Ten years ago I had the tremendous once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City and witness the results of Mitt Romney’s leadership. I want to step back from today’s political rhetoric and talk about my personal reflections of this historic period of American history and what it means for the country if Mitt Romney is elected as our President.
Plagued by scandal, financial distress, and eventually grave security concerns in the aftermath of 9/11, the 2002 Winter Olympics was on the verge of total disaster. Failure to follow through with our commitment to host a successful games as a result of scandals and financial mismanagement would have been a shameful embarrassment for Salt Lake City and the United States of America, but more importantly it would have dealt a tragic blow to thousands of the world’s athletes who had dedicated years of training and heroically overcome countless challenges and obstacles just to have an opportunity to compete for their country in the Olympic Games. The troubles of the Olympics weighed heavily on locals while I was attending Utah State University. Many were convinced the games would be cancelled at worst, or haphazardly and embarrassingly thrown together at best. Sponsors had little faith in the Olympics becoming a success and the Games were running a deficit to the tune of $379 million. For some time it seemed we were heading for an Olympic failure. Action needed to be taken.
Enter Mitt Romney, a businessman with a reputation of having successfully turned around several companies on the brink of collapse. Hired largely for that reputation, he quickly went to work on the task of leading the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) towards hosting a successful and inspiring Winter Games. In just a matter of a couple of years things started looking brighter. Sponsor deals were struck, transportation infrastructure issues resolved, an impressive leadership team was assembled, a new brand and emotion within the organization was established, and the energy from volunteers and locals started to bring new life into the 2002 Olympic movement.
I was one of those volunteers. By the time SLOC started taking applications for volunteers they were already on the rebound. I decided to volunteer despite the uncertainty since I felt it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be directly involved in the Olympics. I wanted to see the athletes, experience the excitement of the Olympics firsthand, witness history, and offer my talents to help however I could. So I signed up as did tens of thousands more, and I was lucky enough to be selected as a volunteer. After a few iterations of interviews I was assigned to Media Relations and was expected to offer some Chinese language support as needed when working with international journalists and broadcasters during the Games. I became part of SLOC’s Team 2002 and lived an experience I will never forget.
I’ve worked in the military, academia and the private sector, but to this day I have never worked for an organization that was more motivational and effectively run than Mitt Romney’s SLOC. Even down to the detail of providing us with superb uniforms at no cost, Mitt Romney treated all of us volunteers and employees with the highest respect and commendation. From day one the focus in our training all the way from the top was to put the past behind us and to work with all our hearts to host a great Olympics for the athletes, the spectators, and the world. It was our time to shine. And shine we did. But not without first being challenged by a tragedy that threatened to cancel the 2002 Games altogether.
When terrorists struck the innocent on Sept 11th, 2001, the world changed overnight and fresh doubts over the viability of holding the Olympics emerged. The psyche of world peace was disrupted. America along with the rest of the world doubted the feasibility of another peaceful gathering of athletes. The world had changed. It lived in fear. National guardsmen manned airports wearing Kevlar armed with automatic rifles, large-crowd events cancelled, alerts and alarms kept the nation on edge, and there was no more sensational and tempting target for fanatic jihadists to set in their sights than the world’s largest peaceful gathering of athletes and spectators since the 9/11 attacks. If Mitt was to lead a successful Olympics he would also have to successfully lead the Olympics through America’s largest homeland security operation since 9/11. He did.
Instead of cowering to the threat of terrorism, Mitt Romney and the entire SLOC team doubled down and worked harder than ever to ensure we hosted a successful Olympics. For some on our team, including me, our success became a symbol of our defying the terrorists. Mitt reassured our team that the Olympics would still go forward, and that this was our chance to bring the country and the world together in peace. Mitt’s motivating tenacity along with all of his staff helped us move forward with a “fire within” (2002 Olympics slogan) to defy the naysayers, the terrorists, and the challenges, and to go down in history as having held a great Games for the world.
And great it was. Admittedly it was much greater than I expected. I expected terrible traffic problems and congestion, but there was virtually none of that. I expected light audiences, but they were full, even for curling and biathlon! Working at the media desk I expected to be spending a lot of time responding to requests for information about problems during the Games, but that was extremely rare. Instead most of my time was spent providing information about athletes, venues, events and intriguing stories. As a Civil Air Patrol squadron commander I had some insight into the vast scope of security operations required to ensure a secure Olympics. Some breeches of security transpired, some threats existed, but the games were secured without major incident. Our worst fears never transpired. As a realist I always seem to maintain some degree of pessimism despite my hope and effort to see things through to a success. My pessimism underestimated what Mitt Romney and our team could achieve.
Mitt’s financial success with the Olympics had a personal impact on my own well being. After having managed to erase the Olympics’ $379 million dollar deficit, Mitt Romney had another turnaround success under his belt. This improved bottom line no doubt enabled me the opportunity to be hired a couple of months prior to opening ceremonies by SLOC as a pre- and post-games employee. Additional help in setting up and taking down part of the Main Media Center was needed and I was hired to help while still serving as a volunteer during the two weeks of the Games. The job came at an important time for me since I was a college student and was struggling to make ends meet while also trying to keep my grades up. The Olympics job was the most generous pay I had ever earned up to that point in my life. I am convinced that were it not for Mitt Romney’s effective management of the Olympics turnaround, I wouldn’t have been offered a paid position. Mitt Romney created my job. To my astonishment I discovered years later that Mitt didn’t take a salary while serving as our CEO, and also donated $1 million of his own money for the cause. He selflessly served.
I had the chance to attend the dress rehearsal of Opening Ceremonies and still remember it like it was yesterday. It was a frigidly cold night (maybe that’s why I remember it so vividly!), but as the Tabernacle Choir sang the national anthem and the World Trade Center (WTC) flag ceremony was rehearsed I could only feel warmth and a strong sense that these Olympics would help unite and heal the country in peace and in celebration of our athletes’ successes. During the actual opening ceremonies the following night the rest of the world watched the WTC flag memorial and the crowd erupted in cheers as Afghan athletes marched across the stadium. It was only the beginning of an exciting, successful, memorable, and historic two weeks, but perhaps most importantly it was a symbolic victory over fear and global jihadism. It was also a symbol of the rebounds that SLOC, Salt Lake City, and the United States of America achieved. It was one of America’s most important moments of my lifetime, and it was all made possible in large measure by Mitt Romney’s Olympic leadership. On Closing Ceremonies day, on this exact day, February 24th ten years ago, the world celebrated the finale of what most agreed to be the best Olympics ever held (and I celebrated by proposing to my sweetheart!).
When people ask me why I support Mitt Romney’s presidential pursuit so fervently, these Olympic memories flood my thoughts. The contrast I witnessed as a local before and during Mitt Romney’s taking-of-the-reins at SLOC are as night and day. I never met him personally, but the results of his leadership were everywhere. When I pull out my blue Salt Lake Olympics uniform on occasion I feel a great sense of pride in what we accomplished. As a communications professional I find myself frequently dusting off the play books that Mitt Romney and his staff so expertly implemented in building such a motivated, energetic and organizationally effective team. I remember what it was like to be on Mitt Romney’s team and to have him leading an epic turnaround. I remember what it was like to have a leader so selflessly committed to excellence and achieving greatness. I remember the successes that were in large measure a result of Mitt Romney’s tireless leadership. The mark of a leader is the success he leaves behind him. In Mitt’s case he left behind as much as a $100 million surplus, a memorable and historic Olympic games, a secure multi-national event on a world stage, a symbolic victory over fear and the threat of terrorism, and a country and world united in peaceful competition. When Mitt Romney was in charge we prospered, we came together as a team, and we achieved greatness; all of which led to our success in running an event that empowered athletes to inspire the world.
America today is in desperate need of an Olympic turnaround. We are faced with financial disaster, a divided political environment, lack of effective leadership in Washington DC, a weakened image, and continued security challenges; all similar to the challenges Mitt faced on day one as the SLOC CEO. Only one man running for President has an unquestionable resume of success in restoring prosperity and greatness during critical and perilous times. That man is Mitt Romney and it is my sincere hope that America hires him to the task of leading another American turnaround.
To see the WTC flag ceremony at the 2002 Olympics Opening Ceremony, watch the video below:
To read more about Mitt Romney’s involvement in rescuing the 2002 Olympics, see the following resources:
Read Mitt Romney’s book “Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership and the Olympic Games” by purchasing here.
Read an article about Mitt Romney’s success in leading the Olympics here.
Author: Joseph Burkhead is a Michigan native and resident. He is Communications Director and Co-Founder of Uncharted, a graduate student in Chinese Studies at University of Michigan, a graduate student in Geography at Western Michigan University, and an Air Force veteran. He served as a volunteer and employee in Media Relations for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games (SLOC). He has supported Mitt Romney since the 2008 campaign, authors the www.michiganformitt.net blog, the www.facebook.com/michiganformitt page, and actively volunteers for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign in Michigan.