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Organization Man

Salt Lake Games May Forever Be Linked With Corruption Scandal, but Mitt Romney Has Restored a Sense That the Winter Olympics Will Be Fun


SYDNEY, Australia — And now the Olympic stage shifts away from Sydney toward Salt Lake City and the 2002 Winter Games. America, meet Mitt Romney. Practical and plain-spoken, he may yet rescue what not so long ago seemed an unsalvageable wreck.

Romney was drafted to take over the Salt Lake Organizing Committee in February 1999, at the height of the worst corruption scandal in Olympic history--the revelations that Salt Lake had won the 2002 Games by wooing IOC members and their relatives with more than $1 million in cash, gifts and favors.

Sponsors? Not much interested. Budget? Shot to hell. Morale? Low. Optimism? Not much.

In 20 short months, Romney--a venture capitalist and corporate turnaround artist--has cut costs, aggressively wooed new sponsors and sharply closed SLOC's budget gap.

A skilled politician, he has relentlessly pursued essential government funding for transit projects and for Games security. He also has made a point of cultivating constructive working relationships with anyone interested within the International Olympic Committee.

Yet he doesn't hang out in hotel bars with the IOC rank and file, and he has not hesitated to make it abundantly clear his view that sunshine is the best disinfectant for scandal, even when that has caused discomfort to some within the IOC.

Perhaps most important, Romney has restored a sense in Salt Lake City that the Games should be--will be--good fun. Maybe even a party. Or at least as much of a party as is possible in Utah.

Last Tuesday, 10,000 people jammed a square in downtown Salt Lake City for a party counting down the 500 days till the Games; they begin on Feb. 8, 2002. Romney appeared via TV from Sydney, and afterward laughed in delight.

"If I can keep from doing something stupid to get us in a deep hole," he said, "we'll be fine."

No matter what Romney does, it's likely the Salt Lake Games will forever be linked to the scandal, which prompted the resignations or expulsions of 10 IOC members and led the IOC late last year to enact a wide-ranging 50-point reform plan.

In July, a federal grand jury indicted the two top officials of the Salt Lake bid, Tom Welch and Dave Johnson, on 15 felony counts, including fraud. It's not clear when a trial will begin; it is possible a trial may yet be ongoing when the Games begin.

"It is what it is," Romney said.

In the meantime, however, he has fought through the scandal by hewing to three basic precepts, which he says "ought to be part of the Olympic culture":

1. No one is above the rules.

2. It's not an excuse to say, "Everybody does it."

3. It's inexcusable to hide the truth.

"You can withstand a scandal if you follow those rules," Romney said. "The time a scandal becomes life-threatening is when you cheat on those rules.

"It's all a matter of leadership," he said.

What SLOC got in Romney is that rare individual who is familiar with and comfortable in many worlds simultaneously--in particular, in business, politics and government.

He's also a man who puts his money where his mouth is. He has said he will not accept a salary at SLOC unless and until the money is on hand at the end of the Games--all told, about $1 million. Meantime, as part of a program he created to encourage prominent Utah families to give to SLOC, Romney and his family have already donated $1 million.

When Romney was a kid, his dad, George, was governor of Michigan. The elder Romney later ran unsuccessfully for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination as a favorite of moderates, and served in Richard Nixon's cabinet as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Romney likes to tell stories about his dad's tenure in the Nixon cabinet, in particular one about an aide who had been warned about approving housing grants in certain low-income areas. As the son tells the story, the aide went to the elder Romney to ask what to do and was informed: "Do the right thing and I'll take the political heat."

The son went to college at Brigham Young. He earned law and business degrees from Harvard.

He then became wealthy. He was a management consultant at Bain & Co. and, in 1984, when Bain spun off a venture capital subsidiary, Bain Capital, Romney was put in charge. Bain has since acquired or started more than 120 companies, among them Staples, Domino's Pizza, Brookstone, Totes and the Sealy Corp.

In 1990, he returned to Bain & Co. to lead its turnaround. It now has 25 offices worldwide and more than 2,000 employees.

Four years later, Romney ran for a U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts. A Republican, he almost beat the incumbent, Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Romney and his wife, Ann, have five children.

When he took over at SLOC, on Feb. 11, 1999, SLOC's board chairman, Robert H. Garff, said local officials were "honored and grateful" Romney was coming aboard.

The scandal had erupted in late November 1998.

Romney's first task was to trim SLOC's budget. He cut about $200 million. SLOC's break-even point is now $1.319 billion.

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