Romney’s London flub highlights Olympic one-upmanship

Whether in Beijing, London or Salt Lake City, the games prompt politics and bragging rights among hosts

Yiping Yang By Yiping Yang

A woman looks at a shop display that pokes fun at London 2012 Olympics licensing rules. The word “Olympic” and the rings logo are protected by strict copyright laws. (Reuters)

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is in London to attend the Olympics’ opening ceremonies. The stop is part of a tour of Britain, Poland and Israel that’s designed to showcase his foreign policy credentials.

Unfortunately for Romney, the tour started off badly when he opined that the British were unprepared for the Olympics. The flub prompted this rejoinder from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who, as a fellow conservative, should be Romney’s ally.

“We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world,” said Cameron, who then snubbed Romney by diminishing the challenge of holding the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. “Of course, it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.”

Part of Romney’s rationale for visiting London is of course his experience running the 2002 Olympics in Utah. It’s one of the lines on his resume he often cites as proof he can run a sprawling operation under high pressure.

Romney rescued the 2002 Olympics from infamy in the wake of a bribery scandal involving members of the International Olympic Committee and local organizers. He also raised hundred of millions of dollars to shore up the games’ shaky finances. Famously, and contrary to his current antipathy towards government spending, he once said the United States government played a central role in keeping the 2002 Olympics solvent.

But Cameron has a point. The Salt Lake City games cost $2.7 billion, a record at the time. The London games dwarf that budget. According to The Daily Mail, the price tag of the London Olympics will likely be much larger than the initially predicted cost of $3.6 billion. The newspaper reports that the total expense could be a jaw-dropping $37 billion, or ten times more than projected.

Beijing had a similar problem in 2008. China budgeted $2.3 billion for the games (summer games are cheaper because they’re not in the mountains, which often require roadwork). The final price tag was $40 billion, reports Canadian Business.

As Romney backtracked from his controversial comments, the rest of the world moved on. After watching the rehearsal for London’s upcoming opening ceremonies, Chinese fans weren’t interested in comparisons with Utah – instead, they focused on whether London would surpass Beijing’s lavish opening ceremonies at the so-called Bird’s Nest Stadium.

The Chinese news site Wangyi concludes that Beijing’s opening ceremony will be judged slightly better than London’s. More than 90,000 people attended Beijing’s ceremony, while the London audience is supposed to be 80,000, the report notes. Around 20,000 performers took part in the highly choreographed Beijing ceremony, while 12,000 performers are expected in London, including horses, goats and dogs that are supposed to evoke the English countryside.

In 2002, Salt Lake City’s opening ceremonies took place in the wake of the September 11th terror attacks. Critics said the ceremonies were too patriotic, with uncomfortably lavish displays of Americana and overt appeals to nationalism. From those criticisms, Romney never backtracked.