“He said he and Teddy Kennedy get along just fine, why can’t we,” Bullock said, a reference to Romney’s opponent in the 1994 Massachusetts Senate race.
“I said, ‘We can,’" Bullock recalled. “That's when he said, ‘You don’t want me as an enemy.'”
Bullock said that was just one of several similar encounters with Romney, although he declined to detail any others. “I took it for what it was,” he said. “Did I lose sleep over it? No. When you’re in a pressure situation, sometimes you say things you don’t mean. … I don’t know if he meant it or not.”
Bullock and others who suggest Romney exploited his time in Utah for political gain say the Olympics were never in real jeopardy despite the scandal and the criminal investigations it sparked.
Three Democrats who had held public office in Utah held a press conference during last February's 10-year anniversary celebration of the 2002 Winter Games to claim Romney took too much credit for its success.
Former Salt Lake City Councilwoman Sydney Fonnesbeck said then that Romney treated Utahns arrogantly, suggesting "we couldn't possibly do it ourselves. He had to come in to save us and ride in on his white horse."
Even Romney's supporters in Utah acknowledge that he could seem somewhat aloof at times, a different image than what the Olympic leader publicly portrayed with the help of a New York-based public relations firm.
"He sometimes forgets personal connectivity with people around him," said Utah automobile dealer Bob Garff, the former SLOC chairman. "When he has time and when he wants to, he relates very well to people one-on-one. As a general rule, he doesn't have time."
Garff said Romney "didn't reach out and didn't understand some of the local players who had given a lot to the Olympics," but declined to be specific about perceived slights other than to say he felt "personally sad" for the original team behind the bid, Tom Welch and Dave Johnson.
Romney had little to do with either Welch or Johnson; he was careful to keep his distance while the pair was the focus of a federal criminal investigation into the bid scandal. They were acquitted when the case finally went to trial in 2003.
Garff said his own relationship with Romney was favorable. Still, Garff made it clear the candidate has moved on. "If he were to come into town, I doubt he'd call me but we do have a good relationship."
Eynon, whose SLOC office was separated from Romney's by a glass wall, said the Olympic leader could engage in team-building activities like reading a scene from "Romeo and Juliet" and telling jokes. But he was naturally shy.
"I always saw him as a good-looking nerd," Eynon said. "My sense was, this was a shy guy who was polished when he needed to be."
There were few instances that Eynon ever recalled Romney losing his temper, including his well-publicized exchange with a volunteer over a traffic snarl in a venue parking lot that may or may not have included some objectionable language.
For the most part, Eynon said, Romney had the "Kennedyesque" looks of a leader, but his reality was more like the classmate who sat "in the front row with pens in his pocket."
Romney, he said, confided that he "envisions himself as James Bond," often asking himself in situations what the fictional British spy would do. "I think that's about being cool under pressure," Eynon said, "being suave and debonair."
New details about the preparations for Salt Lake's Olympics are expected to surface sometime in August, when the University of Utah's Marriott Library makes available some 1,100 cartons of files from SLOC.
But manuscript archivist Elizabeth Rogers said anyone looking for dirt on Romney will be disappointed. Rogers said the files, set aside for years for higher priority projects until the 2012 election heated up, focus on the nuts and bolts of putting on an Olympics.
"You want to learn the mechanics of running an Olympics, this collection will be a gold mine. If someone wants to find juicy details of what went on behind closed doors, we don't have it," she said. "There's just nothing negative."
Editor's note: First in a two-part series looking at GOP presidential campaign Mitt Romney's Olympic legacy in Utah.