Samaranch may lose his last battle

As Beijing wins chance to show it can be the forgiven city, retiring IOC president struggles to extend his influence
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The Independent Online

Juan Antonio Samaranch is not the happiest of hombres. While he is pleased enough that his valedictory act after 21 years as the most powerful figure in world sport was to declare his preferred choice, Beijing, as host city for the 2008 Olympic Games, he remains grim-faced as his fingers are gently prised from the presidential throne.

His unease is fuelled by the growing suspicion that the ambitions of the Korean Dr Kim Un Yong to succeed him have not been dashed by the Chinese victory. Samaranch desperately wants to see the man he has groomed as his successor, the 59-year-old Belgian surgeon Jacques Rogge, elected here tomorrow, and does not want the notorious Dr Kim to get the nod, at almost any price.

Dr Kim has come up strongly on the rails in recent weeks in the five-horse presidential race, and just before Friday's city vote he was thought to be a neck in front of Dr Rogge and the Canadian lawyer Dick Pound. It was widely thought that in the event of a Beijing victory the IOC would resist swinging the balance of power totally eastwards by picking an Asian as the next president. But lobbying among the 122 members yesterday suggests that this may not now be the case – even though on past experience, what IOC members say one day they belie by their vote the next.

Some IOC sources hint that Dr Kim is the "strong man'' needed to ensure the Chinese stay on the straight and narrow on the run-in to 2008, and who better than an Asian to help keep fellow Oriental Olympic hosts in check.

Hence Samaranch's apprehension. He neither likes nor trusts the 70-year-old former secret-police chief from Seoul who is permanent adviser to the president of South Korea, Kim Dae-Jung. The wealthy Dr Kim wears his chequebook, like his influence, on his sleeve and knows how to use it. He and his family were implicated in the Salt Lake City corruption scandal, but he escaped with a yellow card and with enough front to put himself up for the top job on a ticket that pledges to restore some of the perks and privileges taken from IOC members as a result of the scandal.

He believes they should still have the right to visit bidding cities and receive gifts, even in the wake of the sleaze investigations. Dr Kim is blatantly pandering to those piqued members of the IOC who felt Samaranch betrayed them by kowtowing too easily to public condemnation of the IOC greed. Many want to see the gravy train back on the rails, and Dr Kim wearing the driver's hat.

Giving him the job would be a slap in the face for Samaranch in the city that is his former stamping ground. It was here in 1980 that he took over from Lord Killanin as president and here, too, that he had his diplomatic grounding as Spain's ambassador to the Kremlin. So will his retreat from Moscow be as doleful as that of another old dictator, Napoleon? All depends on whether the IOC members decide it is payback time for their loss of privileges – as they clearly did when snubbing hot favourites Sion for Turin in the vote last year for the 2006 winter Games because it was a Swiss member, Marc Hodler, who first exposed the murkiness of Salt Lake.

It is certain that Samaranch's reign will end far more controversially than it began two decades ago, when the Games were a huge financial liability wherever they were held; now they are a breathtakingly successful conglomerate. Some say the Spanish grandee, who revels in the title "His Excellency'' and has surrounded himself with fawning supplicants, has brought opprobrium to the Olympic movement. Others argue that he has brought profit, and there is no doubt that if Olympics plc had shareholders they would be deliriously happy at the way he has taken care of business.

The Games now have more sponsors than they can comfortably accommodate. But on the debit side he has soft-pedalled on drugs, turned a blind eye for too long to the miscreants and allowed the Games to became a Dream Team ticket.

Yet he has also been a positive peace-broker in the movement, bringing together disparate factions like the two Koreas, though a Nobel Prize continues to elude him. In fairness, too, he has introduced a number of reforms, including the direct election of athletes to the inner sanctum of the IOC.

He has been the consummate politician, unlike the man he wants to follow him. Dr Rogge is no crusader, though he would take a harder line on drugs. He has a good public presence, is an accom-plished linguist and the IOC's Dr Clean. Samaranch likes him because he has no nationalistic axe to grind yet would keep the IOC's European power-base. Samaranch would retain the ear and the arm of the new president and not be cast into the sporting wilderness.

His own Olympic legacy is mixed and contentious, and he has been responsible for more changes in the organisation in his 21 years than in the rest of its 107-year history. He is 80, lost his wife during the Sydney Olympics and now seems to be in failing health. But still he finds it hard to let go, and should he be forced to congratulate Dr Kim tomorrow afternoon it will be through gritted teeth.

Barring a freak vote it is unlikely the two back-markers in the race – the black Los Angeles lawyer and former rower Anita DeFranz, the first female to run for president, and the Hungarian sports administrator Pal Schmitt, an Olympic fencing gold medallist – will survive the initial ballot. Both are 49, and DeFranz is currently senior vice-president. But you cannot imagine the old boys giving a woman the job, though Samaranch once told me he had no objection and described her as "extremely capable''.

No, it looks like Dr Clean v Dr Kim, the safe pair of hands against those which would meddle and restore freeloading to the Olympic charter. Though it is quite possible that the one-time favourite Pound, 59, whose stock slipped when he led the Salt Lake investigation, could nip in.

But the hope is that the IOC will vote for self-respect, and Rogge, a clever compromiser and skilled negotiator, if rather dull. Should he become the new head honcho he will be the most notable Belgian since Hercule Poirot. It would not have taken that mythical detective long to dig out the IOC corruption. But Dr Rogge, who promises continued vigilance on such skulduggery, will require all Poirot's cunning and foresight fully to restore the IOC's credibility, especially with Dr Kim at his shoulder.

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