The palm grease that helped make it happen wasn’t as extensive as what had come from Nagano—or any different than what had come from bidding cities going back for decades. Take Detroit’s bid to host the 1968 Summer Games: It was reportedly so excessive that it incited a backlash among the more scrupled voting members of the IOC, which chose Mexico City over Detroit by a vote of 30 to 14.
“The whole affair,” one member complained, according to press accounts in the fall of 1963, “had deteriorated to the level of a circus.”
Standing right under the big top was Mitt’s father Michigan Gov. George Romney, a crucial member of the team of civic leaders who fought to bring the Games to the Motor City. The elder Romney denied that Detroit had done anything untoward. He couldn’t explain, however, why Michigan needed to send 55 delegates to Germany to woo the 58 IOC members who were meeting there to choose a host city. According to minutes from the meeting, Norwegian IOC member Olaf Ditlev-Simonsen complained after the vote that rules should be in place to prevent bidding cities from “organizing cocktail parties” and “giving all kinds of presents.” Ditlev-Simonsen’s motion was sidelined to committee consideration. And the practices he railed against never seemed to stop.
That is, not until 1998. That’s when KTVX-TV reporter Chris Vanocur obtained a memo showing that the Salt Lake Organizing Committee was paying for the daughter of a Cameroonian IOC member to attend college at American University in Washington, D.C. The cards fell quickly after that. The IOC opened an investigation into the actions of its members. Ten were ultimately expelled from the organization. Welch had already left the Salt Lake Organizing Committee in 1997, and Johnson would resign soon after the IOC investigation was announced. And Romney—who recently had lost his bid to unseat Sen. Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts—was soon called into service by friends and business associates in Utah to act as the ultimate authority over all operations, marketing and fundraising for the Salt Lake Games.
Welch and Johnson would later be indicted in U.S. District Court on charges that they illegally bribed IOC members for their votes. The problem was, they hadn’t done anything illegal at all. Not according to Judge David Sam who scolded prosecutors for a case he felt was entirely lacking “in criminal intent or evil purpose.” From the bench, Sam did everything but issue a formal letter of apology, noting that while Utahns partied with the world, Welch and Johnson had been deprived “of fully enjoying the fruits of your tireless efforts to bring the Olympics [to Utah].”
“My hope,” Sam told the defendants, “is that you will now be appropriately recognized and honored for your efforts.”
That never happened.
Fans of tend to think of the Olympics as pure athletic achievement in all its glory. Despite Sam's pardon and apology, it was unpalatable to many Americans that the Games could, in fact, be something to be bought. But the Olympics have long been a commercial and money-making machine, and Welch and Johnson played the field as it needed to be played to make Salt Lake's bid a success.
Still, Romney argued at a 2001 press conference that including the men on the Olympic Legacy Plaza's Wall of Honor “would send the wrong message to the citizens of the world about the ethical standards of our community.” And in order to establish and bolster his political image as the man with the right stuff to “turn around” the Olympics, Romney would have to continue to send that very same message.
And he did. Time after time. For a decade.