Utah's Olympic Legacy: The Impact of the 2002 Winter Games. Part Four: The Making of Mitt Romney
By Terry Gildea
Salt Lake City – As Mitt Romney campaigns for the Republican Presidential nomination, he often tells audiences that he saved the 2002 Olympic games. While many believe Romney played an important role delivering the games in Salt Lake, not everyone labels him as a savior. In the fourth part of our series on Utah's Olympic Legacy, we examine Mitt Romney's role as a leader and how that experience re-invented his own political career.
When Ken Bullock watches Mitt Romney in GOP presidential debates on television, he bristles when the candidate talks about his role in the 2002 Winter Games.
"It's the most offensive thing. I listen to these debates and it just makes me cringe not only because there was no saving that was necessary, but he really is robbing Utahns of the accolades. It becomes about him instead of about the games and Utahns and our state hosting the games," said Ken Bullock.
Today Bullock is the executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, but in 1999 when Romney joined the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing effort as its leader, Bullock sat on the committee. At the time, the games were suffering from the aftermath of a bribery scandal and a projected 400 million dollar deficit, but Bullock says the desperate shape of the organizing effort was exaggerated.
"Well I don't think it was the crisis at all that it was portrayed. Yes - we hadn't reached our revenue projections but we're three to four years out and we hadn't sold any tickets, the sponsorships were still being pursued. With the scandal, all of a sudden the leverage changed in which people had to have us be successful now," said Ken Bullock.
The bribery scandal did present an image problem for the games in 1999. Then Utah Governor Mike Leavitt was determined to find the right person to lead the games out of doubt and into success.
"So I needed someone who could turn it around A person who could stand on the international stage and be viable and respected. A person who could turn the Olympics process itself around from just a dollar and cents point and then a person who raise and reignite the Olympic spirit again in Utah. And I think we got the right guy," said Leavitt.
Mitt Romney had lost a Massachusetts Senate race five years before to Ted Kennedy, but he had a reputation as a corporate turnaround guy. As he accepted the job to lead the games, Romney emphasized that he would move forward with is role stressing moral and fiscal discipline.
"I'm immediately going to work with my staff as well to evaluate carefully the budgets that we have and make sure that we consider alternative budget levels, so that regardless of the revenue level we have, we spend within the amount of money that we take in. No shortfall, no shortfall is acceptable," said Romney in his acceptance speech to the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee.
Romney got to work wooing corporate sponsors and repairing the image of the games. He hired his former Bain Capital partner Fraser Bullock - no relation to Ken Bullock - to be his Chief Operations and financial Officer. After accepting the job, Fraser Bullock worked alongside Romney every day for the next three years. He remembers Mitt's frugal sensibility.
"He turned what was a cost center into a profit center and that message permeated throughout our entire organization because we were poor. We didn't have any choice and we watched every penny," said Romney.
Fraser Bullock maintains that Romney's strong personality and unyielding work ethic restored the image of the games.
"So he (Romney) hired his own team of several very capable marketing and sales people and he went around the country himself with those people to raise money himself. And so when I say he's relentless if it needs to get done, he hires good people, he does the best that he can - but occasionally he'll even step in and do it himself, because he will not fail," said Fraser Bullock.
Just days after the game ended, Mitt Romney announced he would run for governor of Massachusetts, with the Salt Lake games as a prime example of his talents as an executive, but Ken Bullock says in the shadow of Romney's self-proclaimed victory, the efforts of others who worked on the games are sometimes forgotten including Tom Welch, who engineered the Salt Lake Olympic bid and shouldered much of the blame for the bribery scandal.
"He (Romney) was part of the success of the games. It's not to say that he should not be recognized for a significant contribution, but I don't believe for a second that he could have done what Tom Welch did. Tom had the passion and the vision and the commitment to travel around the world to go get the games," said Ken Bullock.
Mitt Romney returns to Salt Lake City this weekend to take part in a tenth anniversary celebration of the games that will always be associated with his legacy.