Cheap pizza and Porta-Johns revive 2002 Winter Games

Financial frugality inspires confidence of Utahns and corporate America, bringing vital sponsorship money.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the board of directors for the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics get together to plan the XIX Winter Olympiad, they meet in a spare hotel room that they can use for free. If they get hungry, they pay $1 for a slice of pizza.

When the Games get under way a year and a half from now, local volunteers can forget about catered hot meals. They'll be brown-bagging it.

And when the International Olympic Committee dignitaries arrive, they'll be shuttled around the city in donated Chevy Blazers, not limousines.

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When it comes to saving the scandal-plagued Salt Lake Games from financial ruin, nothing has been safe from fiscal frugality - save the athletic events themselves. Since Mitt Romney became chairman of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee (SLOC) nearly 1-1/2 years ago, he has canceled trips, canned perks, and streamlined staff, all to bring the Olympics in on budget.

While the Games are still in the red, Mr. Romney's regimen of financial discipline has gone a long way toward easing the concerns of Utahns and corporate America. Some 25 new sponsors have signed on during Romney's tenure, helping to shrink the projected budget shortfall from $379 million to $83 million.

At the same time, the Games have regained some of their luster here, lost when allegations of bribery and mismanagement led key local Olympic leaders to resign. While some Utahns are eager for it all to be over, others say the new Spartan focus has made the Games better by lessening the pageantry and putting the attention back on what matters most: athletics.

In a December 1999 poll, 64 percent of respondents said they still favored Salt Lake City as an Olympic host, and 80 percent were confident in the SLOC. The resurgent confidence in local Olympic organizers here is reflected in the business community nationwide.

Sponsors signing on

From June 1998 to June 1999, the SLOC didn't add any corporate sponsors to the Games. Now, it has added 25 corporate partners to the 13 that were on board before Romney arrived. The most recent three are all local companies.

Internationally, McDonald's, Eastman, Visa, and John Hancock renewed their partnerships. The renewal of John Hancock was particularly significant, because John Hancock had been among the first to threaten to leave after the scandal broke.

"There was a pause in our sponsorship a year ago for two reasons," says Romney. "One, the bid scandal, I think, chilled the air, and secondly, for a year and a half, all our effort was concentrated on re-signing prior Olympic sponsors and finding new additions to the team. That takes time."

Romney has taken a firm hold on the finances. No money has come out of the Olympic sports budget, but he has made numerous other cost-cutting measures. Among them:

*Eliminating a $5 million plan to make signs and banners for the city and airport.

*Forgoing his $285,000 annual salary unless the Games turn a profit.

*Using portable toilets at some venues rather than indoor facilities.

*Delaying the hiring of some staff. "That alone saved $30 million," he says.

*Attending his first meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, alone. He's attended the others by teleconference.

"People look at the Olympic managers and the suits and still watch with great scrutiny and probably some skepticism of how we manage the Games," Romney says. "I don't think that affects the interest in spectators or sponsors in watching or sponsoring an Olympian."

Doubts linger

Yet much of the city and the state remain - at least in part - skeptical.

The scandal remains a fertile topic politically. Despite two highly popular terms in office, Gov. Mike Leavitt faces an unprecedented Republican primary on June 27. And although Governor Leavitt has repeatedly denied any knowledge of corruption, his rival saw fit to wag an accusing finger at him in a recent televised debate, accusing him of knowing about bribes.

Utahns have also had to contend with massive construction. To accommodate the Games, several major thoroughfares are being torn up and two light-rail lines are being built.

"I'll be glad when it's over," says Sharon Angus, a worker at the University of Utah here. "The scandal didn't really do anything - those things happen and they shouldn't. But this is a big event coming, and So many things have been turned upside down for so many years."

Since March, the SLOC has launched two major efforts - both on the Internet - to rally support. It has already begun registering its 26,000 volunteers, and it is taking information for a Sept. 6 Internet ticket auction. In the first 12 hours, 6,000 people registered to receive ticket information.

There's a ways to go, though. This week, a Deseret News/KSL poll showed that only 15 percent of respondents definitely would buy tickets, and as many as 54 percent said they won't purchase them.

Still, with only 750,000 tickets available to the public, demand for tickets will far exceed supply, organizers say.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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