SALT LAKE CITY — The scandal that scorched the Olympic rings comes full circle this week.
For the first time since the million-dollar scheme of cash, trips, medical care and scholarships was revealed last November, International Olympic Committee leaders return to Salt Lake City, where bidders thought they had to buy votes to get the 2002 Winter Games.
With those Olympics just 1,000 days away and donations down to a trickle, Salt Lake organizers are desperately seeking cash and preparing cost-cutting measures that include brown-bag lunches for volunteers and no seats for some ticket-buyers.
And IOC leaders, painted as a bunch of caviar-loving freeloaders who can't say no, are struggling to restore the public trust.
On the heels of the weekend's unveiling of the Games' mascot and the start of a 1,000-day countdown clock, the visit is the first since last June by the task force that coordinates Olympic preparations between the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and IOC headquarters.
Things have changed drastically since then. The main stadium is done, the Olympic Village is under construction and just three venues--the ski jumps, cross-country and biathlon courses and a cover for the speedskating oval--have yet to be finished.
Organizers say all facilities will be ready by the fall of 2000.
But the biggest differences the commission will find are in the leadership, finances and style of the SLOC, all directly linked to the scandal that broke with a local TV report last November and quickly spread worldwide.
Greeting the commission will be Mitt Romney, a venture capitalist and third organizing committee president since Salt Lake was awarded the games in 1995. He is trying to right the ship and avoid red ink at the same time.
While dealing with subjects ranging from transportation to tickets, the commission will work in offices where the staff is about two-thirds its planned level. It will review a $1.45 billion budget Romney wants to cut by $84 million, with a $300 million hole to fill in sponsor fees.
"Mitt Romney will give them a clear picture of where we are financially, with the mountains we still must climb in raising an unprecedented amount of sponsorship dollars," said Shelley Thomas, SLOC's senior vice president for communications. "He will give them a state of the union, so to speak, about our situation."
Romney, who stepped in when Frank Joklik resigned as president at the height of the scandal last winter, has imposed a hiring freeze, with 200 people now working for SLOC instead of the planned 320.
He's drawn up plans to scrap some spectator seating, use portable toilets at venues and even ask volunteers to bring their own lunches, as he's already done with SLOC's board. There may also be some trimming of the five-star treatment the IOC itself receives during the games.
"He will let them know that we are running lean, we intend to continue to run lean, that we are going to find new ways to accomplish additional goals," Thomas said.
Romney will also play host--literally--to the visitors. Thomas said a dinner at the new president's home is the only social event on the calendar for the three-day meeting that starts Tuesday.
That's quite a change. Salt Lake bidders got in trouble by being too lavish with hospitality, offering dinners, ski trips and courtside seats at Utah Jazz games, among other inducements.
The Jazz, locked in a first-round playoff series with Sacramento, could be playing at home during the meetings. But if IOC members want to catch some NBA action in the Delta Center, they'll have to do it on their own.
"We don't have an entertainment budget to purchase tickets for Jazz games," Thomas said.
What the SLOC does have is hope.
Despite a survey by one prominent sponsor, John Hancock, that showed a plunge in public support for the Olympics and their corporate partners, Thomas said the drought in sponsor sign-ups may be ending.
She said Romney had been contacted in recent days by two "prominent" companies who "want in, want sponsorships" in the $20 million-$50 million range, part of a joint marketing program with the U.S. Olympic Committee.
In addition, she said, there was "an awakening in Utah corporations" interested in $5 million-$10 million local supplier deals, and that several agreements were "imminent."
Thomas said that, strangely, the scandal might now be producing new marketing opportunities.
"There is activity out there," she said. "I don't know how to explain it, but there is more awareness that the Winter Olympics will be in Salt Lake City in 2002 than ever before, and I think there is a feeling that more eyes will be watching these games following what has just occurred in the Olympic movement.
"Maybe it's American corporate pride, and we're going to make this a positive experience."
The IOC, meanwhile, struggles with its own image. Despite the largest purge in its history, with 10 members expelled or resigning, the international committee remains under fire.
Critics complain that the case of a prominent member, Phil Coles of Australia, remains open despite mounting evidence of abuse of power. They also point to a bloated, 80-member reform commission answering to IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch as a sure sign the committee wants to remain a closed-door club.
Olympic officials insist that perception is wrong, and rebuilding efforts will be part of the trip to Salt Lake. Thomas said the IOC planned daily news briefings to try to clear the air and strengthen ties with Salt Lake.
"I see an effort on their part to be more available, to be more forthcoming with information," she said.