WASHINGTON — Eight months into Mitt Romney’s tenure running the Salt Lake City Olympics, he had some good news for the cash-strapped organizing committee, which still was short $179 million.
Nu Skin Enterprises, a Utah-based distributor of nutritional supplements and beauty products, would sponsor the 2002 Olympic Winter Games and the U.S. Olympic Team in a deal worth $20 million.
Romney, who announced the arrangement along with company executives, touted the partnership as the perfect fit. Both Nu Skin and the Olympics were “about taking control of your life and managing your own destiny,” he told 10,000 Nu Skin distributors Oct. 15, 1999, the Deseret News reported.
For Romney, the sponsorship was a critical part of what would emerge as a key chapter in his political biography: savior of the struggling, scandal-plagued Olympics, a role he plans to highlight next week on the night he accepts the Republican presidential nomination. For Nu Skin, the chance to promote its link to the Olympics was of “almost incalculable” value, according to its chief executive.
The ties that Romney built then with the supplement industry have proved lasting.
Top Nu Skin executives donated to his 2002 campaign for governor of Massachusetts. They and others in the supplement industry became some of the most loyal financial supporters of his presidential bids. Officials and employees of six nutritional supplement companies have donated $4 million to back Romney’s two White House runs, according to campaign finance filings.
Much of the nutritional supplement industry is based in Utah, whose Mormon community has a long tradition of using herbal remedies and whose elected officials have helped fend off efforts to more tightly regulate the products.
Romney’s involvement with the industry began when he led Bain Capital, which invested in two nutritional supplement companies in the early 1990s. But it deepened in Salt Lake, where he defended the Nu Skin sponsorship as a controversy built over whether athletes should use supplements, which — unlike pharmaceuticals — do not require prior Food and Drug Administration approval.
International Olympic Committee and anti-drug officials criticized the lax labeling of supplements, some of which contain steroids and stimulants. Some of those substances could cause athletes to fail doping tests, which in turn could bar them from the Games. Having Nu Skin as a sponsor, some believed, sent a mixed message.
Richard Pound, then the head of the newly formed World Anti-Doping Agency, told the Wall Street Journal in 2002 that he had warned Salt Lake organizers to reject the sponsorship. “It just creates too much of an actual or potential conflict of interest,” Pound explained in a recent email.
But Romney stood by the deal, saying Nu Skin had rigorous quality controls. “This is the model of testing and labeling we would like other nutritional supplement companies to adopt,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune. To fend off the criticism, a Nu Skin subsidiary had an independent lab test its products two months before the Games. The result: They were clean.
A decade later, former Nu Skin Chief Executive Steven Lund — who, like Romney, has held leadership positions in the Mormon Church — is one of the biggest backers of his presidential bid. Last year, a company registered to Lund and another to his son-in-law each donated $1 million to the pro-Romney “super PAC” Restore Our Future, becoming some of its first major contributions.
Lund, now Nu Skin’s vice chairman, did not respond to requests for comment. Sydnee Fox, a Nu Skin spokeswoman, said: “Mr. Lund’s personal political activities and contributions are not connected in any way with the company.”
Other supplement interests have also given generously to the super PAC: David Lisonbee, chief executive of 4Life Research, contributed $500,000; and Frank VanderSloot, chief executive of Melaleuca, $1.1 million.
“The fact that we are nutrition companies is entirely coincidental,” VanderSloot said. “But the fact that we are all businesses is not coincidental. Businesses in general support Mitt Romney.”
Lisonbee credited his donation to Romney’s “track record in the private sector.”
Employees of Nu Skin, 4Life Research and Melaleuca — as well as supplement companies Forever Living Products, Xango and MonaVie — have given to Romney’s own political committees. In all, they have donated at least $400,000 to his presidential efforts.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul declined to answer questions about Nu Skin’s sponsorship or his relationship with the industry. “Mitt Romney’s success in leading the 2002 Winter Olympics speaks for itself,” she said in a statement, adding that he “set up one of the most rigorous drug-testing programs in Olympic history.”
When Romney took over the Salt Lake Games in February 1999, anti-drug officials were already issuing warnings to athletes about dietary supplements. Baseball star Mark McGwire had recently admitted taking androstenedione, a steroid precursor then sold as a supplement but prohibited by the International Olympic Committee.
Those concerns were shared by Dr. Don Catlin, a leading anti-doping scientist from Los Angeles, and Dr. Doug Rollins, a Salt Lake City toxicology expert, who jointly ran the 2002 Olympics doping control program. “I was trying very hard to get the word out not to take supplements,” Catlin said.
Neither was consulted about the Nu Skin sponsorship.
Dr. Charles Rich, a Utah neurosurgeon who was chief medical officer for the Games, said he did not believe Romney was fully aware of the risks supplements posed to athletes when the deal was signed, and said Romney had a serious commitment to the anti-doping program.
“I think all of this kind of belatedly dawned on the people at the top,” Rich said.
According to internal organizing committee documents, executives of Provo-based Nu Skin were identified early on as potential sponsors by Romney’s aides, who were scrambling to secure local support in the wake of bribery allegations against previous organizers.
Nu Skin, with annual revenues approaching $1 billion, was an appealing partner. The company had licensed a nutritional supplement to the U.S. Olympic Committee for the 1996 Atlanta Games. And Olympic athletes, such as Al Joyner and Kerri Strug, endorsed its products.
But the company had some baggage. Two years before the Salt Lake sponsorship, Nu Skin had paid a $1.5-million penalty after the Federal Trade Commission concluded it violated a consent decree by making “unsubstantiated” claims about the ability of its products to reduce fat, increase metabolism and build muscle.
As part of the Salt Lake Olympic sponsorship, a joint marketing agreement with the U.S. Olympic Committee, Nu Skin was authorized to emblazon the Olympic rings on several products, including its flagship multivitamin.
Lund said the Olympic logo would mean “more sales” and “further mainstream our brand,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune. “The value of this Olympic affiliation is almost incalculable,” he said at the October 1999 announcement.
Nu Skin subsidiary Pharmanex, which distributes the supplements, capitalized on its Olympic association, featuring a snowy ski scene and the Salt Lake 2002 insignia on the 2001-02 catalog used by distributors across the country.
The deal also allowed Nu Skin to give away free products at U.S. Olympic training centers.
Catlin and Rollins said they were unaware that supplements were distributed to U.S. athletes — a move they called unwise. “I certainly would have had a concern about that,” Rollins said.
Patrick Sandusky, a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee, which runs the training centers, declined to comment. The U.S. team no longer has a supplement sponsor and, Sandusky said, is not seeking one.
The risks posed by supplements captured headlines during the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, which Romney attended. Four athletes were banned after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, results they blamed on supplements.
Rich, chief medical officer for the upcoming 2002 Games, was alarmed and began to call for more regulation. In an October 2000 letter to a top Salt Lake Olympic official, copied to Romney, he warned that the “clear message” from Sydney was that “so-called health food products … with their poorly documented contents” led to “athletes’ medals being taken away and their reputations ruined.”
He said Romney, in private, was supportive of him raising the issue. “He said, ‘Chuck, I know exactly where you’re coming from, and we all have the same concerns,’” Rich recalled.
But Romney continued to back Nu Skin as a sponsor, even after executives from Blue Cross Blue Shield, the healthcare sponsor for the Winter Games, told the Salt Lake Tribune they were “dismayed” by the deal. The healthcare company, which declined to comment, was promoting an initiative to educate children about the dangers of steroids and dietary supplements.
International Olympic Committee officials were also sounding a warning. In December 2000, the IOC Athletes Commission urged Olympic organizations to avoid supplement makers as sponsors — a position it still maintains.
Just months before the 2002 Games, an IOC study found that 1 out of 5 supplements it tested contained banned stimulants or steroids. “We have warned all the athletes, ‘Don’t take food supplements,’” IOC President Jacques Rogge said.
The message did not get through to everyone.
On the eve of the Salt Lake Games, U.S. bobsledder Pavle Jovanovic was suspended after testing positive for a muscle-building steroid. He blamed it on a supplement.
In an interview on NBC’s “Today,” he sharply criticized the Nu Skin sponsorship. “It’s just a scary thing — the mixed signals, the conflict of interest, corporate sponsorships,” he said.
Without Jovanovic, the U.S. bobsledding team — favored to take the gold — placed second.