A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Slaloming Through Olympic Facts


With Rick Santorum attacking Mitt Romney for “hypocrisy” regarding his requests for Olympic earmarks, competing claims about taxpayer support for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics are flying from all sides. But when it comes to presenting the facts, none of them stick the landing.

  • A Romney spokeswoman downplayed Romney’s efforts as “seeking money for post-9/11 security at the Olympics.” But there was a lot more to it than that. The Salt Lake City Organizing Committee under Romney requested — and got — hundreds of millions of federal dollars for the games before 9/11.
  • In a web video, the Democratic National Committee slams Romney for heading up “the most expensive games in U.S. history” that “got more taxpayer dollars than any previous Olympics.” The DNC put the cost to federal taxpayers at $1.3 billion. Well, yes and no. Most of that figure was for highways, transit systems and other capital improvements that federal and state officials assert eventually would have flowed to Salt Lake City regardless of the games, but was accelerated to accommodate them. The DNC’s figures include both direct and indirect costs of the Salt Lake City Games, but compare that with only the direct costs of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
  • Sen. John McCain, who has endorsed Romney, was a vocal critic of the spending on the Salt Lake City Games at the time. He now claims he opposed the earmarks but would have supported the funding if it had gone through proper channels. But that doesn’t jibe with comments McCain made at the time, calling the amount of federal funds going to Salt Lake City a “rip-off of the American taxpayer” and “a disgrace.”

On the campaign trail, Romney has repeatedly boasted that his years heading up the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee “helped save the Olympics” in 2002. Before Romney took over, the committee was tainted by a bribery and corruption scandal. But Santorum used that experience as an attack point this week.

Santorum, who has been criticized repeatedly by Romney for his past support of earmarks, accused Romney of hypocrisy on that issue when it came to the Olympics.

Santorum, Feb 18: One of Mitt Romney’s greatest accomplishments, 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. 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, in an earmark for the Salt Lake Olympic games … Does the word ‘hypocrisy’ come to mind?

Earmarks More Than Post-9/11 Security

Responding to Santorum’s comments, Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman, said there is a difference between the earmarks supported by Santorum and those sought by Romney for the Olympics.

Saul, Feb. 18: Sometimes when you shoot from the hip, you end up shooting yourself in the foot. There is a pretty wide gulf between seeking money for post-9/11 security at the Olympics and seeking earmarks for polar bear exhibits at the Pittsburgh Zoo.

But a U.S. Government Accounting Office report in November 2001 shows that it was much more than post-9/11 security funding that was sent Salt Lake City’s way. In all, the GAO found the federal government planned to cover about $342 million of the total direct cost of the games.

Of that total, the GAO reported, “not including additional security costs that may be incurred as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal government plans to spend about $185 million on safety- and security-related activities.”

So there was $185 million in federal funds for security planned even before the 9/11 attacks. Moreover, an additional $157 million was promised for such things as temporary spectator transportation (such as construction and operation of park-and-ride lots), temporary housing for athletes, construction of access roads to some venues, and $19 million to support “staging-and-operations activities” during the games.

Under Romney’s leadership, the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee hired five lobbying firms, according to Senate lobbying records. Together with its in-house lobbying shop, the Salt Lake committee spent more than $3.5 million and, according to AP, sought federal dollars “to support a tree planting program, anti-doping educational programs, cultural outreach, communications and Weather Service funding, among other areas.”

The GAO did not perform a post-Olympic analysis of the total cost to taxpayers, but Romney once put the sum at $400 million, and once boasted that he “got record funds from the federal government.”

Competing Olympic Figures

A DNC web video that proclaims “the real savior of the Games” was “the American taxpayer” put the federal government’s contributions much higher, at $1.3 billion. It was, the ad says, “more federal dollars than spent on all previous Olympics [in the U.S.] combined.”

Again, according to a November 2001 GAO report, the federal government spent $342 million on direct costs related to the Salt Lake City Games. The $1.3 billion figure cited in the DNC ad comes from a September 2000 GAO analysis of Olympic spending, undertaken at the request of Rep. John Dingell and Sen. John McCain. It included about $1.1 billion in indirect funding for the 2002 games, including such things as highways, transit systems and other capital improvements.

The 2001 report notes, “According to federal and state officials, these projects would eventually have been undertaken regardless of the Olympic Games, but they were prioritized or accelerated so that they could be completed in time for the Games.”

In an Aug. 18, 2000, letter to the GAO, Romney said, “In our view, the emphasis should be placed on Olympic required activities, not on spending which would have otherwise occurred.”

But Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan earmark watchdog, said it’s hard to say if money “accelerated” to Salt Lake City would have gone there without the games. Even with projects in the federal government’s pipeline, he said, many fall through because justification for them erodes over time, or plans are scrapped because cost estimates rise.

“Anything Mitt Romney was able to get from the federal government, or from state and local government, for the Olympic Committee, that’s bonus cash,” Ellis said. “At the time, he wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t try to get every dollar he could get.”

The Salt Lake City Organizing Committee ended up turning a $100 million profit.

One can argue whether it’s appropriate to include the $1.1 billion that may or may not have been sent to Salt Lake City without the Olympics in the total tally of the costs of the 2002 games. But when the DNC cites the $1.3 billion for the 2002 games, it compares it to $75 million for the 1984 Los Angeles Games. That’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. The federal government spent $78 million in direct costs for the 1984 Olympics as opposed to $342 million in direct costs for the 2002 Olympics.

One other caveat, the GAO report notes that the federal government’s share of the total overall direct cost of hosting Olympic Games in U.S. cities generally decreased over time, from a high of 50 percent for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., to 8 percent for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. For the Salt Lake City Games, the federal government share was 18 percent.

McCain Flip-Flop?

Asked about the 2002 Olympic earmarks on ABC’s “This Week” on Feb. 19, McCain — who has publicly endorsed Romney — downplayed his criticism of the spending back in 2000.

McCain, Feb. 19: Well, my reaction is that I, of course, oppose earmarks, and I’ve opposed them of all kinds. All I wanted them to do was go to Congress and go through the normal process of authorizing and then appropriating. I certainly wanted to save the Salt Lake Olympics, as most other Americans did.

… Of course, I opposed an earmark. But if they had gone and authorized it, I would have supported it, because I believe that the Olympics was very important to the United States of America.

But McCain’s comments at the time suggest he was concerned not just about process — though he certainly was critical of the money coming largely through earmarks — but also that the cost of the Olympics to American taxpayers was spiraling.

The DNC video includes footage of McCain in 2000 calling the $1.3 billion spent by the federal government “outrageous” and a “disgrace” and “a rip-off of the taxpayers.”

In a Sept. 19, 2000, speech, McCain said the argument that Salt Lake City eventually would have received the money anyway “doesn’t pass the laugh test” and “is a shell game of the greatest magnitude.”

McCain, 2000: This figure [$1.3 billion] is breathtaking. The American taxpayer is being shaken down to the tune of nearly a billion-and-a-half dollars for Salt Lake City to host the Winter Olympics.

… No one would dispute that the federal government should provide whatever support necessary to ensure that the Games are safe for everyone. However, the American taxpayer should not be burdened with building up the basic infrastructure necessary to a city to be able to pull off hosting the Olympic Games.

— Robert Farley