Mitt Romney in January 2002 as president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee… (Darren McCollester / Getty…)
WASHINGTON — Eight months into Mitt Romney's tenure running the Salt Lake City Olympics, he had some good news for the cash-strapped organizing committee, which still was short $179 million.
Nu Skin Enterprises, a Utah-based distributor of nutritional supplements and beauty products, would sponsor the 2002 Olympic Winter Games and the U.S. Olympic Team in a deal worth $20 million.
Romney, who announced the arrangement along with company executives, touted the partnership as the perfect fit. Both Nu Skin and the Olympics were "about taking control of your life and managing your own destiny," he told 10,000 Nu Skin distributors Oct. 15, 1999, the Deseret News reported.
For Romney, the sponsorship was a critical part of what would emerge as a key chapter in his political biography: savior of the struggling, scandal-plagued Olympics, a role he plans to highlight next week on the night he accepts the Republican presidential nomination. For Nu Skin, the chance to promote its link to the Olympics was of "almost incalculable" value, according to its chief executive.
The ties that Romney built then with the supplement industry have proved lasting.
Top Nu Skin executives donated to his 2002 campaign for governor of Massachusetts. They and others in the supplement industry became some of the most loyal financial supporters of his presidential bids. Officials and employees of six nutritional supplement companies have donated $4 million to back Romney's two White House runs, according to campaign finance filings.
Much of the nutritional supplement industry is based in Utah, whose Mormon community has a long tradition of using herbal remedies and whose elected officials have helped fend off efforts to more tightly regulate the products.
Romney's involvement with the industry began when he led Bain Capital, which invested in two nutritional supplement companies in the early 1990s. But it deepened in Salt Lake, where he defended the Nu Skin sponsorship as a controversy built over whether athletes should use supplements, which — unlike pharmaceuticals — do not require prior Food and Drug Administration approval.
International Olympic Committee and anti-drug officials criticized the lax labeling of supplements, some of which contain steroids and stimulants. Some of those substances could cause athletes to fail doping tests, which in turn could bar them from the Games. Having Nu Skin as a sponsor, some believed, sent a mixed message.
Richard Pound, then the head of the newly formed World Anti-Doping Agency, told the Wall Street Journal in 2002 that he had warned Salt Lake organizers to reject the sponsorship. "It just creates too much of an actual or potential conflict of interest," Pound explained in a recent email.
But Romney stood by the deal, saying Nu Skin had rigorous quality controls. "This is the model of testing and labeling we would like other nutritional supplement companies to adopt," he told the Salt Lake Tribune. To fend off the criticism, a Nu Skin subsidiary had an independent lab test its products two months before the Games. The result: They were clean.
A decade later, former Nu Skin Chief Executive Steven Lund — who, like Romney, has held leadership positions in the Mormon Church — is one of the biggest backers of his presidential bid. Last year, a company registered to Lund and another to his son-in-law each donated $1 million to the pro-Romney "super PAC" Restore Our Future, becoming some of its first major contributions.
Lund, now Nu Skin's vice chairman, did not respond to requests for comment. Sydnee Fox, a Nu Skin spokeswoman, said: "Mr. Lund's personal political activities and contributions are not connected in any way with the company."
Other supplement interests have also given generously to the super PAC: David Lisonbee, chief executive of 4Life Research, contributed $500,000; and Frank VanderSloot, chief executive of Melaleuca, $1.1 million.
"The fact that we are nutrition companies is entirely coincidental," VanderSloot said. "But the fact that we are all businesses is not coincidental. Businesses in general support Mitt Romney."
Lisonbee credited his donation to Romney's "track record in the private sector."
Employees of Nu Skin, 4Life Research and Melaleuca — as well as supplement companies Forever Living Products, Xango and MonaVie — have given to Romney's own political committees. In all, they have donated at least $400,000 to his presidential efforts.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul declined to answer questions about Nu Skin's sponsorship or his relationship with the industry. "Mitt Romney's success in leading the 2002 Winter Olympics speaks for itself," she said in a statement, adding that he "set up one of the most rigorous drug-testing programs in Olympic history."