Did you know that sometimes officials use the Olympics for the purpose of "promoting themselves and their country with someone else's money"? Mitt Romney knows about this, and he thinks it's just awful.
Romney took to USA Today to weigh in on two things he likes to talk about: government spending and the Olympics. Sochi is the perfect vehicle for discussing that overlap. At $50 billion, it is the most expensive Winter Games in history — so expensive, in fact, that it cost more than all previous Winter Games combined. (Mother Jones has a nice set of graphics illustrating the excess.)
Specifically, Romney is arguing that the International Olympic Committee should put a cap on how much countries are allowed to spend — say, $3 billion, which is less than what Mitt Romney's 2002 Games in Salt Lake City cost. But in a broader sense, Romney is arguing that government spending is necessarily bad and wasteful. "Why do governments spend so much" on the Olympics, he asks?
Public-sector inefficiency accounts for some of the gap, and corruption is surely to blame as well. But the big difference is that government personalities are promoting themselves and their country with someone else's money. Governments don't have to stick to a budget: If something costs more than planned, well, they just spend more. In privately financed Games, if something costs more than expected, you must cut something to make up the difference.
Before sifting out the other points in that densely-packed paragraph, I would like to return to the irony of Mitt Romney wringing his hands over people using the Olympics to promote themselves with someone else's money. When I mentioned above that Mitt Romney ran the 2002 Games, you already knew that, because Mitt Romney mentioned it 45,000 times on the campaign trail. (That's just an estimate, by the way, though Google returns 7.4 million results for "Romney Olympics" between October 2011 and November 2012.) Romney's insistence on mentioning his experience with the Olympics as proof of his ability to turnaround troubled enterprises was so common that it got the Politifact treatment; Romney's claim about balancing the Games' budget was rated "mostly true."
Romney understood the political importance of his position with the Games at the time. He asked former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan to write his speech for the Games to ensure maximum effect. (He decided to use his own speech instead, and Noonan emerged as a fervent critic of Romney's in 2012.) In November of 2002, after the profile boost the Olympics provided, Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts.
Romney would probably argue that he wasn't using the Games for the purposes of self-promotion, or that the use of government money for self-promotion is a different entity. And he's right about Russian President Vladimir Putin, who by all accounts sees the Sochi Games as his chance to present a new Putinified Russia. (Did you see the Opening Ceremony?)
But the reason these Games cost so much is not really about government inefficiency, which Romney uses as his main argument. It is almost certainly about the corruption that merits only an aside in Romney's telling. At The New Yorker, James Surowiecki walked through why massive construction projects are prone to corruption and why Sochi is perhaps the pinnacle of such efforts: unique projects and large budgets and national pride combine to blur and obscure illegal activity. Until it's so obvious — as is the case in Sochi — that it's impossible to ignore.
Romney's solution to overspending isn't much of a solution. $3 billion in 2002 is $3.9 billion in 2013 money, thanks to inflation. So even Romney's Games cost more than he thinks an Olympics should cost. But moreover, it's hardly the case that private enterprise is free of abuse and criminal cost overruns. The Games will always be as expensive as people want to spend on them; they will always be shiny objects to which politicians point with pride. Mitt Romney, of all people, is in a pretty poor position to criticize that.