Olympic Games: Samaranch's struggle for unity: 'Take a look at British newspapers and you will realise that they are awfully annoyed that the sports world is in the hands of Latins'

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The Independent Online
As president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, is, arguably, the most important figure in world sport. The 25th Games, which open in Barcelona on Saturday, will be the biggest in its history. But are they too big, and is the precious Olympic spirit threatened by the politics of power and the whiff of scandal? In this interview with Juan Jose Fernandez of the Spanish newspaper, El Pais, Samaranch talks about politics, corruption and his plans for the future.

Fernandez: Are the withdrawals of Carl Lewis or Katrin Krabbe and the last- minute political problems bad omens for what everyone hopes will be the best Olympic Games in history?

Samaranch: No, no. If Carl Lewis does not participate, it means someone else is better. There has never been a sprinter who managed to win medals in three consecutive Olympic Games anyway. All things come to an end. As far as Katrin Krabbe is concerned, she quit because she was not feeling well after having been put under so much pressure, which I think is normal.

Fernandez: Certainly, at this stage it seems a fact of life that you can never have a universal Olympic Games.

Samaranch: If the Yugoslav athletes take part in Barcelona, these could not be more all-embracing Games. Everyone will be here, without exceptions.

Fernandez: Are you suggesting that the huge political changes in recent years have barely touched sport?

Samaranch: No. They have affected us greatly: we've been forced to make decisions very quickly, off the cuff. Also, I am not completely sure that new measures won't have to be introduced before 25 July.

Fernandez: Who has been more important in trying to solve the Yugoslav problem, George Bush or John Major?

Samaranch: The US has listened to us, but I think the British Prime Minister has been the one who has helped us most quickly and directly. The Spanish Prime Minister has also been helpful, because he realised the importance of truly universal Olympic Games for Barcelona. He understands that athletes should not be punished for the political decisions of their leaders.

We cannot turn our back on politics. Of course, political decisions backed by worldwide public opinion against a certain country cannot be dismissed lightly. We cannot simply say, 'We refuse to expel the Yugoslav Olympic Committee because, as an IOC member, they have the right to be in Barcelona.' No. You have to seek alternative approaches, as we have done.

Fernandez: Even so, some people have opposed the participation of Yugoslav athletes because in a way it would reward the aggressors.

Samaranch: Look, I think it is our responsibility to defend athletes and that's what we've done. There are always limits to everything, but one should exhaust every single possibility, and put up with the discomfort and sacrifice that often go with it.

Fernandez: The commercialisation of sports is a fact, but money corrupts in the end. Examples of this are the Helmick affair (Robert Helmick, the United States Olympic Committee president and a member of the IOC, resigned from the IOC last December after allegations of 'financial irregularities') and the row over the election of Atlanta for the 1996 Games instead of Athens.

Samaranch: The Helmick affair is a completely isolated case of a person who did not realise he was involved in a conflict of interests. He used his office (he was a lawyer) to defend sporting causes that conflicted with the posts he was holding at the time. And he paid for it with his job, his presidency of the US Olympic Committee and his membership in the IOC. I personally think he paid a very high price.

Fernandez: But this is the nub of the problem, that members who have been repeatedly accused of corruption still decide which city will host the Olympics. For the Berlin candidacy in the year 2000 a study has even been undertaken concerning their (sexual) preferences.

Samaranch: As for the Berlin story, the only thing I am aware of, although I have not read the letter, is that the candidate city apologised to all IOC members explaining that they should grant little importance to this affair.

The problem is that the electoral college is so large. These people are travelling constantly to gather information on the candidates. It is indeed a tedious procedure, although it also has advantages because the bigger the electoral college is, the more neutral are its decisions. Anyway, I know what can be changed and what cannot.

If you compare the way Olympic host cities are chosen with the way cities are selected for the World Cup. . .the world athletics championships, or any other major sports events, then it would become clear that (with the others) the executive committee is the decision- making body. That way is a lot easier, and cheaper.

We will see how we can solve this in the future. We have been heavily criticised, as you mentioned, and we could avoid this happening by functioning like the federations because their procedures are much simpler. Yet having said that, the decisions taken in the last few years have been, I think, very much what the wider Olympic movement wanted.

I had the great idea, one of the good ideas I have had, never to take part in the elections. I've been the first president never to have voted on anything. I preside without taking sides. This allows me to be in a much more comfortable position in order to co-ordinate the work. This could be an extremely simple method, but how can you ask the IOC members to rule themselves out?

Fernandez: You have mentioned good ideas and obviously you accomplished a great deal judging from the health of the movement over which you preside. How often have you made mistakes?

Samaranch: I think I make mistakes every day. But then any person who takes decisions is bound to make many mistakes. I've made many, but none of them really serious. Sometimes you are lucky and sometimes you're not.

For example, I remember how hard we worked, to enable the Soviet Union to attend the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. And we achieved our goal. But then Mr Andropov died in February during the Sarajevo Winter Games and Chernenko came to power, a hardliner who happened to be ill and was dominated by Mr Gromyko, who in turn really despised the United States. Alleging security reasons they decided not to attend the LA Games.

This turned out to be one of their greatest errors because the most important team in the world failed to take advantage of its golden opportunity to perform in Los Angeles, a centre of the mass media.

Fernandez: Is the campaign launched against you recently also a campaign against the present authority of Latin as opposed to Anglo-Saxon sports leaders?

Samaranch: I cannot say anything about this. You have access to the world press. Take a look at British newspapers and you will realise that there is a very strong resentment, that they are awfully annoyed at the fact that the sports world is in the hands of Latins. But then no one has appointed these Latin authorities directly. They have been elected democratically and according to the same methods that the English invented.

The Anglo-Saxons should be credited for having created modern sports. They set the rules for sports. But things change and sports nowadays are in other people's hands. I think that sports nowadays are generally well managed.

Fernandez: Can you predict where the Olympic movement is headed to, whatever happens in Barcelona.

Samaranch: Overall I think the end result will be extremely positive because everything has been taken care of. If our luck holds, all will be fine. Where are we going? Well, we will keep our present positions as world sports leaders, however disagreeable that may be to many people. But in order to keep our posts we must dedicate ourselves every day to maintain a consensus. Unity is our source of strength, but one has to admit that it is very fragile.

Fernandez: Will you still be president of the IOC when the Olympics celebrate their centenary in 1994, and in Atlanta two years later?

Samaranch: It all depends on what happens after Barcelona. Logically I should leave because Barcelona will be the highlight of my career. It's like an opera. The grand finale is the Barcelona Games. However, if I have the slightest suspicion that the time is not yet ripe for a successor, if we cannot find the appropriate person and if our unity is at stake, then I cannot guarantee that I will sacrifice myself.

If I have to hold the post a couple more years, I will do so without a second thought. So that things can become clearer, and calmer, and a normal transition can occur.

Fernandez: Handing over power in highly presidential institutions like the IOC is usually very complicated. It took Avery Brundage many years before he conjured up a successor.

Samaranch: Judging from experience, trying to reign after death has very bad results. In fact, I do not have to appoint anyone to be my successor. My only obligation is to leave everything in top condition for this person. I am certain that my successor will have his own personality and style. For better or for worse. However, my influence over him once I have stepped down will be zero. Even if he happens to be my best friend.

Fernandez: Would you run for president if it were possible to step down after Atlanta, half-way through your term?

Samaranch: No. If I run for president I intend to hold office throughout my term. Of course, in the next four years I will already be rather old. You can never tell what might happen. But I will definitely not run for president aiming for only two years of office.

Translation: Paul De Zardain, El Pais

(Photograph omitted)