Utah's Olympic Legacy: The Impact of the 2002 Winter Games. Part One: Bid, Bribery and Recovery
By Terry Gildea
Salt Lake City –
As many Utahns spend this week remembering the 2002 Olympic Games, KUER News begins a special 5-part series examining Utah's Olympic Legacy a decade after the world put its spotlight on Salt Lake City. How did the games make us a better community? What did we learn about ourselves? And how will the Olympic spirit continue to exist in Utah? Part one looks back on the euphoria of winning an Olympic bid and a scandal that made our entire city re-examine the choice to host the games. Terry Gildea has the story.
In 1995, some members of the Salt Lake Olympic Bid Committee had spent more than a decade trying to snare the Winter Games. They came within just four votes of getting the 1998 games, but a decision by the International Olympic Committee to hold the 96 summer games in Atlanta all but assured that the games would not return to the U.S. just two years later. Now in 1995, Salt Lake organizers felt confident in their bid for the 2002 Winter Games as they gathered in Budapest to hear the IOC's decision. Then Salt Lake City Mayor Deedee Corradini remembers the anticipation of that night.
"As we were headed to the venue where the announcement was going to be made, we had to go over one of the bridges in Budapest. But as we went across that bridge, people from Salt Lake and Utah were lining that bridge to great our bus as we went on through to go the venue waving American flags and Olympic flags," said Corradini
IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch stepped up to the podium to announce the host city for 2002. Thousands gathered at City Hall back in Salt Lake to watch moment on live television.
"The International Olympic Committee has decided to award the organization of the 19th Olympic Winter Games in 2002 to the city of Salt Lake City," Samaranch said.
Members of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee came home victorious with the games in hand and got to work. Then in 1998, television reporter Chris Vanocur broke a story for News 4 Utah that began to shed light on some of the tactics used by Salt Lake organizers to secure the bid three years before.
"This confidential letter was drafted in 1996 by a senior Salt Lake Olympic Official. It's written to a Sonia Asamba and reads: Under the current budget structure, it will be difficult to continue the scholarship program with you. The enclosed check for 10,000 dollars plus will have to be our last payment for tuition," Vanocur said in his 1998 television report.
Vanocur found proof that Salt Lake Organizers were paying the college tuition of at least six children of IOC members. At first Salt Lake Olympic officials tried to play the tuition payments as financial aid to kids from third world countries, but many of the young people who took the scholarship money including Sonia Asamba came from wealthy families. A senior IOC official then told NPR that the payments amounted to bribery, and a full blown scandal erupted. The International and U-S Olympic Committees, the Justice Department and Congress all launched probing and embarrassing investigations. Former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt remembers first learning about the scandal.
"There had been small pieces of information that began to come forward then when the federal government began to get involved and the department of Justice and so forth - that was the moment at which it was clear that this was a not only complex, but it was threatening to the ongoing viability of the games and I think it was at that point where I felt there was a need for some leadership on this point," said Governor Leavitt.
As IOC members began purging their ranks, Governor Leavitt remembers making a commitment to uncover the facts.
"If there were flaws in what we had done, we wanted it to known because we felt like that was the best protection for the integrity and the reputation of the state," said Leavitt.
In the aftermath, then Salt Lake Organizing Committee Chairman Frank Joklik stepped down. But the blame for the bribery scandal became squarely focused on the two men largely responsible for engineering the Salt Lake bid: Dave Johnson and Tom Welch. Both were indicted by the Justice Department on 15 counts of bribery and fraud but were later acquitted of any wrong doing.
"Had people kept calm at that time and said yeah, you may not like the process, but we didn't design the process we just went through it," said Tom Welch.
Tom Welch rarely talks to reporters about what happened, but now more than a decade after the scandal he agreed to talk to me. Welch says he takes responsibility for his role in getting the Olympic bid, but he won't concede that providing scholarship money or anything else he did was illegal.
"Everything that we did showed up on the financial records of the organizing committee. I had to laugh because I look back on it and over the whole 10 year campaign, no one ever asked me if they thought we were doing too much. They were constantly asking Are you doing enough,'" said Welch.
And Welch claims that nearly everyone involved in the bid process knew that scholarship money was being paid to IOC members' families.
"When the political figures started denying - saying they had no knowledge of it. That's what created the scandal," said Welch.
"And when you say political figures, do you mean Governor Mike Leavitt, Mayor Deedee Coradini?" said Gildea.
"Sure. They were all part of this process," said Welch.
Both Former Mayor Deedee Corradini and former Governor Mike Leavitt deny having any knowledge of scholarship payments before the scandal broke.
David Wallechinsky is a noted Olympic historian who has written several books on the games. He believes Welch and Johnson were pulled into a pay to play atmosphere of bribery that the IOC perpetuated during the bid process.
Welch and Johnson, they realized if we're going to get this, we're going to have to play the I would call it the rules, but they of course were unofficial rules. We going to have to bribe people. We're going to have to give them what they want because otherwise we're not going to get the vote, and I feel that in that sense Welch and Johnson were very much scapegoated which is why they were eventually acquitted," said Wallechinsky.
In the aftermath of the bribery scandal, as the Salt Lake Organizing Committee prepared to announce the name of its next leader, Governor Leavitt tried to close the chapter of the scandal.
"And now at last I call upon our community to unite and to move forward. And we said over a month ago, Olympic corruption did not start here, but today it ends here," said Leavitt.
Then Governor Leavitt introduced a man who had lost a Senate race in Massachusetts five years before, but who many considered to be a corporate super star. His name: Mitt Romney.