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Salt Lake City Olympics were ‘best years in Utah history,’ says Romney

A spotlight shines on a tattered American flag held by people in 2002 Olympics jackets. Members of the military salute.
JO1 Preston Keres
CHINFO, Navy Visual News Service
In the opening ceremony of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, the U.S. team carried the flag that once flew over the World Trade Center — a somber moment at the games, held only months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Twenty years ago, Salt Lake City was gripped with Winter Olympics fever. The mountains were snow-capped and the venues teemed with people from around the world. But the games kicked off with a rocky start. The organizers were engulfed in scandal when residents discovered they’d spent $1 million on medical care, gifts and tuition for International Olympic Committee members and their families — and the Sept. 11 attacks happened only months before the opening ceremony.

Despite that, the organizers pushed on — and the 2002 Olympics have been hailed as one of the most successful games in history. Among the games’ leaders was now-Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. He was the head of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

Salt Lake City is once again bidding to host the Olympics as early as 2030. Romney has expressed his enthusiastic support, but he’s also repeatedly and sharply criticized the International Olympic Committee for holding the 2022 games in Beijing because of China’s human rights violations. Romney joined Pamela McCall to talk about the 2002 games’ legacy and the prospect of doing it all over again.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: What’s your favorite personal story from the games — a moment that stands out for you?

Mitt Romney: It was the closing ceremonies when Derek Parra indicated that his most memorable moment was carrying in the American flag into the opening ceremonies. He'd carried in the flag that would have flown above the World Trade Center on 9/11. And he said as the choir sang the national anthem, a gust of wind blew in the flag and it was as if the spirits of all those that fought and died for American liberty had just blown into that flag.

PM: The Olympics leave a lasting impact on any host city, and it's not always positive. For example, the 1976 Olympics in Montreal were a financial disaster, but the Salt Lake City Olympics managed to turn a profit. What made Utah successful when many other cities failed?

MR: We were very careful in Salt Lake to live within a budget. We also had, as part of our budget, a $100 million endowment. We had anticipated putting funding in to maintain the Olympic venues after the Games were over, and that has allowed Utah to become the Winter Sport Center for North America.

PM: A scandal broke out before the 2002 Games. Residents discovered the Salt Lake City organizers spent $1 million on gifts, scholarships and medical care for International Olympic Committee members and their families. How did you regain Utahns trust after the scandal?

MR: It had an enormous impact on the public sentiment towards the Olympics. That began to change as we recognized that we were going to host the games and that we were going to do so in an honest and open way — that we needed the people of Utah to come and serve the world. And when people in Utah are asked to help others and are called upon to make a sacrifice, Utahns step forward.

PM: Twenty years ago, the competition to hold the Olympics was fierce. Now, cities worry about the costs and few throw their hats in the ring. Why is Salt Lake one of the cities still fighting to host?

MR: The advantage of hosting the games is that one brings an entire community together, and the divisions that normally exist in a society seem to go away. The 20 or 30 or 40 thousand people who serve as volunteers get to know each other better. In the case of Salt Lake, our games made money. They were good for the community. They were great for the athletes. We had a record number of American athletes getting medals. So such a positive glow around the games is, I think, one of the reasons why we would be delighted to host the games again.

PM: Utah is now in an extreme drought and the snowpack is suffering. The Olympics would use up a lot of resources, including water. How do you respond to people who are critical of using these resources for another Olympics?

MR: The great thing about the Winter Olympics is if snow is needed, we can manufacture snow. And when we do manufacture snow, it doesn't go anywhere. In the spring, it melts and it goes into our aquifers or into our reservoirs.

PM: With due respect, senator, we need temperatures that are slightly below freezing in order to create snow. We're looking at temperatures in the 40s right now. How do we make snow to hold the Olympics on in that event?

MR: In the case of our last games in 2002, we didn't know what the temperature was going to be and whether we would have enough snow. So we produced it. We kept it in the woods and we tracked it where we needed it, particularly at Soldier Hollow, because we didn't have as much snow there as we wanted. So you prepare the snow whenever it gets cold enough to do so, and there are plenty of days and nights in particular when it’s very, very cold in Utah.

PM: Speaking of manufactured snow, let's turn to Beijing. You have repeatedly criticized the International Olympic Committee for holding the Games in Beijing because of China's human rights violations. How could your comments impact the chance of the I.O.C. awarding Salt Lake and other Winter Games?

MR: I think the International Olympic Committee will look at the various places that can host the Olympics and say, what is the community attitude towards the Olympics? In the case of Salt Lake, it's a very positive attitude. Number two, what will the cost be? And given the fact that our venues have all been built, our cost will be substantially less than other potential bid cities. And finally, I think there's a pretty good glow from Salt Lake. The head of NBC Sports said these were the best games he'd ever been associated with.

PM: Final thoughts, sir, on the 20th anniversary.

MR: I'm looking forward to seeing some of the people that helped organize the games in 2002 because, frankly, it was one of the greatest experiences in each of our lives and, in my view, the Olympics of 2002 and the Paralympics of the same year were some of the best years in Utah history.

Corrected: February 14, 2022 at 9:16 AM MST
Due to a transcribing error, a quote attributed to Sen. Mitt Romney originally said, "a $100 billion endowment," when the words the senator spoke was "a $100 million." The quote has been updated in the transcript.
Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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