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  • Saturday, January 30, 1999

    Once praised for bringing Olympics to Utah, Welch now vilified

     SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The words were uttered in praise in the intoxicating days before Salt Lake City was awarded the 2002 Winter Olympics.
     "Every great cause needs someone who will go to the extremes that no one else will," Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt said of Tom Welch, the city's chief Olympic scout.
     Four years later, Leavitt's words have haunting overtones.
     For Welch, the man once lauded for doing whatever it took to win the Winter Games for his home state, the man who abandoned a corporate career and ultimately his marriage, is now vilified for having gone overboard, for having pandered to the greed of International Olympic Committee members.
     Leavitt now tells a worldwide audience he is "revolted" by the unfolding scandal and accuses bid committee executives of a "systematic cover-up" of behavior that was at odds with Utah's high moral standards.
     IOC investigators say the bid committee gave $800,000 in cash and educational, medical and travel expenses to 14 IOC members as Salt Lake pursued the 2002 Games. The IOC picked the city on an unprecedented first ballot in June 1995.
     The finger-pointing has all the trappings of a witch hunt, grumbles Tom Schaffer, Welch's attorney. "Tom now knows how the women of Salem must have felt."
     Welch's friends portray him as the scapegoat for a provincial state that long hungered for global acceptance and was willing to turn a blind eye to how the Olympic prize was obtained.
     Yet even they concede the characteristics that once made Welch the go-to guy are those that now make it easy to cast him as the villain.
     Raised in a lower-income family in Ogden, 35 miles north of Salt Lake, Welch, 54, was always energetic and affable.
     Following his days as student-body president at Weber State in 1968-69, he earned a law degree at George Washington Law School before returning to Utah to work his way into the corporate counsel job for Smith's Food & Drug.
     The dream of Utah leaders of landing the Olympics had been dormant after three failed attempts dating to the 1960s. But the huge profit of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics reignited their interest.
     That's when the charismatic Welch, whose reputation for high-energy salesmanship was renowned, offered his services to then-Mayor Ted Wilson and then-Gov. Norm Bangerter. In 1985, they asked him to take on Salt Lake's seemingly quixotic quest.
     "It was a long shot. We were used to losing up to that point," Wilson recalls. "As a bid guy, he was absolutely incredible. He was willing to get on those planes day in and day out. He was indefatigable."
     Welch and sidekick Dave Johnson, the senior vice president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee who was forced to resign Jan. 8 over his role in the bid effort, spent years traveling to Olympic meetings, pressing the case of the obscure, mountain-rimmed city at the edge of the Great Basin.
     When the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1989 finally named Salt Lake its candidate for the 1998 Games and, if necessary, the 2002 Games, Welch promised Salt Lake would treat it as a "sacred trust."
     Mike Zuhl was on the bid committee in 1989, the year Welch left Smith's with millions from the company's first public stock offering and became a full-time Olympic volunteer.
     Welch not only had the tenacity to elbow his way before a worldwide Olympic audience, he had the folksy charm to gain passage of a 1989 statewide referendum to use $59 million in sales tax revenue for games venues, Zuhl said.
     "He had a passion for it and it was contagious to a lot of people," Zuhl recalled. "He had one of those personalities that made you want to like him."
     But all the power, globetrotting and attention eventually went to his head, some friends believe.
     "Here's this Mormon boy from Ogden, Utah, who sort of came from out of the shadows," Zuhl said. "Nobody knew who he was and suddenly he was a household name, cavorting with royalty from all over the world, traveling, an ambassador for the Olympic Games.
     "That's pretty heady stuff. Unless youre pretty well grounded, it's easy to fall prey to whatever temptations there are in that circle."
     Welch's wife of 28 years, Alma, says he changed in the years before pushing Salt Lake into the winner's circle.
     What had always been boyish enthusiasm -- for hunting, fishing, eating, politicking -- became an irritable, win-at-all-costs obsession that would brook no opposition, she said.
     Alma Welch filed for divorce shortly after telling police that Welch tried to kill her in a struggle in their garage in July 1997. The former Mormon bishop pleaded no contest to a spousal abuse charge and went to a counselor, also resigning as SLOC's president.
     The couple was divorced in October, although terms of the settlement are still being negotiated, and Welch plans a Feb. 5 wedding to a widow in Huntington Beach, Calif.
     Mrs. Welch says she did not know about excessive spending on IOC members, but her husband "never knew when enough was enough. There is no stopping valve on Tom. He cannot control himself. When he wants something, he gets it."
     Welch has often boasted of the role his wife and six children played, of how they hosted every visiting IOC member in their 10,000-square-foot home in the foothills.
     But he also left the family behind for weeks on end, and the two youngest, boys now 12 and 1, have suffered, Mrs. Welch says.
     "They have grown up with a phantom sibling, more powerful than anyone in the family and that is the Olympics," Mrs. Welch said. "Tom was fully dedicated to the Olympics. It was superior to our marriage, to me and to the children individually."
     Welch declined to be interviewed on the advice of his attorney.
     But his friends say he remains convinced he was merely spending bid money to create friendships with IOC delegates and to be a generous member of the international sporting community.
     "He feels hurt and wronged," attorney Bruce Baird said. "It's hypocritical to tell somebody to go out and get in the game and then come back and say, 'Well, you played the game too well."'
     Few of Welch's friends believe the governor and bid committee members were as ignorant of the lavish spending as they now claim.
     Baird describes Welch's office during the bid period as looking like "Santa's workshop at the North Pole the day before Christmas."
     "Anybody who claims they didn't know we were shipping out gifts to everybody is lying," Baird said. "We sent the bid books out in gorgeous leather saddle bags."
     Said Sydney Fonnesbeck, a former city council member and a friend of Welch's: "What surprises me the most about the whole thing is how surprised everyone is. It wasn't done in secret."

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