WASHINGTON — The first television ads of Mitt Romney’s general election campaign boasted of how he would confront China’s leaders, whom he has branded “cheaters” on economic policy. He would be a president, he said, who “stands up to China on trade and demands they play by the rules.”
Yet before he held public office — and at a crucial moment for the communist government — Romney was one of the chief Western voices arguing that critics should overlook China’s human rights record and welcome its application for a top ticket to international legitimacy: hosting the Olympic Games in Beijing.
“The Olympics are about building bridges, not building walls,” Romney said in August 2001 during an Olympic committee meeting in Moscow. “We should not build walls that block communication with other countries, even if we vehemently disagree with their practices.”
As a leader in the Olympics movement, Romney practiced an open-arms form of diplomacy that is at odds with the often hard-edged posture he has taken as a presidential candidate.
His presence at the London Games, which open Friday, will be a reminder of his successful management of the 2002 Winter Olympics but also of his tendency to ground his views on important issues on the needs of the moment.
While earlier this year he called Russia the “number one geopolitical foe” of the United States, Romney in 2001 emerged from a meeting of Olympic officials with President Vladmir Putin at the Kremlin with flattery for the steely-eyed Russian leader he called “charming.”
Over the past decade, Romney’s roles have changed just as world politics has changed. He is also now speaking to an American audience focused on electing a president, not an Olympic community promoting a philosophy of togetherness in sport.
A Romney aide also noted that Putin had been in office just a year when Romney met with him — to listen to a pitch for the 2008 Olympics — and that the Russian leader “hadn’t fully developed his dim record as president.”
Romney’s supporters say his Olympic experience provided important lessons about the international chessboard.
“The politics of the international Olympic movement makes the UN look simple by comparison,” said John Bolton, a former UN ambassador who helped with Atlanta’s efforts to secure the 1996 Summer Olympics and is now a Romney adviser. “To hold a successful Olympics like the Salt Lake City Olympics is not at all dissimilar to the complexities of diplomacy.’’
A Romney spokesman said there was no contradiction between Romney’s harsh criticism of China now and his more inclusive remarks in 2001.
“Governor Romney firmly criticized China’s human rights record and made the case that the Olympics bidding process would be a way to ‘spread the ideas of civil societies’ to China,” spokesman Ryan Williams said in a statement.
In 1999, when Utah called upon Romney, preparation for the Games was in disarray.
Romney entered as a businessman, someone who could fix a financial and morale problem. He had been a fan of the Games, but only from the comfort of his own couch.
Mike Leavitt, who as governor of Utah helped recruit Romney to run the Games, said he wanted someone who could reinstill faith.
“I did it fully recognizing the people of our state were disheartened and deflated; the world was disheartened and deflated,” he said. “One of the things I was looking for was someone who could stand on a world stage and make them believe again.”
The Olympics ethos promotes a more all-inclusive view of the world that allows countries to rise above international problems.
Romney appeared to embrace that utopian philosophy, of sport and beyond.
“Our generation longs for a world where the dreams of all the children may come true,” Romney said at the opening ceremonies at the 2002 Olympics, “where aspirations can be nourished in homes with caring families and in nations which embrace peace and the rights of humankind.”
But real-world politics often intrude into the Games. As China began to emerge as a world power, its human rights record bred a persistent debate over whether a country with a quarter of the globe’s population should have the honor of hosting the Games.
In Moscow, where members of the International Olympic Committee would make their decision, a Chinese delegation spent the final days trying to convince anyone who would listen that they deserved the 2008 Summer Games.
Little more than a decade after the protests in Tiananmen Square, there was concern — in Congress, in Europe, among former Olympic athletes — over the prospect of giving the honor to a country that critics said had an indefensible rights record.
Two days before the International Olympic Committee was planning to vote, Romney spoke at a press conference just after police in Moscow had broken up a protest staged by Tibetan activists against the Beijing bid.
Romney was not a voting member of the IOC — and he said at the time he was not formally endorsing the Beijing bid — but he was an influential voice as the executive running the upcoming Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
At the press conference, Romney was asked whether the country’s record troubled him.
“I am not an expert on the practices of other countries, and don’t consider myself sufficiently qualified to characterize the practices of any one country,” Romney said, according to the Denver Post. “I would say there are practices as reported in the media that violate my sense of fair human rights.”
“But I believe the best way to change practices in our world at peace is by opening countries to the media, to spectators, to athletes,” he added. “By building bridges we increase the probability of spreading the principles of civil society around the globe.”
Once China had secured the Games, Romney offered it advice on how to run them.
When Romney arrived in China with his wife, Ann, he marveled at what the Chinese had built. But when he recounted his thoughts about the opening ceremonies in a 2010 pre-presidential campaign book, Romney said the experience taught him that censorship had had its desired effect on the Chinese population: The loudest cheers went to North Korea and Cuba.
“We wondered how it was possible that nations ruled by tyrants who deprive their citizens not only of freedom but also of economic subsistence could be celebrated,” he wrote in “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.