MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney lists his credentials for the Oval Office, it often goes something like this.
MITT ROMNEY: I worked at one company, Bain, for 25 years. And I left that to go off and help save the Olympic games. If I'm president...
CORNISH: That's a reference to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Romney took over as CEO after a bribery scandal threatened the organization of the games.
A decade later, NPR's Howard Berkes finds contradictory accounts of Mitt Romney's role and motivation in those Olympics.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Remember that the 2002 Olympics closely followed the attacks of September 11th.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, the American flag that flew at the World Trade Center on September 11th is being carried into the stadium.
BERKES: Standing a few feet away in a spotlight, were President Bush and Mitt Romney, who'd spent three years trying to rescue the games from scandal, erase a budget deficit and bolster a massive security effort.
Fraser Bullock was Romney's chief operating and financial officer at the Salt Lake Olympic Committee.
FRASER BULLOCK: It culminated in opening ceremonies when we have 55,000 people gathered, the world watching, and where there's absolute reverence and silence in the stadium, in what was becoming a healing moment for the world after the tragedy of 9/11.
BERKES: But here's a completely different view of the same scene, from Ken Bullock - who has no relation to Fraser - but sat on the board of directors of the Salt Lake Olympic bid and organizing committees.
KEN BULLOCK: To be able to walk out there with President Bush and the flag from the Twin Towers, I mean we knew it was a stage that you couldn't dream of having.
BERKES: Ken Bullock directs the Utah League of Cities and Towns and tried to make sure the Olympics involved average people in communities across the state. He believes Romney saw an opportunity in the Olympics after failing to win a Senate seat in Massachusetts five years before.
BULLOCK: This was part of his game plan was: I'm going to come here, get a national profile, be able to look at how I can position myself so that I can move into higher office. He's an opportunist. And he took advantage of that.
BERKES: About a year before the games, Romney told NPR he was too busy to think about his political future.
ROMNEY: The Olympics is completely consuming and occupying. And I don't really know what's going to happen when it's over. And I don't give it much thought yet. Maybe someday I'll begin thinking about that.
BERKES: In the same NPR interview, Romney described the challenge of staging the games as his task.
ROMNEY: What I look at with the games is that I've been given an enormous responsibility. And an entire country and the Olympic team from the United States and the world, to a certain extent, expect me to do the job well. And I want to fulfill that responsibility.
BERKES: This image of Olympic savior was actually cast in six official collector-quality, enameled metal Olympic pins. Critic Ken Bullock has them in his collection.
BULLOCK: We have Valentine's ones with all the Olympic mascots around saying how much we love you, Mitt. We have him pulling up a sled of some sort where mascots are saying: Are we there yet, Mitt? We have Superman Mitt with the flag and the Clark Kent chin. I don't know how to put words to describe how narcissistic they are.
BERKES: Three Olympic pin collectors and experts consulted by NPR say they've never seen pins like these featuring an organizing committee chief. But there's nothing insidious or egotistical in that, says Fraser Bullock, Romney's right-hand man at the Olympics.
BULLOCK: Somebody from the marketing department came to him and said: Hey, we've got an idea for a pin that we think might generate some revenue and sell. And Mitt could care less whether his face is on a pin or not. But it became a very popular pin and generated revenue for the organizing committee. And that's where he was coming from: How do we make more money?
BERKES: Romney was a cheapskate, Bullock says, as he tried to address a $400 million deficit. The Olympic bidding scandal made corporate sponsors skittish. Bullock credits Romney with restoring confidence and raising $800 million. He also slashed spending, even cancelling catering for board meetings.
BULLOCK: For lunch we had Domino's Pizza and it was a dollar a slice. Because he knew he could buy a pizza for $5, cut it into eight slices and make $3 a pizza. That type of mentality and message reverberated throughout the organization. And everybody knew that's what we were going to do. We were going to be very responsible with every penny.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The president and CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, Mr. Mitt Romney.
BERKES: By the time the closing ceremony began, the Salt Lake Olympics were already receiving rave reviews from Olympic officials and even cynical journalists. Some called it the best organized winter games ever. Romney received much of the credit and took center stage again.
ROMNEY: Well, Olympians and people of Salt Lake City, we did it.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
BERKES: And just three weeks later, back home in Massachusetts, Romney announced he was running for governor.
ROMNEY: I'm in. The bumper stickers have been printed. The website is going up tomorrow morning. The campaign papers are filed today.
BERKES: Turmoil in Massachusetts politics made Romney's candidacy possible. But Salt Lake Olympic board member Ken Bullock found the timing suspicious. And he bristles at the credit Romney received and asserted since for rescuing the Salt Lake Olympics.
BULLOCK: Everyone had a role and everyone had a contribution to make and everyone deserves credit, including Mitt. But so does everyone else. And he vastly, greatly overstates his role in this.
BERKES: In his book about the Olympics, Romney gives credit to staff, board members, volunteers and others. But Fraser Bullock is unequivocal.
BULLOCK: Nobody on this planet is more capable of speaking about what Mitt did than me. I spent three years with him every day working through the Olympics. It is absolutely a credential that he should utilize. Because of his extraordinary leadership, we had the most successful Olympic Winter Games in history here in Salt Lake.
BERKES: In three weeks, celebrations are scheduled marking the 10th anniversary of the Olympics that launched a sainted Mitt Romney into new national prominence. It's not clear whether he'll pause from his presidential campaign to attend.
Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.