On a trip already marked by misstep, Mitt Romney has an Olympic history that could prove problematic: His stewardship of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City was not without controversy.
Romney and his wife, Ann, are set to attend the opening ceremony at the Summer Games on Friday, an event that punctuates the first leg of a three-nation tour that will take him to Israel and Poland. It's the first international swing for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who has crafted an itinerary designed to showcase his diplomatic skills and political strengths.
The Olympic appearance carries special significance for Romney. His political career was born out of his leading role at the Salt Lake City Games, which were plagued by scandal before he was tapped to take over.
'He heroically bailed out the Salt Lake City Olympic Games by heroically going to Congress and asking them for tens of millions of dollars to bail out the Salt Lake Games — in an earmark.' —Rick Santorum, former rival presidential nominee
"I can't resist the pull of the beginning of the Olympics here," Romney told reporters Thursday. "My experience as an Olympic organizer is that there are always a few very small things that end up not going quite right in the first day or so — these get ironed out and then when the Games themselves begin and the athletes take over, all the mistakes of the organizing committee — and I made a few — all of those are overwhelmed by the many things that the athletes carry out and by the spirit of the Games."
Romney's comments were aimed at downplaying his earlier suggestion that British officials might not be prepared to pull off a successful Olympics. In an interview with NBC News, he called London's problems with Games preparation "disconcerting," and the remark sparked sharp responses from Britain's top officials.
Prime Minister David Cameron said Romney and other doubters would "see beyond doubt that Britain can deliver." London Mayor Boris Johnson told tens of thousands gathered in Hyde Park: "There's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know if we are ready. Are we ready? Yes, we are!"
Amid the uproar, Romney met privately with Cameron, afterward concluding, "I expect the Games to be highly successful."
On Friday, the former Massachusetts governor said "it looks to me like London is ready," although he observed in an NBC interview that "it is hard to put on the Games in a major metropolitan area."
Asked about the stir his earlier remarks caused, he replied, "I'm absolutely convinced that the people here are ready for the Games, and in just a few moments, all the things the politicians say will be swept away" by excitement over the competition.
The negative attention distracted from Romney's push to highlight the U.S.-British bond and bolster his foreign policy credentials as he auditions for the world's most powerful elected office. The Olympic focus also brought fresh attention to his actions in Utah a decade ago.
"The country is in need of a turnaround. The Olympics was a turnaround," Romney told CNN in an interview broadcast as London slept early Friday morning. "The attacks that come by people who are trying to knock down my business career, or my Olympic experience, or our success, those attacks are not going to be successful."
Salt Lake Games bailout
Such attacks have been plentiful in recent months. Democrats and even some Republicans have criticized Romney for taking credit for the 2002 Games' success while relying on federal funding to help cover costs as the Salt Lake Olympics sought to recover from financial mismanagement and corruption.
"One of the things he talks about most is how he heroically showed up on the scene and bailed out and resolved the problems of the Salt Lake City Olympic Games," Rick Santorum, now a Romney supporter, said in February when he opposed Romney for the Republican nomination. "He heroically bailed out the Salt Lake City Olympic Games by heroically going to Congress and asking them for tens of millions of dollars to bail out the Salt Lake Games — in an earmark."
Romney took over the Games in 1999 after its leaders were accused of sending money to members of the International Olympic Committee to help Salt Lake City win the Games.
By Romney's account, the government spent about $600 million helping the Salt Lake Olympic Committee. An additional $1.1 billion was planned for projects like roads and bridges, infrastructure improvement projects that the government probably would have paid for eventually, though the timing of the Games may have sped up the construction.
Romney has made himself the very public face of the effort, claiming that he personally cut millions from the budget, wooed major companies and won sponsorships himself and pulled the whole endeavour back from the brink of failure. His record in Salt Lake was the cornerstone of his run for governor in Massachusetts, a campaign he announced in March 2002, just weeks after the Games concluded.
Romney, who promises to slash federal spending if elected president, rarely acknowledges the federal support for the 2002 Games on the campaign trail. His aides say much of it was for increased security costs after the 2001 terrorist attacks, which occurred about five months earlier.
But Romney doesn't mention the commitments the government had already made to cover costs associated with the Games — or elaborate on his role in persuading congressional appropriators and critics to give the Games more money.
In the 2004 book he wrote about the Games, Turnaround, Romney outlined how he revamped the Salt Lake Olympic Committee's lobbying operations in Washington. He directed plans to hire experienced transportation lobbyists and wooed congressional leaders.
In one instance, Romney highlights how he made arrangements for different states to send experienced bus drivers to Utah. He helped arrange to pay them union wages, he wrote in the book — and he persuaded the federal government to pick up the tab.
One of the lessons he learned: "If you work at it long enough, there is always another way to get the help you need in Washington," he wrote.
In London, the U.S. president's wife Michelle Obama is also scheduled to appear at Friday's opening ceremony, in addition to other events. She and Romney are expected to avoid the same venues.
Romney said he would attend at least one event in addition to the opening ceremony. The family has a horse competing in an equestrian event known as dressage. But Romney told Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg that he would prefer to watch swimming.
"That's just what's been arranged. It fits in the schedule," Romney said. "Swimming is always fun, and Americans typically do well in swimming."