The real, real story of Mitt Romney and the 2002 Olympic Winter Games

LOS ANGELES, July 18, 2012 – In one of the most boring stories ever printed in the nearly-90-year history of Time magazine, correspondent Alex Altman claims to tell The Real Story of Romney’s Olympic Turnaround.

Altman recalls the difficult circumstance in which Romney became head of the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee for the Olympic Winter and Paralympic Games (“SLOC”) in 1999 and the triumph of those Games, which not only showed a financial surplus, but paid back all $55 million that Utah taxpayers had put into new facilities for the event.

He then found a couple of minor critics of Romney and wound up his 17-paragraph snoozer by stating that Romney’s achievements in Salt Lake City and today’s economic, political and strategic challenges of the United States have little to do with each other.

Yawn.

Here’s my view of what Romney achieved, based on my personal experiences in Salt Lake City starting before anyone knew Mitt Romney as anything other than the man who almost beat Ted Kennedy for the U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts in 1994.

Having headed the press operations team for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and worked on successor events including the 1994 FIFA World Cup and as a consultant to Olympic organizing committees in Calgary (1988 Winter), Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta (1996), I was interviewed by the Salt Lake City organizers as they began to create their own team after winning the rights to stage the Games in 1995. By May of 1998, working in concert with my long-time associate, the late Bruce Dworshak, Perelman, Pioneer & Co. was awarded a management contract for the press operations department and Dworshak moved to Salt Lake City full-time to start the organizing effort.

Things got sideways quickly after we started, as the Salt Lake bid scandal exploded in late 1998, exposing lavish gifts and hospitality for International Olympic Committee members from the Salt Lake bid committee, which may have helped win the right to host the Games. SLOC founding chairman Tom Welch had already resigned, followed by Dave Johnson, the organization’s executive vice president, who had signed our agreement. Venture capital specialist Mitt Romney, completely unknown in Olympic circles, was named as chief executive.

As is always the case in the normally-overheated news media environment around scandals, speculation centered on the Games being taken away from Salt Lake City, that the finances of the organizing committee would founder and require state or federal aid and that the world would more or less end. The truth was less spectacular, but quite dangerous: SLOC was in the difficult position of having the Games become disreputable, creating the potential for a major financial hole because of sponsor and spectator disinterest; the Games were still four years away. Although broadcast revenues for the Games were already negotiated for the most part, a major segment of the SLOC budget depended on sponsor and supplier agreements and, of course, ticket sales.

If anyone tells you that Romney didn’t change things quickly and for the better, they either don’t know what they’re talking about, or they are lying. His impact was immediate. As the Time story notes in passing, he pushed every manager (including Dworshak, and by extension, me as well) to cut their budgets, eliminate “luxuries” and separate out the “must-have” items from the “nice to have” and “wish we had.” If there was money later, some of the optional items could come back, but in fact some of the concepts that Dworshak and I had to support the press in new ways were never again considered.

The pressure on department budgets was unrelenting, right into 2002. But at the same time, Romney brought three qualities to the organizing committee which are critical for success in any large endeavor: confidence, focus and leadership.

SLOC’s greatest danger from the scandal was that it would paralyze the organizing committee, throw the planning into disarray and give off the impression of chaos. Romney stopped this cold, in sessions with the entire staff, with individual managers and just as importantly, with the International Olympic Committee leadership, the U.S. Olympic Committee leadership, sponsors, suppliers and local, regional and federal governmental agencies.

I saw this first-hand, and Romney earned the staff’s respect because (1) he knew what had to be done, in detail, (2) had caught up on the Olympic background issues at warp speed, and (3) assured the staff that if they did their jobs at a world-class level, the Games would be great. The implication was just as clear that he would shoulder the external relations issues and push the scandal-mongering aside. It seemed like an impossible task, but he did it, primarily by attending to the work at hand and dismissing all else as a waste of time. Which, for the organizing committee, it was.

Beyond this, Romney silently waded into the thorniest issue that legitimately concerned many local residents since the award of the Games: the role of the Mormon Church, whose worldwide headquarters is in Salt Lake City. Concern over what role and how prominent the Church presence would be during the Games filled innumerable editorial and letters columns in the Salt Lake Tribune and had to be addressed. More than a few detractors expected a “Mormon” Games in 2002.

Romney, a devout Mormon himself, pulled off one of the most spectacular feats of diplomacy in recent memory. His quiet, nearly-invisible discussions with Church leaders simply vaporized fears of a “Mormon takeover” of the Games, without so much as a press conference on the subject. Church officials were supportive of the Games, were kept informed about plans for activities in and around their downtown Salt Lake City headquarters and kept the lowest-possible profile to ensure that the Games were a success for all Utahns, including those of their faith. Romney gets little credit for this, but his calm, realpolitik approach yielded results which spoke for themselves.

The Salt Lake City Games were an enormous success, both on the fields of play and in the final accounting. The real, real story of Romney’s work in Salt Lake City on the 2002 Olympic Winter Games is one of successful leadership where there had been a vacuum. Could someone else have done as well? Perhaps, but Romney did do it and with the help of an excellent staff – which he helped to recruit – recovered for the United States its reputation for success in the organization of Olympic Games which had revolutionized the Olympic Movement in 1984 and then been so badly damaged in Atlanta in 1996.

Whether Romney is able to convince enough voters in enough states to elect him as President of the United States in November is unknown, but having seen him in action in person, and having seen the impact of his actions from near and far as we put together the press operations effort for the Games, there is no doubt that Romney’s organizational and leadership skills are of gold-medal class.

(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)

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