LONDON — Mitt Romney had hoped a visit to the Olympics would advertise his own past glory and kick off an overseas trip designed to show him as a statesman ready for the world stage.
Instead, the Republican presidential candidate offended a close ally on the eve of the first Olympics here in 64 years and prompted the British prime minister to dismiss Romney’s own history with the Olympics as a small-town nothing.
Romney set off the international brouhaha by questioning London’s readiness to host the games. “It’s hard to know just how well it will turn out,” Romney said on the eve of the games. He said a controversy over the level of security staffing was “disconcerting.”
British officials reacted in anger at the challenge from Romney, who boasts of his own role managing the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.London’s colorful mayor, Boris Johnson, didn’t cut Romney any slack when he addressed a crowd of tens of thousands who gathered Thursday evening in Hyde Park for the ceremonial running of the Olympic torch.
“I hear there’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we’re ready,” Johnson said. “He wants to know whether we’re ready. Are we ready? Are we ready? Yes, we are.”
“We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world,” British Prime Minister David Cameron told a press conference at London’s new Olympic Park when asked about Romney’s remarks. “Of course, it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.”
That appeared to be a not-so-veiled reference to Salt Lake City, where Romney helped rescue the 2002 Winter Olympics from financial disaster in what his campaign has sought to portray as a signature achievement. His visit to London – the first stop on a tour that will also take him to Israel and Poland – is designed in part to bask in reflected Olympic glory and to reinforce his campaign pitch that he’s a can-do manager skilled at rescuing failing enterprises.
It got off to a rocky start before he even boarded the plane to cross the Atlantic.
First came a report Wednesday in London’s Telegraph newspaper, which quoted an unnamed Romney adviser as saying the Republican understood the shared “Anglo-Saxon heritage” of the U.S.-British relationship better than President Barack Obama. Romney quickly said he didn’t agree with the comment.
Romney’s own verbal misstep came in an interview broadcast Wednesday evening on NBC News, in which he voiced concerns about the failure of a private security company, G4S, to furnish all of the 10,000 contractors it had promised for security at Olympic venues. The British military had to step in, calling up an additional 3,500 troops last week and 1,200 this week to fill the gap.
Romney quickly tried to walk back his remarks, telling reporters on Thursday, “My experience with regards to the Olympics is it is impossible for absolutely no mistakes to occur. Of course there will be errors from time to time, but those are all overshadowed by the extraordinary demonstrations of courage, character and determination by the athletes.”
Later, after meeting Cameron, Romney said: “I am very delighted with the prospects of a highly successful Olympic Games. What I have seen shows imagination and forethought and a lot of organization. I expect the games to be highly successful.”
In his comments Wednesday, Romney also appeared to question whether Londoners – many of whom have grumbled about the spiraling cost and traffic nightmares associated with the Olympics – would support the games.
“Do they come together and celebrate the Olympic moment? That’s something which we only find out once the Games actually begin,” he said.
Piqued Londoners were quick to respond. David K. Smith, a professor of chemistry at York University, wrote on Twitter, “Romney achieves what no amount of BBC propaganda could – uniting the Brits behind London Olympics!”
In Washington, the White House made a point of telling reporters that Obama has the "utmost confidence" in the U.K.’s ability to pull off the games. Press Secretary Jay Carney said that Obama got a briefing on the Olympics Thursday morning from John Brennan, his assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism.
Obama "made it clear that he has the utmost confidence in our close friend and ally, the United Kingdom, as they finalize preparations to host the London Olympics,” Carney said.
(Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.)