Taking a break from the presidential campaign, Mitt Romney returned to Utah on Saturday to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, which he was brought in to turn around after local organizers were embroiled in a bribing scandal.
Though Romney frequently cites his experience fixing the Salt Lake City Olympics as one of the reasons he is qualified to be president, he did not mention a word about politics Saturday, instead highlighting the success of the 2002 Games and the Utah residents who volunteered for the effort.
"These Games will always be about the greatness of the people of this great land. They will always hold a place in my heart and I believe your heart that will never be erased," Romney told thousands gathered at a Stars on Ice celebration of the anniversary featuring famous skaters such as gold medal winners Sarah Hughes, Jamie Salé and David Pelletier. "I love you. I love the experience we shared together."
He told a tale he often tells on the campaign trail about speed skater Derek Parra, who after winning gold and silver medals, told Romney that the most moving experience of the Games was carrying into the stadium the torn, burned flag that had flown above the World Trade Center.
Earlier, he thanked people who worked on the Games' organizing committee at a private reception nearby.
"These were the most inspirational Games I have ever seen," Romney told a few hundred people gathered in a restored historic train station lobby. He called out various teams that worked on providing food, decorating the city, finding entertainment and doing the other work that made the Games a financial and sporting success.
"There's power in unity," Romney said. "We came together as a group people, not caring about who got credit but caring about putting on the best Games in the history" of the Olympics.
While Romney made no mention of politics, rival Rick Santorum used the anniversary to highlight what he calls the former Massachusetts governor's "hypocrisy" over the issue of earmarks. Romney has been slashing at Santorum for voting for earmarks while he served as a senator and congressman from Pennsylvania.
Romney "heroically bailed out the Salt Lake Olympic Games -- by heroically going to Congress and asking them to bail out the Salt Lake Olympic Games. In an earmark!" Santorum said in Columbus, Ohio. "Does the word 'hypocrisy' come to mind?"
A spokeswoman for Romney countered that Romney sought money for security in an Olympic Games that took place only months after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Sometimes when you shoot from the hip, you end up shooting yourself in the foot," she said in a statement. "There is a pretty wide gulf between seeking money for post-9/11 security at the Olympics and seeking earmarks for polar bear exhibits at the Pittsburgh Zoo. Mitt Romney wants to ban earmarks, Senator Santorum wants more 'Bridges to Nowhere.'"
Money was used for security, but it was also used for other spending. A 2000 congressional report found that the federal government would spend $1.3 billion in and around Salt Lake City. But much of that funding was for improving infrastructure, highways and transit systems, not directly on staging the Games.
When those funds were not included, the tab came to $342 million. That figure rose to about $400 million once additional funding was added for additional security after the 9/11 attacks.