How Salt Lake City’s 2002 bribery scandal rocked the Olympic movement

More than two decades ago, past Utah bid organizers lavished top Olympic officials with $1 million in cash, gifts and other inducements in hopes of winning the 2002 Winter Games.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tom Welch addresses the media outside of federal court on Friday, Dec. 5, 2003 in Salt Lake City. Former Salt Lake Olympic bid committee members Welch and Dave Johnson were acquitted by U.S. District Judge David Sam on all 15 counts of their bribery trial.

Wednesday’s announcement that Salt Lake City is likely to host another Winter Olympics may feel like déjà vu all over again — but this time, without a bribery scandal associated with its bid.

With little fanfare, leaders of the International Olympic Committee meeting in Paris named Utah’s capital Wednesday morning Utah time as their preferred candidate to host the 2034 Winter Games.

Relative newcomers to Utah may not know that 25 years ago, the city’s previous Olympic campaign to host the 2002 Games was marred internationally by a vote-buying scheme aimed at currying support for its bid among members of the International Olympic Committee.

The scandal, which broke in 1998, ultimately led to 10 IOC members resigning or being expelled for accepting cash, gifts and other lavish inducements from Salt Lake City’s Olympic bid committee. Corruption revealed along the way also brought sweeping reforms in the IOC’s bidding process.

(Scott Snow) A courtroom sketch shows Dave Johnson, left, and Tom Welch, during their Olympic bribery trial.

Two top leaders of the bid committee — Tom Welch and David Johnson — were prosecuted in federal court on bribery and fraud charges, but those were dismissed in 2003, a year after a chastened Salt Lake City held one of the most financially successful Games in modern Olympic history.

Here’s a quick review of the scandal:

A different Olympic movement

Salt Lake City tried and failed to secure the Olympics four times before it won its bid in 1995 to host the 2002 Games. By its fourth loss — to Nagano, Japan — some of those behind the city’s Olympic quest felt burned.

Nagano had reportedly spent nearly $14 million entertaining IOC members before winning its bid, and several bid members members believed they needed to up their efforts significantly at wining and dining members of the elite group governing the worldwide Olympic movement.

That they did.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dave Johnson overlooks one of the many boxes at the "war room" where all case files of his defense were held on Dec. 5, 2003. Former Salt Lake Olympic bid committee members Tom Welch and Dave Johnson were acquitted by U.S. District Judge David Sam on all 15 counts of their bribery trial.

Members of Salt Lake City’s bid committee would give out $1 million in cash, scholarships, health care, expensive gifts and other favors to IOC members and their family members.

An ethics panel’s investigation eventually brought to light a litany of ski trips, Utah Jazz tickets, guns, housing, medical procedures, job opportunities, musical instruments and other benefits spread among IOC members as well as salaries paid to some of their children.

Bid committees in other countries also reported IOC members demanding similar luxury treatment, particularly during on-site visits to potential Olympic cities, purportedly to inspect their sporting venues. Melbourne’s bid committee for the 1996 Summer Olympics is said to have even gotten requests for new cars and brothel visits from IOC members, which were rejected.

Salt Lake City won its bid in 1995 in an emotional ceremony in Budapest, Hungary, beating out venues in Canada, Sweden and Switzerland. Three years later, its graft campaign with the IOC burst into public view when a copy of a letter was leaked to then-KTVX-TV reporter Chris Vanocur, detailing tuition payments to the child of an IOC member.

Marc Hodler, a Swiss IOC member, then accused several colleagues on the committee of accepting bribes in bidding processes as far back as 1990, and the Salt Lake Olympic bribery scandal broke open worldwide.

Decades of aftermath

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Frank Joklik talks of his resignation from the Salt Lake Olympic Committee at a news conference in 1999.

Four separate investigations into the affair ensued, including one by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Welch, former head of the Salt Lake Bid Committee; Johnson, the committee’s vice president; and Frank Joklik, president of the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee, or SLOC, all resigned and the DOJ later filed 15 bribery and fraud charges against Welch and Johnson.

Mitt Romney, then the CEO of Bain Capital, was brought in as president and CEO of SLOC in 1999 and launched a reorganization that closed massive shortfalls in the city’s Olympic budget and restored enthusiasm among crucial financial sponsors of the Games.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mitt Romney in one of the meetings trying to put the 2002 Olympics back together again, post-scandal.

The case against Welch and Johnson, meanwhile, was initially dismissed in 2001, then reinstated on appeal. In December 2003, before the case went to a jury, U.S. District Court Judge David Sam ruled there was insufficient evidence to support convictions on any of the charges.

Sam also denounced the felony prosecutions, saying that in 40 years of work in the criminal justice system, he hadn’t seen a case so devoid of “criminal intent or evil purpose.” Others, including former bid committee trustee Spencer Eccles, asserted no laws were broken and called the trial “ill-conceived.”

Welch and Johnson eventually saw their public reputations in Utah restored to some extent by how well the 2002 Winter Games were executed and sky-high levels of support by average Utahns, who turned out in droves as Olympic volunteers that February in 2002.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Parody pins highlighting the Salt Lake Olympic bribery scandal in 2001.

Polls and TV viewership numbers through the years since continue to place Beehive State residents among the world’s most ardent Olympic devotees.

But there’s no doubt the scandal tainted Salt Lake City’s reputation while leading to a meaningful overhaul of the IOC and how it does Olympic business.

Overhauls in Lausanne

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) During a tour of the University of Utah on April 25, 1997, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, second from right, was escorted by Gov. Mike Leavitt, left, Salt Lake Organizing Committee Chairman Frank Joklik, second from left, and SLOC president Tom Welch, right.

Saying the Salt Lake City scandal led to changes in the Olympic bid process is probably an understatement. The Lausanne, Switzerland-based IOC and its yearslong vetting process for choosing Summer and Winter Games host cities both look very different than they did before 2002.

The IOC’s own probe into the affair led it ultimately to expel 10 members and sanction 10 others, the first such actions in a century of IOC history. None of them faced criminal charges.

The international panel has introduced age and term limits and added 15 former Olympic athletes as members as part of a 50-point reform plan that grew out of its investigation.

On-site visits to Olympic venues by IOC members and any gifts above nominal value were also banned as of 1999 in the scandal’s immediate aftermath.

To be sure, numerous Olympic scandals — bid-related and otherwise — have emerged since 2002, including high-profile bribery charges involving a former Tokyo Olympic organizing committee member for the 2020 Summer Games.

In the meantime, under current IOC President Thomas Bach, elected in 2013, the powerful 105-member IOC has essentially upended much of its long-standing approach for choosing Olympic host cities, favoring those with existing sporting venues and confirmed support from residents.

Some of those changes, in fact, are thought to have helped Salt Lake City win its preferred status as a 2034 Olympic host.

Olympic historian David Wallechinsky has said he doesn’t believe the bribery scandal 25 years ago harmed Salt Lake City’s latest bid, partly because it revealed a decadeslong penchant by IOC members for accepting gifts and other favors behind the scenes.

“They learned from the corruption of other cities that beat them before,” Wallechinsky said in 2018 of SLOC members. “It’s not like they invented the corruption. … They just got caught.”