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BOOK REVIEW

'Turnaround' never heads in an identifiable direction

It was a job that demanded a turnaround artiste. The 2002 Winter Games had been stained by the worst scandal in Olympic history, with corrupt International Olympic Committee members taking $1 million in cash and gifts from eager Utah bid-committee chiefs.

The budget was awash in enough red ink to create a second Great Salt Lake. Sponsors and donors were balking. John Hancock chief executive David D'Alessandro had pulled the Olympic rings logo from his company's materials in disgust. Would-be volunteers were reluctant to sign up.

What the organizing committee needed, fantasized chairman Robert Garff, was "a white knight who is universally loved." In rode Mitt Romney, who'd never seen an Olympics and had no desire to leave Boston, where he was running Bain Capital, the multibillion-dollar private investment firm he'd founded.

Taking over as committee chief, Romney thought, was "preposterous." But as the scandal grew worse, his wife, Ann, who knew he loved tackling "emergencies and catastrophes," convinced Romney to saddle up early in 1999. "If there's any one person ideally suited for this job," she told him, "it's you."

As everyone knows, the Games came off flawlessly, setting a record for attendance and making a $100 million profit. Romney promptly gave back his $285,000 annual salary and rode out of town.

"Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games" is Romney's account of his three years in Salt Lake. It's breezy and breathless, a chin-first ride on a skeleton sled (which Romney actually tried). It needs both an editor and a proofreader. (Bill Hybl, the former US Olympic Committee president, comes out as Hybyl and Hybil. Not to mention "Mohammed" Ali, Ronald "Regan," et cetera.)

But mostly, "Turnaround" needs an identity. Is this a business book? An inspirational tome to `Light the Fire Within,' which was the Games' slogan? A resume enhancer for higher office? The world's longest thank you note?

Romney himself doesn't seem sure. The book is not the story of the Salt Lake Olympics, he declares in the introduction. "Instead, I look to Olympic experiences to showcase career choices, principles of management and measures of leadership," Romney writes. "Often, I will spell out what lesson I draw from the experience; often, you will have to find your own."

"Turnaround" is essentially an anecdotal chronicle of Romney's salvage job, modeled on the classic Bain formula: performing a "strategic audit," assembling a skilled team, and executing a simple but focused plan. The plan: cut costs; sell new sponsors; sell the feds; get donors; pray.

All of that is covered thoroughly, perhaps too much so. (You'll learn much more about "phantom VIK" than you'd ever care to.) Romney doesn't shy away from the bid scandal, even though it didn't happen on his watch, and he implies that the committee chiefs got off easy. "I believe those who pursued [Tom] Welch and [Dave] Johnson were inept," he says. And he devotes a full chapter to the necessary but controversial involvement of the Mormon Church, especially the delicate issue of serving alcohol on its property.

The problem with "Turnaround" is that too much of it is front-loaded. The chapter on Sept. 11, which posed a much graver threat to the Salt Lake Games than the bid scandal, is shorter than "Funds From the Feds." The tense showdown with the IOC about US athletes bringing in the ground zero flag during the opening ceremonies gets only a couple of pages. And the more intriguing and timely stuff -- how Romney parlayed the salvage job into the Massachusetts governorship and set himself up for a national run -- is brushed off in a six-page epilogue.

The biggest drawback is that the book arrived at least a year too late. By the time "Turnaround" hit the bookstores, Romney had been on Beacon Hill for more than 18 months and was being diagnosed with Potomac fever. By then, the celebration of Salt Lake's unexpected success had been overtaken by the hand-wringing about Athens's last-minute scramble to get ready for the Summer Olympics.

By now, everyone knows that the Greeks pulled off the greatest turnaround in Olympic history in a matter of months. If she's smart, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, Romney's summer counterpart, will get her book out by next summer, before the Turin folks tell their own tale about how they got Neapolitans and Sicilians to care about snow and ice in 2006.

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