The Real Story of Romney’s Olympic Turnaround

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney pauses during a campaign event at Horizontal Wireline Services on Tuesday, July 17, 2012 in Irwin, Pa.

On the night of February 8, 2002, Mitt Romney stood next to President George W. Bush at the center of the Salt Lake City Olympics’ opening ceremony. Bathed in a spotlight that illuminated the blue ice, the two men watched as a cadre of New York City cops and firefighters marched into the hushed stadium, toting a tattered flag from the World Trade Center, which had been flattened just five months earlier. Members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that famously vanquished the Soviets lit the Olympic cauldron. As the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s rendition of the national anthem echoed off the snow-dusted mountains, the 43rd President turned to the man who now could be the 45th and marveled, “That was a great moment.”

It is hard to imagine a headier arrival on the national stage. The patriotic tableau punctuated Romney’s three-year struggle to transform the scandal-scarred 2002 Games into a smash success. In time, the Olympics would create the myth of Mitt, vaulting a little-known private equity executive into the pages of People magazine and the top ranks of the Republican Party’s rising stars. Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts later that year, the afterglow of the Games still warm in the public’s memory.

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With the timing of his retirement from Bain Capital under scrutiny and his governorship complicated by a health-care law his party dislikes, Romney’s stewardship of the Olympics has increasingly formed a cornerstone of his case for the presidency. That amalgam of business acumen and civic leadership “matches almost perfectly what the U.S. needs in our next President,” according to Mike Leavitt, who as Utah’s governor during the Olympics helped recruit Romney to run the Games, and now heads up the candidate’s White House transition team. On the campaign trail, Romney often invokes his stint in Salt Lake City as an example of how he would govern in troubled times. “I led an Olympics out of the shadows of scandal,” he told an audience earlier this year, suggesting those talents could be applied to the sluggish U.S. economy as well.

As Romney takes a victory lap this summer in London, where the Summer Games begin July 27, a closer look at his Olympic exploits reveals a more complicated story. Nobody disputes that Romney played a major role in the 2002 Games’ success. But some Utahns criticize Romney for embellishing the problems he inherited to inflate the scale of the turnaround. And if Salt Lake was a test case for Romney’s leadership, it was also a controlled experiment, one that unfolded in the capital of the Mormon Church—which, like the rest of the U.S., had a vested interest in the Games’ success. As President, Romney would face fierce resistance not only from a hostile opposition party, but also factions of his own.

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If Romney wins the White House, he owes a debt of gratitude to the International Olympic Committee, whose notoriously crooked folkways presented an opening for him in late 1998. Salt Lake had courted the IOC for decades, and after narrowly losing the 1998 Games to Nagano, Japan – whose representatives plied IOC members with an array of perks – two senior members of the Salt Lake organizing committee allegedly tried to lure the games to Utah with gifts ranging from college tuition for members’ kids and free medical care to custom-designed doorknobs and bathroom fixtures. The value of the handouts topped $1 million. When the scandal surfaced, the ensuing media firestorm threatened to engulf the Games. As organizers sought a new chief executive to dispel the cloud of scandal, they zeroed in on Romney. “He had his mother’s good looks, his father’s charisma and his own intellect. He was just an ideal person,” says Robert Garff, who as the former chairman of the Salt Lake organizing committee helped hire Romney. Though he wasn’t a local, Romney’s religion plugged him into the culture of a state that is 62% Mormon. Says Garff: “We wanted someone who understood our mores.”

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Cribbing from the blueprint he had written at Bain Capital, Romney launched a “strategic audit,” spending weeks poring over every budget line item, from the torch relay to doping controls. According to Romney, the results were startling. The balance sheet was busted. Jittery sponsors seemed poised to bolt. Investigations into the committee’s alleged influence peddling threw a pall over the city, and public opinion about the event had cratered. “The tsunami of financial, banking, legal, government, morale, and sponsor problems following the revelation of the bid scandal swamped the organization,” Romney writes in Turnaround. “It was the most troubled turnaround I had ever seen.”

Romney set to work, ordering a new era of austerity to bridge an estimated $379 million shortfall. Gone were the free lunches for volunteers. At meetings, board members were asked to fork over a dollar for a slice of pizza or a soda. Romney nixed five-star travel accommodations, scrapped costly segments of the ceremonies and swapped out color marketing brochures for black-and-white. (He also reportedly outsourced the making of the torchbearers’ uniforms to Burma.) At the same time, he crisscrossed the country to soothe rattled sponsors and sell new ones. He went hat in hand to Washington, and helped wring a record $342 million in direct funding from federal appropriators.

Though Olympic Games’ have a habit of nearly failing dramatically before succeeding brilliantly, the Romney turnaround formula certainly worked: Salt Lake sold 95% of available tickets, harnessed the contributions of some 23,000 volunteers and finished with a surplus of about $100 million, much of which was funneled into a fund for facility upkeep. It remains “the high-water mark of the Olympic Winter Games,” says Garff, who assigns considerable credit to Romney, “the captain of the ship during a very precarious time.”

Romney describes his methods in Turnaround, a book that’s part case study, part leadership manual, and part personal narrative, written in the self-congratulatory style of an author’s acknowledgement page. Dictated while commuting between his chalet in Park City and the committee’s downtown offices, Turnaround offers a sanitized but revealing peek into the management style of a man who gets panned for seeming robotic on the campaign trail. Romney instituted a rule that required every meeting to begin with a joke. (“I love laughing,” he writes, in the way of people who don’t do it very often.) Polo shirts replaced suits. At one team-building function, he played Romeo in a spoof of the balcony scene from the Shakespearean tragedy.

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Romney displayed agile political skills, assiduously courting the press and sidelining his critics. Other episodes airbrushed out of Turnaround revealed his leadership wasn’t all fun and games. Locked in a traffic jam on the way to a downhill skiing event one afternoon, Romney hopped out of an SUV and began directing traffic over the objections of a volunteer and local police. Critics say Romney bristled at public criticism. Ken Bullock, a member of the organizing committee’s board who sparred with Romney on multiple occasions, describes one skirmish at the state capitol after a group of city officials rebuffed Romney’s request to defer a sales tax repayment. According to Bullock, the CEO pulled him into a private room and warned, “You don’t want me as an enemy.”

How much credit Romney should receive for the Games’ success is a matter of some debate. Romney’s campaign argues the event was “on the verge of collapse” until the candidate “salvaged” a success from “certain disaster.” These claims clash with assessments from other observers. “Mitt did a great job,” says former Democratic Salt Lake mayor Deedee Corradini. “We were behind where we would have liked to have been when he came in. But there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that we would have had a successful Games no matter what.”

Critics say Romney overstated the scale of the Games’ budget woes. “The crisis was one of image. It was not a fiscal crisis,” says Bullock. Others think Romney wanted to magnify the scandal to cast himself as a savior. “It’s remained a scandal because Mitt made it that way by overblowing the problems,” says Sydney Fonnesbeck, a Democrat and former Salt Lake City council member who recalls Romney urging her to ask Tom Welch, the former head of the bid committee, to plead guilty to bribery charges. (A federal judge dismissed allegations against Welch and a fellow executive.) “From the day he came in,” she says, “it was pretty clear that he was there for Mitt and was going to run for governor.”

In his book, Romney dismisses this charge. “Who knew where it could lead?” he writes. “I gave very little thought at all to what I would do afterward. Many people can’t believe that. They think that I had calculated the political benefits. But honestly, I had no idea. I saw no political connection at all.” As the public face of the Games, Romney was by design a ubiquitous presence. Promotional pins were sold bearing his likeness. One depicted the lantern-jawed CEO swaddled in an American flag; a Valentine’s Day version, with Romney’s face encircled by hearts, bore the words: “We Love You, Mitt.” A month after the closing ceremony, Romney was headed back to Boston to run for governor.

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It’s not his stint on Beacon Hill, however, that Romney’s circle tends to tout as a testament to his management mettle. And as the questions about offshore bank accounts and the timing of his departure from Bain multiply, Romney seems eager to change the subject from his former firm. As they parry the Bain criticism, Romney’s advisers and surrogates are increasingly using the five interlocking rings as a tidy symbol of his business acumen.

To be sure, there are similarities between the two challenges. When Romney took over, recalls former Utah Governor Leavitt, “people needed to believe again, to have confidence. They had a deficit that needed to be healed. Then they needed to execute.” Each problem, Leavitt says, lines up with the ones vexing the U.S. “I just think it’s an almost eerie parallel.”

But even then, Romney knew that operating as a politician was a different art than operating as a CEO, one with greater limitations and less control. “The federal government is not like a large corporation with centralized decision-making,” he writes in Turnaround. “It is more like hundreds of independent entities, each pursuing their own agenda.” Romney picked up this lesson from his days wheedling Congress for cash. But from Herbert Hoover to Jon Corzine, political history is littered with the cautionary tales of corporate titans who tried to translate their talents from the boardrooms of finance to the cloakrooms of the Capitol. Not to mention the countless others who ran on corporate savvy and lost.

If he can avoid that fate, Romney might find that running a rah-rah sporting event bears little or no relationship to operating in today’s bitter political environment. As President, he would have to contend with a hostile opposition party, not to mention factions of his own still suspicious of the candidate’s principles. The successes of Salt Lake City came as the nation’s patriotism peaked in the wake of 9/11. It was a special moment. As George W. Bush might tell Romney if they shared a stage today, such moments don’t last.

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