Leadership in Securing the Olympic Games

In the midst of ever-heightening tension over events in Iraq, there exists a discomfiting prospect–amplified by the success of terrorists in altering an election outcome in Spain–that another such attack could be imminent, possibly prior to Americans going to the polls in November. This in turn prompts speculation that the upcoming Summer Olympic games in Athens provide an inviting target to those seeking to wreak more havoc on the civilized world–speculation that is further fueled by reports of possible security deficiencies at the Athens games. This is just one area where Mitt Romney‘s new book Turnaround, the story of his tenure as head of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, proves very timely indeed. In fact, not only timely, but valuable–because it shows that there are definite steps that can be taken to effectively counteract any susceptibility to terrorism. The book details how Mr. Romney (currently serving as governor of Massachusetts) inherited games already reeling from the near-crippling bid scandal that preceded them, and not only presided over perhaps the most successful Olympic Games in history, but did so without so much as a hint of a security threat. Though the latter accomplishment may perhaps be ascribed in part to mere good fortune, Romney’s account makes clear that the September 11 attacks (only months before the Games) certainly underscored the need to leave absolutely no stone unturned in putting together an effective security apparatus. It appears that this kind of focused determination constituted perhaps the most important factor in preventing any incidents. This theme is introduced when Romney relates an encounter with then-FBI director Louis Freeh, who pointedly warned with “deadly seriousness” that the FBI expected a substantial increase in terrorist activity. Romney, acknowledging that this “got his attention” to say the least, engaged in researching the security measures at previous Games and learned some very troubling things. Namely, that in many cases, those measures had been woefully insufficient. In the most striking example, he recalls his astonishment that in the 1972 Summer Games in Munich–the games forever blighted by the murder of Israeli team members by Arab terrorists who sneaked into the Olympic Village–security was the responsibility of the Olympic organizing committee. In an episode that would be humorous if not so awful, Romney describes the spectacle of an untrained executive from the committee negotiating with the terrorists during the critical initial communications. As if that were not incredible enough, the fact that little thought had been given to working with law enforcement in an emergency only worsened matters. The horrific results of such poor planning are well documented. However, from today’s perspective, the most significant point is how past failures provided the blueprint for securing the Salt Lake Games. Among the concrete steps Romney outlines that were taken in response were protecting the Olympic village with double-fencing, cameras, motion and bio-hazard detectors, food and mail testing, better screening procedures, and an even more secure location accessible only to the athletes. Perhaps equally important, regular drills were conducted on how to respond to any situation imaginable. Similar lessons were learned from the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, from which it was determined that more effective background checks must be applied to employees and volunteers. In that event, because many of the checks were not completed before the Games began, there were cases of convicted felons, holding critical security posts, and Romney was told by public safety officials that the biggest issue faced in Los Angeles was crimes committed by the Games’ own staff! Once again, the Utah organizers learned from experience–the background checks were started early, and no one who didn’t pass was permitted to work for the Games. But the scenario that hits closest to home in light of the failure of U.S. intelligence prior to 9/11 was that of the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, which were also marred by terrorism. Romney writes that there were “literally over 30 different public safety agencies–federal, state, and local–all in charge of securing a piece of the Games,” where “turf wars and jurisdictional disputes were the rule, not the exception.” As a result, efforts to instill a coordinated security plan unraveled as “every agency focused on making sure their piece of the security puzzle worked–even if all else failed.” Images of the now infamous “wall” that prevented the sharing of vital intelligence before 9/11 comes immediately to mind. Again, however, efforts were made–undoubtedly spurred to even greater urgency by 9/11–to not repeat the same mistakes, as the Federal Government made a massive effort to supply whatever was necessary to secure the Utah Games. And despite the holding of the nation’s collective breath, they succeeded. Though this was clearly the major achievement, Turnaround also affords the reader an excellent dissection of the leadership principles that allowed Romney and his team to overcome the most daunting obstacles–particularly in convincing sponsors and donors not to abandon the Games following the bid scandal–to stage a Games that transcended the more unsavory elements and provided the kind of inspiration that makes the Olympics far more than just a sporting event. Though he asserts it never entered his mind, the Games did propel Romney to a successful campaign for the Massachusetts governorship, and possibly–as he hints at one point–beyond. And despite the fact (as another Massachusetts governor once learned) that “competence” is hardly a rallying cry for the Presidency, this memoir clearly demonstrates that Romney possesses that characteristic in spades. But he also exhibits an essential gift for leadership (as well as the willingness to go out on a limb for a principle, as when he recently spoke out to the Senate Judiciary Committee on how wrong the Massachusetts Supreme Court was to mandate the institution of gay marriage). Though the future is uncertain, one thing is indisputable: Mitt Romney is on the radar screen.

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To purchase Turnaround, click here.

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