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

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.

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