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Mitt Romney Discusses the Olympic Challenge in Salt Lake City

February 5, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
Mitt Romney, chief organizer for this winter's games, discusses the plans for the Olympics in Salt Lake City.

RAY SUAREZ: Three years ago the Salt Lake Winter Olympic games were wracked by a bribery scandal that prompted several major investigations and forced the resignations of leaders who were organizing the event.

Last year after September 11, new security concerns became a major focus for the games leading to unprecedented safety measures for both athletes and spectators. The man brought in to reorganize the Olympic Organizing Committee after the scandal is Mitt Romney, a Boston venture capitalist and former U.S. Senate candidate. He joins us now from Salt Lake City. Welcome.

MITT ROMNEY: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: About a week after September 11 when there was no baseball, when there were no planes flying, when winter athletes started to publicly talk about their own concerns about their safety in Salt Lake City, was there ever a low moment where you wondered if this day, 72 hours before the opening ceremony, was ever going to get here?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, there were certainly low moments, but those were associated with the tragedy that had befallen so many people in our country and people from around the world and thinking about how our world had changed. But there was never a time when anyone in the Olympic movement, myself included, thought the games couldn’t go forward. Our commitment was to proceed, to make sure that the hours of sacrifice and energy made by the athletes could be fulfilled in these games, and in some respects, we also recognized that the games now had more profound meaning. That now the games affirmed civilization, affirmed humanity, if you will, and stood for everything which was the opposite of September 11 tragedy.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, in the ancient games, it was a time of truce when athletes would come together to compete. This time, our country is at war as the games commence. How does that change the experience?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, I think the world has changed from the days when wars only meant combat between two nations perhaps at their border. Now there is a sense of war on something as awful as terrorism, which knows no borders, which has no country which is its flagship, where there is no army opposing you, where your enemy is invisible. Like the war on drugs, it must go on constantly and our nation must be vigilant and aggressive in its pursuit of this war, even while perhaps the most visible event on the world stage that augers for peace, the Olympics, goes on. That’s the nature of our modern world and I think the Olympics now is a symbol which is, perhaps, more powerful, stands out in more contrast to the awful terrorism that has befallen us.

RAY SUAREZ: About a week ago, the attorney general of the United States and the Justice Department expressed concerns that even with the tremendous emphasis on security at Salt Lake City, that maybe not enough, still, was being done. What have you done to tighten things up since the end of January?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, the good news for me is that I have virtually no responsibility for security. My job is to organize the games for the athletes and the spectators coming here, and I turn to the to the Secret Service, the FBI, FEMA, as well as the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command. Their job is to assure the safety of the athletes and the public and the spectators. The job they did, I think, is a very complete and comprehensive job and one that assures the highest level of security, but there is no question that every week that goes by with new pieces of intelligence or new reviews by people with security expertise coming in, that there will be changes made. That there will be additional officers or additional techniques and technology used, applied in particular areas. That’s expected. And so we were happy to have the attorney general here for almost five days touring the venues, looking at the perimeters and making some adjustments. That’s going to go on, that’s what you hope to have happen as opposed to people who are getting locked into the way things have been in the past.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, how do you strike that balance between enjoyment and safety. The desire to move freely around a festival event like this and the need to take care?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, you know, we learned an important lesson from the games in Atlanta. Wonderful games, very exciting, and yet their celebration site where everybody came together at the end of the day did not have a fence around it or secure entry and exit. And because of that, we’ve now put in place a far more secure system for allowing people to come in together and celebrate at the end of the day, but without having to worry about whether or not they’re safe. So downtown Salt Lake City, for instance, we’ve fenced off about an eight square block area complete with places for food and drink for free concerts; even a competition occurs within this eight-block area. And once you go through those magnetometers, you know you’re in a safe area. But you don’t have to worry once you’re in that area and you don’t have to be encountering security people every few feet. You’ve come inside a secure place, a safe place; that’s the way it ought to be.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, winter events by their very nature, because you need mountains for some, flats for some, skating rinks for some– you’re moving lots of people around over a wide area. What are you telling people who want to come see events about what they should expect?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, any time you think about moving people up into the mountains, you know that you’re going to have some traffic issues and perhaps some weather issues. These are, after all, the Winter Games. And so we’re going to have some long lines. We’re telling people, Get ready for a bit of a wait getting into a venue. Make sure and wear very, very warm clothing, but recognize as well that the security screening is going to be more extensive than anything you have faced before. Not only on the ground, but also vehicles that want to get near a venue are going to have to be screened. Even aircraft in the air. They’re going to be monitored very carefully. During key times, they’re actually going to be prohibited from coming within 50 miles of Salt Lake City. And military aircraft will be enforcing this no-fly zone. That’s the kind of security that has to be in place in a world that’s been attacked as ours has been by the agents of terror.

RAY SUAREZ: The medals ceremony: There was a plan to have them in an open area where people could come and see them. Are you still able to stick with that plan?

MITT ROMNEY: We are – we’re really excited about our medals program, because every night those athletes that have won medals will come to downtown Salt Lake City, they’ll pass into our Olympic square area about eight square blocks, and there, there will be huge concerts going on for free and we have food and so forth there. And we’re going to have the athletes come up on the stage, receive their medals. We built an outdoor arena that hosts some 20,000 people. At no charge, they can come in and experience what is one of the prime Olympic events.

RAY SUAREZ: What are some of the yardsticks that you’re going to use as to whether this is going to be a success? When will you know that you’ve pulled this off for the athletes, for the fans, and that you’ve managed to be true, also, to the spirit of the games?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, when you organize something as big as the Olympics, you have to decide who really is the key audience. Who are you trying to satisfy and please? And it didn’t take us long to realize that the audience that was most important to us was the athletes. That’s the group that we have to make sure we’ve done everything to take care of and to make sure that their experience is one which gives them a fair chance to compete and to show their stuff and also to take their competition to the world. And so we’ve devoted our resources to creating great venues, a great Olympic village, terrific food, good transportation system; and when this is over, we want the athletes to say, Salt Lake City did a great job hosting a world athletic competition. Now, we also hope people who come out to the American West say, what a warm and hospitable place. What great volunteers, what great people they were out there in Salt Lake City. We hope that the Appalachian great games can be applied to the Olympic winter games in Salt Lake.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you took over this job in less than optimal circumstances. Have you been able to put the Salt Lake Organizing Committee back on sound footing financially and live down what it threatened to be the taint of the earlier problems?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, I think the bid scandal is something that will always be with us and probably should be to remind us where we never want to go again as an Olympic world. We faced, also, some very severe financial challenges. We were some $379 million in the red. We had to cut our costs. We had to bring in new sponsors. We were able to get that done. You know, challenges in the Olympic movement had been around a long time. We’re pleased that we’ve overcome most of those that we’ve faced. We’ll probably face a few more before this is over. But we believe that fundamentally people watch the games not to learn about people like me or the United States Olympic committee or the International Olympic Committee and our problems, but instead, to see the athletes. And if we do our job well, we get off the pages of the newspapers, off the cameras and the athletes are front stage.

RAY SUAREZ: And you had to move from New England to Utah to take up this work. You thinking about hanging around when it’s over? Are you going to go home?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, this is actually a wonderful place to live. I had come to Utah many years ago as a student in college. But living in a place as a student, you don’t really get to know the community. Being here now with my wife and having our sons in this area as well in a couple of cases, gives us a chance to really experience Utah and the outdoor life, the snow skiing, the horseback riding. The friendships we have formed will probably long be with us and we may well stay in this area. But who knows? There is a draw, also, to be back with our grandkids and some more sons back in Boston. We now have two homes.

RAY SUAREZ: Mitt Romney, have a good games. Good luck.

MITT ROMNEY: Thank you. We appreciate it.