On a balmy day last October, in a 10th-floor office overlooking the seaport, Mitt Romney launched into an impassioned presentation before a private meeting of 70 prominent business people who were interested in supporting Boston’s Olympic bid.
The former Massachusetts governor and two-time presidential candidate, who led the Salt Lake City Games of 2002, talked about the powerful impact of hosting athletes from around the world. The Olympics, Romney told the gathering at Boston 2024 headquarters, were the most important thing he’d ever been involved in, outside of his family.
“When he spoke about the Olympic movement itself, it was very emotional and very moving,’’ said John Fish, chairman of Boston 2024.
Romney’s transformative Olympic experience has become a major factor in Boston’s bid. He has been a quiet but influential behind-the-scenes player, embraced by the evolving power bloc behind the venture, and offering his connections to further the bid.
Romney’s influence is playing out in many ways. His success in Salt Lake City impressed his partners at Bain Capital, prompting them to provide financing for the Boston bid. Romney has shared his knowledge and contacts with the Boston 2024 founders and offered detailed accounts of how to navigate Olympic politics and run the Games successfully, said several people interviewed about his involvement.
The Olympic organizers first reached out to Romney in the fall of 2013. Fish and Daniel O’Connell, then the interim chief executive of Boston 2024, spoke with him as they were about to embark on an Olympic feasibility study. They scheduled a conference call with Romney, who had long since decamped from Belmont to Utah.
“In his discussion, he was so positive about the experience in Salt Lake City,” O’Connell recalled in an interview. Romney emphasized “the importance of the Olympic movement, what it would mean for Boston, how great it would be to see the Olympics in Massachusetts.”
That call was barely a year after the sting of Romney’s loss to Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election.
Romney offered to dispatch one of his longtime operatives, Spencer Zwick, to meet with the Boston 2024 founders. Zwick had served with Romney in the executive office of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, where they worked to turn around an operation that was running a huge deficit and tarnished by a bribery scandal.
Zwick later served as deputy chief of staff when Romney was governor and as finance chairman for Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.
Now a founding partner at the Boston investment firm Solamere Capital with Romney’s son Tagg, Zwick met with Fish and O’Connell at Fish’s office at Suffolk Construction. He detailed the challenges Romney had managed at the Olympics. And he offered to make introductions to staff members at the US Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee, where Romney had forged relationships.
Zwick has participated in a number of meetings with the Boston 2024 organizers, and keeps Romney informed of their progress, according to people involved in the process.
Last fall, Romney made the appearance in Boston to meet with potential members of the Founders 100 group. He talked about the use of temporary structures and development that can benefit a city for the longer term. He discussed sponsorships and how to run the Games at a surplus.
Romney also talked about using the games to obtain federal money. In Salt Lake, such funds paid to improve mountain roads that have helped fuel the ski industry. It’s the kind of windfall backers hope will help improve Boston’s beleaguered transit infrastructure. He also said the Olympics could bring together divided communities.
Several people said the Seaport District speech was Romney at his best, brimming with passion and enthusiasm. Indeed, he came off as presidential, they said. At appearances around the country, Romney’s presence fueled rumors of another run, although his wife, Ann, kept saying a firm “No.”
At about that time, the Bain-Romney machine kicked into gear. Stephen Pagliuca, a Bain Capital managing director and co-owner of the Boston Celtics, emerged as a key figure. He held a meeting at Bain Capital’s Back Bay offices to pitch partners and other Boston financial executives to help kick-start a Founders 100 group, at $50,000 a head and up. Five Bain Capital partners put up $650,000, nearly 10 percent of the initial $6.7 million in cash that funded the first phase of Boston’s bid.
If there was any doubt he had caught the bug, assurance came in the form of the book that Pagliuca sent to colleagues over the holidays; it was “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.”
Bain Consulting, where Romney worked before starting Bain Capital in 1984, offered to do pro bono budget and analysis work for the Olympic bid. Steve Roche, a longtime Romney campaign fund-raiser who also raised millions for the Romney super PAC in 2011-2012, signed on last fall as lead fund-raiser for Boston 2024.
“Every bit of help we can get from Mitt and the people he surrounded himself with is helpful to us,’’ Fish said. “At the end of the day it’s really about building strong and durable relationships.”
On Jan. 8 all that help paid off. The US Olympic Committee selected Boston over Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles as the American city to compete in the international arena to host the Games in 2024. Within moments, Fish had received a congratulatory e-mail from Romney.
The next day, Romney told supporters in New York that he was considering a run for president. Zwick was there with him. But the flirtation ended abruptly three weeks later, when Romney reversed course and said he would not throw his hat in the presidential ring.
If the Olympic efforts were part of a grander plan for Romney, Fish and other organizers say they have not felt a drop in support from him. Romney was traveling abroad this week and unavailable to comment. Zwick did not return calls seeking comment.
Meanwhile, the Bain and Romney Olympic connections continue. While the top executives at the US Olympic Committee have changed since Romney’s time, a number of staff members who knew him remain and still tell personal anecdotes about him, according to Boston 2024 organizers.
Fish said he had dinner last week and a tour of Salt Lake City with Fraser Bullock, another Bain Capital alumnus who was chief operating officer of 2002 Olympics under Romney. And Fish said he regularly sees Ann Romney in her work on a new center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital to study neurological diseases.
“I’ve been heavily involved in that,’’ said Fish, whose company, Suffolk Construction, is building the $280 million facility.
Mitt Romney himself is “offering counsel and advice on an ongoing basis,’’ Fish said. In this next phase of the bid, he said, “The more help we can get from Mitt and Spencer, the more beneficial it’s going to be to our effort to host the Games.”