The Corner

Romney, Leadership, and the 2002 Olympics

Mitt Romney’s tenure as the CEO of Salt Lake City’s Olympic planning committee has been much touted throughout his presidential campaign —  most explicitly, perhaps, when a group of 13 Olympians took center stage at the GOP convention on Thursday night.

Three Olympians spoke during the 15-minute segment of the convention’s final night. The speeches continued the convention’s theme of introducing Romney to the country and each came back around to the point that the country needs his leadership. But besides a compelling comeback story, what about the 2002 Olympics exactly adds to Romney’s resumé for the presidency?

Governor Gary Herbert of Utah says that Romney’s turnaround of those games, which had been thrown into chaos by the 1998 bribery scandal, proves the man from Michigan is ready to lead the country. 

“[Romney] turned what was really a bunch of lemons into a really sweet lemonade and what is now arguably — and I think it’s true — the best Olympics in our history,” Governor Herbert told National Review Online.

When Romney arrived, the planning committee was having trouble finding sponsors for the games and was hundreds of millions of dollars short of the expenses required. By the time the games were done, the event had produced a near $120 million profit, Herbert said. 

“What he did is turn the situation around from a negative to a positive — the same thing he’s done in the private sector,” Herbert said of Romney’s time at Bain Capital. Herbert also argues this is just what Romney did in Massachusetts as governor and the same thing he will do with the entire country if elected. 

#more#Several of the Olympic athletes who took the stage Thursday night competed in the 2002 games, including Lea Ann Parsley, a silver medalist in skeleton. Parsley says the 2002 games keenly demonstrated Romney’s networking and organizational skills. She explained to me that the games would have gone on without Romney, but agreed with Herbert that he was able to save the games from being “a very negative experience for a lot of people.” 

“He was able to come in, immediately take charge, organize what was there, [and] make the very difficult decisions about what needed to be done, whether it was budgets or personnel,” she says.

Parsley believes political parties need to work together to solve America’s problems, and she considers Mitt Romney the leader to facilitate that compromise.

“What was really great about what he did [at Salt Lake] was the staff that he built around himself . . . That’s what a good leader does,” she said. “You take people who have really good strengths, you throw them all together — it’s like being on a team.” 

Cindy Gillespie, the senior federal-relations official for the 2002 games, witnessed Romney’s inclusive managerial style firsthand. “[Romney] put together one of the strongest teams I’ve seen,” she told me, “and that team, in the way it operated, I believe tells a lot about his management style. All of us will tell you exactly the same thing: It was a team of people who worked together.”

Gillespie explained Romney sometimes wanted his staff to debate each other: If person A came to him complaining about how person B is running something, Romney would say, “Okay, fine, let’s get him up here and let’s all find out.”

“He got us to understand and drilled it into our heads,” she said. “We would rise as a team and we would win together or we would lose together….It was the strongest group I ever worked with.”

Gillespie said the 2002 games were not only revealing of Romney’s character as a leader but as a good man. She told me a revealing story: Flying a plane to the United States in 2002, Romney and an IOC official argued over who would carry the Olympic flame onto American soil: Romney or six-time gold medalist Bonnie Blair.

Traditionally, the CEO of the current Olympic Planning Committee was supposed to have the honors, but Romney wanted Blair to do it. The relay was supposed to be about heroes, and Romney wanted Blair and her mother to be the first off the plane carrying the torch, with Romney walking behind them. But the IOC member wouldn’t budge and after arguing for a while, Gillespie, who was on the plane as well, recalls that Romney abruptly ended the conversation, saying, “Okay, fine,” and walked away.

The plane landed at the airport and the group positioned itself near the plane doors, as photographers and the press waited for them on the tarmac.

“There’s Mitt holding the little lantern with Bonnie and her mom behind him and the doors open, and, as those doors open, he steps back to the side and hands Bonnie the lantern, pushes them out in front of him, and they went down the stairs.”

Telling me the story, Gillespie burst out laughing, but then became serious.

“It’s very hard if you weren’t there [at the 2002 games] to describe what all went on. It was a turnaround in the sense of an organizational turnaround, a financial turnaround, an operational [one] — yes — but he also restored the spirit to the games and restored the spirit to the staff and restored the spirit to the community.”

Gillespie said she believes Mitt Romney can do that for rest of the country. 

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