SALT LAKE CITY — An emotional Mitt Romney clearly relished taking a brief break from the presidential campaign trail Saturday to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2002 Winter Games.
“I love you guys,” he said, beaming at the hundreds of Games staff members and volunteers gathered in the Union Pacific depot at The Gateway to hear from their former leader.
The crowd, many wearing their brightly colored jackets and other gear from the Games, cheered and chuckled as Romney reminisced about his time at the helm of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.
With local and national reporters in attendance, however, Romney made sure to thank the crowd repeatedly for their contribution in making the scandal-scarred Games a resounding success.
“There’s power in unity,” Romney said. “We came together as a group of people not caring about who got credit, but caring about putting on the best Games in the history of sport and you did that.”
Later, at a special “Stars on Ice” show at Energy Solutions Arena, Romney said the community’s hard work showcased “the character and the passion of the people of Utah.”
He told the arena audience that he loved them, too, and “the experience that we shared together,” noting that when he took over the Games in 1999, he feared no one would sign up to volunteer.
Instead, nearly twice as many people as needed came forward. Some gave millions to bolster the Games’ budget, he said, while others worked for 17 days straight without pay or even tickets to events.
His comments came as Democrats and even one of his Republican opponents are raising questions about whether he’s overstated his role in turning around the troubled 2002 Games.
A trio of former local government elected officials, all Democrats, held a press conference on the steps of the Salt Lake City-County Building earlier Saturday to criticize Romney’s tenure at SLOC.
Romney is guilty of “arrogance and of acting as if we couldn’t possibly do it ourselves. He had to come in to save us and ride in on his white horse,” former Salt Lake City Councilwoman Sydney Fonnesbeck said.
Former Salt Lake City Councilwoman Joanne Milner and former Salt Lake County Councilman Joe Hatch offered similar accounts based on their experiences with Romney.
“He was not the savior of the 2002 Olympics,” Milner said. “It was the people of Utah.”
A video released Friday by the Democratic National Committee also accused Romney of accepting the same kind of federal bailout for the Olympics that he now criticizes on the campaign trail.
But state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said Utah’s minority party has “no gripe with Mitt Romney’s handling of the Olympics. He did a commendable job. I don’t think it’s useful for the Utah Democratic Party to say anything other than the truth.”
The DNC reportedly lobbied hard for state party support of their national effort to discredit Romney’s claim of turning around the Salt Lake Games, a key component of his campaign, even reportedly using a top adviser of President Barack Obama.
Thanks to the remarkably successful Games in 2002, Salt Lake City may put in a bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The International Olympic Committee only has tapped three winter sites twice – Lake Placid (1932, ’80), St. Moritz (1928, ’48), and Innsbruck in an emergency (1964, ’76). Looks like we might find out next year.