Ten years after the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, there's still some debate about Mitt Romney's claim that he helped "save" the games — and about whether he used the Olympics to relaunch a fledgling political career.
In 1999, Romney accepted the job as CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC), five years after he failed to oust Sen. Ted Kennedy from his Massachusetts Senate seat.
"We have a franchise player here," said Mike Leavitt, Utah's Republican governor at the time, as he nominated Romney to step into the top Olympic organizing job in the midst of crisis. "I am just delighted and deeply grateful for his willingness to do this service."
As Romney has noted in presidential campaign debates and TV ads, he left his venture capital firm Bain Capital in Boston to "help save the Olympic Games."
A bribery scandal involving the Salt Lake City Olympic bid and its organizing committees sapped confidence, frightened corporate sponsors and chilled fundraising.
Congress held hearings, and the Justice Department launched a criminal investigation.
Romney In The Spotlight
Romney's reputation as a corporate takeover artist and his deep Mormon roots made him the top candidate for the job. Fellow GOP hopeful Jon Huntsman, who shares Romney's faith, was also a candidate.
"My goal is to make Utah proud, make America proud," Romney said in his acceptance speech. "Sure, the managers have messed up big time, but the athletes haven't, and our job is to go to work for the athletes."
Leavitt then declared, "Olympic corruption did not start here, but today it ends here. Utah from this day forward moves forward." The crowd erupted into sustained applause.
But one of the first questions asked in the news conference that followed was whether Romney was using the Olympics as a political platform.
"No," he responded, adding he intended to return to Boston to "continue the work that I've had there in the investment business."
Romney inherited a $400 million deficit, but the stakes rose exponentially with the Sept. 11 attacks. Suddenly, five months before the competition, the Olympics were viewed as one of the next big terrorist targets, and there was a rush to raise and spend millions more for security.
"It culminated in opening ceremonies when we have 55,000 people gathered," recalls Fraser Bullock, Romney's former partner at Bain and the chief operating and financial officer for the Olympic organizing committee.
As the ceremony began, a dozen athletes and New York officers carried in the torn flag recovered from the rubble of the World Trade Center.
"The world [was] watching," Fraser remembers, "and there's absolute reverence and silence in the stadium in what became a healing moment for the world after the tragedy of 9/11."
Standing a few feet away in the brilliant beam of a spotlight was President George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. It was a scene broadcast to millions around the globe.
"It was a stage that you couldn't dream of having," says Ken Bullock, who is no relation to Fraser Bullock, and who served on the boards of both the Salt Lake City Olympic bid and organizing committees.
Leverage For Political Ambitions?
Ken Bullock believes Romney saw an opportunity in the Olympics after losing his bid for the Senate in Massachusetts.
"This was part of his game plan," he asserts, believing Romney thought, " 'I'm going to come here, get a national profile [and] be able to look at how I can position myself so that I can move into higher office.' "
"He's an opportunist," Ken Bullock adds. "And he took advantage of that."
Fraser Bullock, Romney's right-hand man for the Olympics, says political plans didn't come up until a few months before the February 2002 games began. Romney told Fraser Bullock he was leaving for Massachusetts as soon as the Olympics ended, because it was clear there would be an open race for governor in the state.
Romney needed him to stay behind in Utah to handle post-Olympic tasks, and "to close up shop."
About a year before the games, Romney responded to the notion of political ambition in an NPR interview.
"The Olympics is completely consuming and occupying, and I don't really know what's going to happen when it's over," he replied. "I don't give it much thought yet."
In that same interview, Romney described the challenge of staging the games as his challenge.
"I've been given an enormous responsibility, and an entire country and the Olympic team from the United States and the world, to a certain extent, expect me to do the job well," Romney said. "And I want to fulfill that responsibility."
This image of Olympic savior was actually cast in collector-quality enameled metal cloisonne pins produced by the Salt Lake Olympic committee.
Critic Ken Bullock has them in his Olympic pin collection.
"We have Valentine's ones with all the Olympic mascots around saying, 'We love you, Mitt,' " Bullock says, as he pulls up images of the pins on his computer.
"We have him pulling a sled of some sort where some of the mascots are saying, 'Are we there yet, Mitt?' "
Ken Bullock scoffs at what he calls "the Superman" pin, which features Romney "with a Clark Kent chin," wrapped in an American flag.
"I don't know how to put words to describe how narcissistic they are," Bullock says.
Three Olympic pin collectors and experts consulted by NPR say they've never seen pins like these featuring the CEO of an Olympic organizing committee.
"There have been plenty of big-headed CEOs for Olympic Games, but none has ever had his or her likeness on a pin," says Ed Hula, a veteran pin collector and editor of aroundtherings.com, an independent news organization that focuses on the Olympics. "Maybe it's an indicator that Mitt Romney has a sense of humor."
Fraser Bullock, Romney's top assistant at the Olympics, says the pins came out of the group's marketing department.
"Mitt could care less whether his face is on a pin or not," Bullock says. "It became a very popular pin and generated revenue for the organizing committee, and that's where he was coming from."
The Olympic 'Cheapskate'
In fact, Bullock says, Romney was a "cheapskate" desperate to erase the $400 million operating budget deficit and restore confidence in the organizing effort. He traveled the country himself trying to reassure skittish corporate sponsors, raising $800 million, according to Bullock.
Romney also slashed spending, even canceling catering for board meetings and making sure TV cameras were on hand when he decided to sell pizza at his first board function as CEO. He paid $5 per pizza, cut each pie into eight slices, charged a dollar a slice, and ended up with a $3 profit per pizza.
"That type of mentality and message reverberated throughout the organization," Fraser Bullock says. "Everybody knew that's what we were going to do. We were going to be responsible with every penny."
The Salt Lake games ended with a $100 million surplus in its operating budget and rave reviews from Olympic officials and even cynical journalists.
Some called it the best organized Winter Olympics ever.
Few took note of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on transportation infrastructure projects and security that were outside the operating budget and not the responsibility of the organizing committee. Those funds were not recouped from Olympic revenues.
Questions Over Romney's Olympic Legacy
Romney received much of the credit for the success of the Salt Lake City Olympics, and stood alone in triumph and on center stage at the closing ceremony.
"Well, Olympians and people of Salt Lake City," he declared, "we did it!"
The crowd in the stadium roared in response.
Three weeks later, with snow still on the ground at his home in Massachusetts, Romney announced he was running for governor.
"I'm in," he told reporters who'd been gathered together for the announcement. "The bumper stickers have been printed. The website is going up tomorrow morning. The campaign papers are filed today."
Turmoil in Massachusetts politics made Romney's candidacy possible. But back in Salt Lake City, Salt Lake Olympic board member Ken Bullock found the timing suspicious. He also bristled then and still does, now, at the credit Romney receives and asserts for rescuing the Olympics.
"Everyone had a role, and everyone had a contribution to make, and everyone deserves credit, including Mitt," Bullock says. "But so does everyone else, and he vastly, greatly overstates his role in this."
In Turnaround, his book about the Olympic experience, Romney shares credit.
"Every person who joined the Salt Lake Organizing Committee had their own unique experience, just as valid and important as mine," Romney wrote. "While we each had different tasks and different challenges, we all share in the success of the whole."
But Fraser Bullock, the operating and financial chief of the games, is unequivocal in crediting Romney.
"It is absolutely a credential he should utilize," Bullock says. "Because of his extraordinary leadership, we had the most successful Olympic Winter Games here in Salt Lake."
In less than a month, beginning on Feb. 8, Fraser Bullock will lead the 10th anniversary celebrations of the games that conveyed Olympic sainthood on Mitt Romney and launched him into new national prominence.
But the Romney campaign is noncommittal on whether the former Olympic CEO now running for president will make an appearance at any anniversary events.