Romney's saving grace helped rescue games for Salt Lake

It took an Olympian effort to recover from bid scandal

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 07, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY -- Strapped for cash and with potential sponsors not returning phone calls, the newly minted head of the Winter Games committee thought about moving some of the athletic events -- to Canada.

"Three years ago, I wondered if we could even have the games," says Mitt Romney, president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. "We explored shipping major segments of the competition elsewhere. We looked at every possible way to make the games break-even."

One cost-cutting plan involved sending long-track speed skating to Calgary, where the 1988 Winter Games were held.

It was a bad start for Romney, the white knight brought in to save the day in February 1999, after the SLOC was rocked by a bidding scandal and its top officials forced to resign.

But fortunes shifted. Sponsors, who had ducked making a commitment during the bidding scandal, drifted back, local businesses donated services and stiff budget cuts revived the Salt Lake plan.

And speed skating stayed right where it was.

With the games just hours away, Romney is down to dealing with the things any host would.

One detail still being ironed out is how the American flag from the World Trade Center will be presented at the opening ceremony tomorrow night.

At first, the International Olympic Committee said the flag would not be allowed to lead the American delegation, a decision that raised howls of public protest.

A hastily arranged summit at IOC president Jacques Rogge's hotel room late Tuesday evening worked through the options. Instead of the flag being carried in during the parade of athletes, it now appears that it will be raised at the playing of the national anthem.

Romney says tentative plans call for an honor guard of New York Port Authority Police officers and athletes to bring the flag into Rice-Eccles Stadium.

He dismisses any suggestion that raising the trade center flag smacks of jingoism, noting that citizens of 80 nations died in the attacks.

"If I were the spouse of a British citizen lost ... the raising of that flag would touch a chord," he says. "It's a symbol of the heroes and victims of the tragedy. The intent is not to shout, `America is No. 1!' "

Still, the opening ceremony is careful to include foreign dignitaries, athletes and entertainers.

Bid scandals, security questions, a flag controversy. What else could go wrong?

"I know what else could go wrong," Romney playfully volunteers. "The weather!"

There's a chance of snow and a thick layer of smog over the city threatens to smother the $500,000 fireworks show. Winds could play havoc with the 20-foot-tall costumes being worn by ice skaters.

Huge piles of salt and sand are stockpiled to aid pedestrians' travel, but if the grit lands on the ice rink, the skaters will have more to worry about than a breeze.

But if the weather cooperates, Romney predicts an opener that will be "magical and touching." And not in Canada.

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