Juan Antonio Samaranch: Administrator who survived two decades of controversy at the head of the International Olympic Committee
Thursday 22 April 2010
Juan Antonio Samaranch, the second longest-serving President of the International Olympic Committee, was a man who courted controversy and was lauded in equal measure. He took a bankrupt IOC and turned it into a multi-billion pound organisation, but also guided it through troubled waters – boycotts, doping, commercialisation, the advent of professionalism and ultimately a corruption scandal that threatened his own position, with calls for his resignation. Samaranch, however, was always a man who seemed to defy his critics. He fought his corner like the amateur boxer he had been and successfully completed 21 years in the most powerful positions in sport.
Born in Barcelona in 1920 to one of Catalonia's wealthiest families, Samaranch wanted for nothing. He had a keen interest in sport. including boxing, hockey and football. Although hampered by tuberculosis, he successfully studied commerce at the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empresa Business School in Barcelona. After supporting General Franco during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), he became one of the most powerful men in the country during the Caudillo's 36-year reign.
After Samaranch had served as a deputy in the Barcelona local authority and then as a Catalan representative in the strictly controlled Madrid Parliament, in the late 1960s Franco appointed him as the national delegate for sport, in effect a ministerial role. Having been on the Spanish Olympic Committee from 1954, he was Spanish chef de mission at three Olympic Games before winning a place on the IOC in 1966. He was its President from 1967-70. With the death of Franco in 1975, he successfully manoeuvred himself into new positions of power and influence, first as Spanish Ambassador to the Soviet Union and to Mongolia. During this period Samaranch made important contacts among third world sports officials which helped him succeed Lord Killanin as IOC President in 1980.
Upon Samaranch's arrival, the IOC was virtually bankrupt. The Olympics were battered by the US-led Western boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and then the Eastern bloc retaliation in 1984 at Los Angeles, as well as the terrorism from Munich in 1972 and financial troubles of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, which they only recently finished paying off. Undaunted, Samaranch set about turning the Games into a more commercially-orientated event, while healing political divisions and bringing more nations into the Olympic movement with greater participation at every event. By the time he left, 21 years later, the IOC's coffers were bulging, the boycott era was over, and the Olympics were firmly established as the world's favourite festival of sport.
In addition, he wanted the best athletes to compete in the Olympics, which led to the gradual acceptance of professional athletes. The Los Angeles Olympics proved to be not only a spectacular event, but it was also a financial success, making a profit of $235million, the first Games to finish with a surplus since 1932 (also held in LA). Further, it represented a clear break with the past, with its focal sport of athletics now fully professional. The 1992 Barcelona Games, held in Samaranch's birthplace, were a stunning success as corporate sponsors were falling over themselves to join the party and get a piece of the Olympic pie. As a result, the price of television rights rocketed and the Olympic rings became one of the world's most marketable symbols. The following year, under his leadership, the IOC established The Olympic Programme, an exclusive club for major global sponsors.
Thereafter, every subsequent Olympics has been a huge financial success and it became a tradition for Samaranch, when giving the President's final address at the closing ceremony of each Summer Olympics, to praise the organisers for putting on "the best ever" Games. He withheld this phrase only once, at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta where the organisation had come under heavy criticism.
Although Samaranch successfully oversaw the metamorphosis of the IOC, his presidency was perhaps the most eventful in IOC history, which included the Salt Lake City crisis. It was this that was to cast a permanent shadow over his tenure. It was potentially the most damaging in the organisation's 105-year history. The scandal occurred in 1998, when veteran Swiss IOC member Marc Hodler, who had run against Samaranch for the presidency, told reporters that some members were bribed to award the 2002 Winter Games to Salt Lake City. The allegations were confirmed and, to their horror, IOC members found themselves pariahs under attacks from politicians and the world's media. An internal inquiry found that as many as 20 of the IOC's 110 members had been bribed to back Salt Lake's bid to host the 2002 Winter Olympics. In some cases holidays had been given, while others received jobs or university places for their relatives. One member's wife had even received free cosmetic surgery. In the end, 13 IOC members lost their positions.
The IOC was accused of not stamping down soon enough on the excessive free trips of members and Samaranch faced calls to resign. Although he was never found guilty of any wrongdoing, some blamed him for having turned a blind eye to all the corruption. The Olympic historian John MacAloon said, "He helped select many of the members who were found guilty of bribe-taking... It will be a lasting footnote to his presidency." Following this, visits to candidate cities were later banned but Samaranch still won a vote of confidence from IOC members. A cynic would say that they were simply sticking by a man who had enabled them to line their pockets for so many years.
In addition, Samaranch and the IOC endured persistent allegations of drugs cover-ups, and the Ben Johnson scandal in 1988, along with other high-profile cases, forced the IOC to establish the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA) in 1999.
Before stepping down in 2001, Samaranch again sparked controversy when he awarded Beijing the 2008 Olympics despite widespread criticism of China's human rights record and he ensured the election of his chosen successor, Jacques Rogge as the new IOC President. He then became Honorary President for Life of the IOC.
He retired as the second-longest serving IOC President with only the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, serving longer in office (29 years from 1896-1925), with the American Avery Brundage serving 20 years (1952-72). Under new rules, 12 years will be the maximum term for the President.
Despite retiring, Samaranch remained active within the Olympic movement and tried to help Madrid secure the Games of 2012 and 2016. Madrid finished third behind the winners London in the 2005 vote for the 2012 Olympics, and second to Rio de Janeiro for 2016. Samaranch spoke during Madrid's presentation in Copenhagen on October 2009, virtually asking IOC members to send the games to the Spanish capital as a parting gift to an old man close to his final days.
In Spain, Samaranch is seen both as a sporting hero and a politically controversial figure. Praised for his contribution to the Olympic ideal, he is also widely criticised for his apparent support for Franco. Inevitably Samaranch's reputation was tainted by the Salt Lake scandal, and critics claim that many of the original ideals were obscured in his search for commercial success. However, his supporters believe he saved the Olympic Games from destruction and demonstrated subtle political skills in a difficult time.
Juan Antonio Samaranch, diplomat and sports administrator; born Barcelona 17 July 1920; married 1955 Maria Teresa (died 2000; one son, one daughter); partner to Luisa Sallent; died Barcelona 21 April 2010.
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