It was one month to the day, almost to the hour, of the terrorist atrocity in the United States that Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, appeared on NBC's Today programme to assure America that the Games would never surrender to violence. At the same time, some 2,000 miles away in Utah the man charged with the responsibility of safeguarding the 2002 Winter Olympics in mountain-ringed Salt Lake City, sedate, sanitised and until the past few weeks considered as absolutely secure, was underscoring the message.
"It is now more important than ever that the Games go ahead,'' said Mitt Romney, the billionaire businessman who was brought in to clean up Salt Lake's act after a bribery scandal which rocked, and almost wrecked, the Olympic movement. "I cannot conceive any situation where they would be cancelled or postponed,'' he said. "After what happened in New York and Washington the world will need a place to come together to heal itself. The Olympics have always been a showcase of character as well as a celebration of sport but now they take a new purpose in affirming values of humanity.''
Fine words. Not only is Romney a great motivator, he is clearly something of an orator. He knows he needs to be in his capacity as president and chief executive of the Salt Lake Olympics Organising Committee. A lot of people around the world need to be convinced that the risk being taken by continuing with the Games is a valid one.
Like Athens, Salt Lake is pulling out all the stops to ensure that the symbolic Olympic rings are made of steel but here the problems are more immediate. The games in Salt Lake, the largest place ever to host them, are just 117 days away. Unprecedented security measures are already being put into effect to ensure the safety of the 2,530 athletes from 80 nations who will assemble here in the new year. The security cost, which now approaches a third of a billion dollars, is mainly funded by the US Government, who last week awarded Salt Lake an additional $40mwith the promise that more than 2,000 national guard troops will be available for the Games.
In Salt Lake itself 60 different law-enforcement agencies will be working together. Half the state's 3,500 police officers will be dedicated to Olympic security. The FBI and the Secret Service are expected to send another 3,000 agents and there are 1,000 fire and emergency medical personnel on standby. "It will be a very well co-ordinated, holistic approach to security,'' said Romney while adding that visitors to the Games, "will not notice anything that is substantially different.''
He told us: "There will be literally thousands of federal and state agents performing security roles but most will be in plain clothes. We are confident that what will be in place will be a complete response to the terrorist threat.''
He gave as one example of the measures the possible closure of airspace over the city during the Games. "We have an unusual situation in Utah. We are not part of the major east-to-west air corridor so you could take a large circle around the state and say no aircraft could fly in that zone at critical time periods.''
His assurances were delivered to a small audience which included Simon Clegg, the chief executive of the British Olympic Association who has been leading a 10-strong squad on a pre-Games inspection visit "sussing out'' facilities as well as security measures. It is a mission that has made the BOA almost as popular here as Tony Blair as it is seen by the Americans as a grand gesture of support. More so as several British athletes are now training in and around Salt Lake City at a time when those from other nations have elected to stay away. It is possible that some nations will reconsider attending games. Not Britain. Come what may, they will be here in the name of Olympic solidarity, Clegg promised Romney. Romney responded: "The British have been the first to visit us after the tragedy. Just as we value Britain standing by the US in more important ways your presence here is making a big difference to us.''
Rhona Martin, an Ayrshire housewife, is skip of the five-strong British women's curling team, all of whom say they have no qualms about being in Salt Lake at this time . "Obviously it is something you think about but at the end of the day you have to carry on as normal,'' said Martin. "All we think about is the Olympics.'' Romney hopes that this is the attitude that will prevail between now and the start of the games on 8 February.
The 54-year-old Romney is an impressive personality. Immensely rich, though not yet internationally famous, he is the sort of figure lacking in Britain – an accomplished businessman and skilled politician capable of masterminding a mega sports event.
A Mormon, though from Boston rather than the cult's stronghold in Utah, he was the chief executive officer of one of America's biggest private equity firms, Bain Capital, which has a $13bn turnover, before taking over the running of the Games in February 1999. He is taking no salary but has agreed that, if at the end of his three-year contract the games are a financial success he will donate what he would have earned to charity and then "keep my eyes open for political opportunities''.
Those could include the governorship of Utah. The world of politics is an arena he knows well. He is the son of the late George Romney, three times governor of Michigan who ran against Richard Nixon for the Republican presidential candidacy in 1968, and he was himself a golden boy of Massachusetts politics in the early Nineties, losing narrowly to Ted Kennedy for election to the US senate.
In 25 years as a financial high-flier Romney has made all the money he needs. Now, he says, his objective is to ensure the Salt Lake Games will be as pure as the snow driven down from the Wasatch mountains following the corruption scandal which still has two former Olympic leaders awaiting trial.
He promises these will be the cleanest Games ever. But can they be the safest? He happened to be in Washington on the day of the terrorist attacks and was by chance driving past the Pentagon moments after the hijacked jet hurtled into the building. He recalls his car filling with fumes. "You just can't imagine my feelings.''
Ironically he had been lobbying the US Government for more money for security. "Even before 11 September we were preparing for any eventuality. We have an enormous advantage because unlike in most instances of terrorism you know exactly what has to be protected and when. There are many aspects of security I can't talk about but what is being done here is complete and comprehensive.'' Romney passionately believes that come February he will be presiding over what will become America's Patriot Games: a vital part of the nation's healing process.
"Obviously there is a wave of melancholy and sadness enveloping the whole country, which is likely still to be there in three or four months, but I believe the Games will bring a new sense of meaning and appreciation that the Olympic movement has never experienced before. What happens in Salt Lake will also touch peoples hearts and emotions as never before.''Reuse content