LONDON (Reuters) – U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s high-profile overseas trip got off to a rocky start on Thursday when he was forced to clarify a comment seen as criticizing London’s handling of the Summer Olympics that he came to celebrate.
The Republican candidate ruffled British feathers ahead of his visit by appearing to suggest in a U.S. television interview that London was not ready for the games, whose opening ceremony in the British capital is held on Friday.
“It’s hard to know just how well it will turn out. There are a few things that were disconcerting,” Romney told NBC when asked to analyze London’s handling of the Olympics.
He cited what he said was the threat of a strike by immigration and customs officials. “That obviously is not something which is encouraging.”
The comments were seized on by British media and Prime Minister David Cameron defended Britain’s handling of the games, after he was forced to deploy extra troops to bolster security to cover a shortfall left by a private contractor.
“We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. Of course, it is easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere,” Cameron said during a news conference at the Olympic Park in London on Thursday.
The comments, in response to a question about public transport problems ahead of the games, could be uncomfortable reading for Romney, who has made much of his record as the man who saved the failing Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002.
“We talked about the great progress that has been made in organizing the Games,” Romney said after meeting Cameron.
“My experience as the Olympic organizer is that there are always a few very small things that end up not going quite right, those get ironed out, and then when the Games themselves begin, the athletes take over,” he said.
Romney has traded on his Olympic experience in his political career, making it a key part of his resume that he cites as a reason why he has the can-do spirit to rebuild the U.S. economy.
The Olympics comments marked an inauspicious start to a week-long overseas trip, designed to establish his foreign policy credentials with voters back home.
London Mayor Boris Johnson added to Romney’s discomfort when addressing a cheering crowd in Hyde Park, an Olympics venue in central London.
“I hear there’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we’re ready. He wants to know whether we’re ready. Are we ready? Are we ready? Yes, we are,” he roared.
Romney had already been forced to disavow comments by an unnamed adviser who told the Daily Telegraph President Barack Obama had mishandled U.S.-British ties and that Romney better understood the “Anglo-Saxon heritage” between the two countries.
Romney also took the unusual step of acknowledging that he had met with the head of MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, when asked about his discussions with British officials about Syria. Such conversations are not normally discussed publicly.
“I can only say that I appreciated the insights and the perspectives of the leaders of the government here and opposition here as well as the head of MI6 as we discussed Syria and hoped for a more peaceful future for that country,” he said. (Editing by Jon Boyle)