The opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics were still months away, but already Mitt Romney was thinking about the legacy they would leave behind.
On a crisp Saturday afternoon in November, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee president and CEO stood in the middle of the newly constructed Gateway Mall, flanked by the Davis High School marching band and a dancing water fountain designed in the shape of the Salt Lake Winter Games’ snowflake logo. Nearby, a cascading stream of water trickled between two sets of concrete stairs.
The Olympic Legacy Plaza, Romney told a crowd of about 300 people, would stand as “a tangible memory” of this Olympics.
As part of that memory, the names of 28,000 Olympic workers and volunteers would be inscribed on the plaza’s west wall.
But under Romney’s orders, two names would be left out. The banishment of Tom Welch and Dave Johnson, the two men most responsible for bringing the Olympics to Salt Lake City, was, as it turns out, a rather ironic attempt to sanitize history. Because in the decade that followed, no one has done more to remind the world of the questionable ethical origins of the 2002 Olympics than Romney. Never mind that the scandal itself had little to do with Salt Lake City, never threatened the viability of the Games and was, in historical context, an Olympic-sized trifle.
Notes Robert Garff, former SLOC chairman, “I never thought there was a time when the Salt Lake Organizing Committee was in danger of failing in its duties.”
Since the late 1920s, civic leaders in Utah had been trying to bring the Olympics to Salt Lake City. In spite of winter conditions that were legendary among ski racers and jumpers, Utah’s provincial—even backwater—reputation always seemed to stand in the way.
But every four years the dreamers would start dreaming. And every decade or so, international interest would rise to the point that those dreams didn’t seem so dreamy. Salt Lake won the U.S. Olympic Committee’s blessing to bid on several occasions and volunteered to host the 1976 Games when Colorado voters abrogated in the face of soaring costs. Each time, the state’s proposal was rejected by the International Olympic Committee.
But in 1992, under the leadership of Welch, a lawyer, and Johnson, a car salesman, Salt Lake City came closer to holding the torch than ever before—losing to Nagano, Japan, by just four votes for the right to host the 1998 Olympiad. More than a decade later, a provincial investigation would reveal that Nagano had spent millions of dollars on an “illegitimate and excessive level of hospitality” for IOC members. The report estimated Nagano’s pot-sweetening expenditures at $24 million—or about $500,000 for each of the 46 votes it claimed.
But for Welch and Johnson, it didn’t take an investigation to know why Utah had lost out. The duo resolved to be the most gracious—and generous—of hosts when Olympic officials returned. The gifts they bequeathed on committee members in the following years included all-expenses-paid ski trips, cash payments, Super Bowl tickets, college scholarships and even plastic surgery.
And on June 16, 1995, in Budapest, Hungary, the IOC voted overwhelmingly to send the games to Utah.