Mitt Romney made a short but triumphant return Saturday for the 10th anniversary celebration of the Salt Lake City Olympics.
Loud ovations greeted him as he was whisked on stage for two public speeches, the first to the Salt Lake Organizing Committee team he led that put on the highly acclaimed 2002 Winter Games, the second to a crowd that filled almost half of EnergySolutions Arena's seats for an ice show paying tribute to the Olympics.
Romney didn't talk politics on either occasion. Both speeches heaped praise on the group effort that produced the successful Games. Romney avoided any claims that he had saved the Salt Lake City Olympics after the bribery scandal erupted late in 1998, taking out SLOC's top management and 10 International Olympic Committee members.
"What a great experience we had together 10 years ago," he told the ice-show crowd, contending the Games showcased "great qualities of the human spirit, not only the character and passion of the athletes, but also the character and passion of the people of Utah."
Romney delivered the same message to the SLOC staff, highlighting the contributions of a dozen departments in the organizing committee.
"You have been an inspiration," he said.
At the ice show, Romney also expressed gratitude to Lisa Eccles and her father, Spencer, a longtime leader of Salt Lake City's Olympic campaigns. Their family foundation contributed $8 million to the "Look of the Games" and the caldron that burned over the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium for the 17 days of the Olympics and, a month later, at the Paralympics.
"These Games will always hold a special place in my heart and I believe in your hearts that will never be replaced," Romney added
His presence for the anniversary celebration triggered a couple of protests.
A small group carrying signs showed up outside EnergySolutions Arena as the crowd was filing in for the ice show, objecting to Romney's position on immigration.
Earlier, local Democrats Sydney Fonnesbeck, Joe Hatch and Joanne Milner, all of whom held city or county council positions leading up to the Olympics, chastised Romney on three fronts: For seeking federal funding for Olympic projects then but criticizing the practice of "earmarks" now; for having an insensitive attitude toward the poor; and for taking too much credit for the Games' success all issues that have arisen in the presidential campaign.
"Leaving the appearance he saved the Olympics is inappropriate," said Milner, a former city councilwoman. "The peoples of Utah did. They're often forgotten and overlooked. Mr. Romney exploited his role for personal gain."
To Fraser Bullock, who was Romney's No. 2 executive for the last three years of Games' preparation, those criticisms are misplaced.
Salt Lake's Olympics were in trouble when Romney arrived, Bullock said, but Romney "rescued them along with his team. To try to throw rocks at it now is, I think, way out of line."
Romney's two public appearances capped a free, daylong sports festival that attracted steady traffic to the Olympic fountain plaza at The Gateway shopping center.
2002 volunteer jackets were easy to spot all day as people watched performances by the Flying Ace All-Stars and children's choirs, saw highlights of the 2002 Games on a giant screen and listened to interviews with Olympic athletes who now call Utah home.
The U.S. Olympic Committee's interactive "Road to London" tour proved quite popular. A series of booths focused on qualities vital to successful athletes such as endurance, strength, agility, precision and flexibility and gave people a chance to work on those traits riding a stationary bicycle, weight lifting, playing table tennis, shooting a Wii rifle and walking on a balance beam.
Former SLOC employee Judy Stanfield was one of several torch bearers to show up wearing her uniform from the relay and carrying her torch. "A lot of people want to hold the torch," she said. "They never got that close to it during the Olympics, so this is personal for them."
Melanie Brower of Pleasant Grove missed out on a chance to volunteer in 2002 because she had a new baby, so she was eager to help out at the anniversary celebration.
"I borrowed a [blue] coat and here I am," she said, impressed by the Olympic feelings she witnessed Saturday and at the caldron relighting ceremony on Feb. 8, the actual anniversary of the Opening Ceremony.
"It says a lot about our community that all these people showed up in their coats and berets," Brower said. "It's like a family reunion."