By JENNIFER DOBNER and KASIE HUNT, Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (AP) — Over and over, Mitt Romney takes credit for turning around the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City after a bribery scandal and says the success of the games is one big reason he should be president.
"My leadership helped save the Olympics from scandal and give our American athletes the chance to make us all proud," Romney said the night he won the Florida primary, his biggest victory of the Republican nomination fight so far.
He'll put his time running the Olympics back in the spotlight Saturday when he speaks at a major celebration honoring the 10-year anniversary of the games. Romney plans to tell the crowd how his time running the Olympics is a fundamental part of the resume he's relying on as he runs for president.
But is the credit deserved? And how much credit really goes to the federal government, which ended up paying nearly $600 million directly to support Olympic projects, much of it after Romney's urging?
People who worked on the games with Romney do give him credit while emphasizing he had help.
"Did he save the games on his own, no," said Lane Beattie, who was the president of the Utah state Senate at the time and was the state's liaison with the committee Romney ran. But he "absolutely" made them more successful.
Romney took over the games in 1999 after its leaders were accused of sending money to members of the International Olympic Committee to help Salt Lake City win the games.
Romney ran the Olympic committee "like a business," Beattie said. "He demanded excellence and he brought in incredible people. ... It wasn't all Mitt. What he did was bring in the best and the brightest he could find and put them in the right place."
Romney acknowledges he had help. The Salt Lake Olympic Committee ran a more than $1.4 billion effort conducted over many years and involving thousands of people. Still, he has made himself the very public face of the effort, claiming he personally cut millions from the budget, wooed major companies and won sponsorships himself and pulled the whole endeavor back from the brink of failure. His record in Salt Lake was the cornerstone of his run for governor in Massachusetts, a campaign he announced in March 2002, just weeks after the games concluded. And now, in the presidential campaign, he is unambiguous.
"I led an Olympics out of the shadows of scandal," he told conservative activists in a speech in Washington this month.
Some critics say that's an oversell, and that fixing Salt Lake's problems was primarily an image problem.
"Mitt, he was a great image for the games, he did instill confidence in people, but to say he saved us, that's misplaced," said Ken Bullock, who served on the organizing committee board. "It's something you can put on your resume, but I think you have to be careful of embellishing or padding your resume."
Romney also got some help he never acknowledges on the trail: millions from the federal government. His aides say much of it was for increased security costs after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The games were held about five months later and security costs rose astronomically afterwards.
But Romney doesn't mention the commitments the government had already made to cover costs associated with the games — or elaborate on his role in persuading congressional appropriators and critics to give the games more money.
In the 2004 book he wrote about the games, called "Turnaround," Romney outlined how he revamped the Salt Lake Olympic Committee's lobbying operations in Washington. He directed plans to hire experienced transportation lobbyists — even highlighting how he poached one from another group that was trying to win earmarks for non-Olympic projects in Utah. He met Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, then the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. And he wooed Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who along with Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan had inquired about wasteful Olympic spending, resulting in a critical report from the Government Accountability Office.
In one instance, Romney highlights how he made arrangements for different states to send experienced bus drivers to Utah to help transport people. Romney helped arrange to have them paid union wages, he wrote in the book — and he persuaded the federal government to pick up the tab.