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Romney and the Olympics: What the Salt Lake Games say about a Mitt Romney presidency (+video)

Published: Wednesday, July 25 2012 7:23 p.m. MDT

President Mitt Romney and other members of SLOC during a walk-through of the ski jump venue at Utah Winter Sports Park May 24, 2000.

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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.”

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