Profile: The biggest player of them all

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WHEN the Olympic flame dims over Barcelona's Montjuic stadium at the close of the Games on 9 August, the biggest sigh of relief - assuming the quadrennial extravaganza has passed off without disaster - will come from a grandfatherly little man in a conservative dark suit. For Juan Antonio Samaranch Torello, inscrutable supremo of the world's most exclusive sports club, the ebbing flame will mean the fulfilment of a near-lifelong dream: to bring the Olympics to his home town. But it may also relieve him of something of a nightmare.

For Samaranch, or the Marques de Samaranch as he was named last year by King Juan Carlos, is hardly Barcelona's most popular native son. Although born - 72 years ago last Friday - and brought up in the Catalonian capital, he is remembered by many as the man who represented the dictator Francisco Franco in the region less than two decades ago. His task then? Largely to keep his own Catalan language and culture suppressed and ensure continuing local subservience to the Generalissimo.

Now, with the caudillo long dead, democracy very much alive, and the Catalan language and culture blooming, it is reconciliation, not recrimination that reigns in Spain. The men they call Franquistas - men such as Samaranch who supported or worked with the dictator during the dark days of repression - have largely been forgiven. In the areas that suffered most, however, such as Catalonia and the Basqueland, they are not so easily forgotten. Grudging respect for what one Spanish journalist called his 'eternal floatability', and for his shrewd manoeuvring to get the Games to his home town, is the most Samaranch has been able to expect.

Samaranch, who will himself close the Barcelona Games and supervise the handing over of the Olympic flag to the Mayor of Atlanta, will be hoping a successful 25th Olympiad will rehabilitate him in the town where he spends two days a month as chairman of a big savings bank but otherwise lives and works only rarely.

His worst nightmare is a terrorist attack, perhaps by Basque extremists, of the type that cast such a shadow over the Munich Olympics of 1972 when Israeli athletes were taken hostage by Palestinian guerrillas and later killed. Local Catalan extremists, who want outright independence from Madrid, have pledged not to disrupt the Games but Samaranch himself still remains an obvious target for renegade elements.

He will have as much if not more round-the- clock protection than the King himself - in his suite at the Princess Sofia hotel, on the streets and at the Games until he is safely back at his real home of the last 12 years - room 309 of the plush Lausanne Palace Hotel in the Swiss city, close to the offices of the 'club' he runs, the International Olympic Committee.

The question then will be what next? If the Olympics are a success - and the main threat may be not from terrorism but from over- commercialisation or doping scandals - he may decide to quit on the crest of a wave and stand down as IOC boss when his term expires next year. Or he may run with his luck and hold on through the centenary of both the IOC, in 1994, and the modern Games themselves, at Atlanta in 1996. Although apparently fit and healthy until fairly recently, he has visibly aged in recent months and is thought by some who have contact with him to be showing increasing symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

His anger over renewed criticism of his Franquista past, and of the not unFranco-like methods of the IOC, may, friends say, drive him to stay on in an effort to clear his name and vindicate the path along which he has taken the IOC since he fulfilled his lifelong ambition and took the organisation over in 1980. The latest such criticism came in a book by two English journalists, Vyv Simson and Andrew Jennings, which highlights Samaranch's 'secret past' in Franco's Fascist Movimiento (Movement) and paints the IOC as an exclusive, closed-door mafia riddled with corruption.

A Spanish edition of the book, The Lords of the Rings, was timed for publication this week to cash in on the opening of the Games. It's a hard book to put down, tabloid in approach. The problem is Samaranch has never kept his unadmirable past 'secret' in the way the former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim did, and the fact that some of the IOC's 94 members are a little less than saintly is hardly in doubt.

The usually imperturbable Samaranch was said by friends to have been livid over the book. According to Jennings, the IOC has lodged a criminal complaint against him and Simson in Lausanne but taken no legal action against the book. So angry was Samaranch that he launched an attack against Britain last month, suggesting a conspiracy to oust him and replace him with the Princess Royal, an IOC member.

'Britain believes people of Latin origin have no right to these positions,' he said in a Spanish newspaper interview. Unfortunately, there is enough chauvinistic sentiment in this country to lend more than a little credence to that remark. But Samaranch was not through. 'This is a north-south war,' he went on, 'brought about by the superiority complex of the Anglo-Saxons, who cannot stomach a Spaniard as the head of the IOC. You only have to flick through a few English newspapers to find the name of the person who Britain would like to see in my place, a name that I do not want to mention.' IOC staffers left no doubt he was referring to the Princess Royal, an IOC member since 1988. She has been discreetly critical of the IOC's less-than-democratic methods and in Olympic circles outside the IOC 'club' there is increasing sentiment in favour of a restructured IOC with an untainted figure such as the Princess as its titular head. Samaranch's outburst was, perhaps, understandable. The problem now is whether his anger will colour his judgement when it comes to Manchester's bid for the Games of 2000.

Undoubtedly a multi-millionaire now, Samaranch was born into a wealthy family in Barcelona's textile industry on 17 July 1920. Tuberculosis slowed down his studies but he did get a college degree in commerce before turning his mind full-time to sport. He did a bit of boxing, but a series of defeats turned him off for good and he has said he would like to see the sport scrapped from the Olympic programme. 'I'm absolutely against boxing. It's a highly dangerous sport. To all those who defend it, I ask this question: would you like to see your son step into the ring?'

He took up roller hockey in his late teens and, by his twenties, found himself running the sport in Franco's Spain. He was named President of Spain's Olympic Committee in 1963, during the American Avery Brundage's IOC reign, by which time, friends recall, Samaranch already had the clear goal of leading the world Olympic movement one day. He set about it in his usual way, quietly, step by step, building contacts and handing out favours he could one day call in.

'In life, I try to apply the theory of judo, which advises never going in the opposite direction, but in the direction of the force that is pushing you,' he said recently. A friend of his was quoted as saying, 'He's like a pianist in a hotel lounge. You are aware of him, but he is never intrusive.'

Franco appointed Samaranch as his Director- General for Sports, and then, in 1973, as regional governor for Barcelona. That was the appointment that most disturbs the Catalan people, many of whom suffered terribly during the Franco years. Until Franco's death in 1975, Samaranch had often worn the blue shirt of the dictator's Movimiento. But he was quick to switch allegiance to the monarchy and democracy and to return to public use of the Catalan language, long suppressed by the caudillo.

His ability to adapt is the trait most mentioned by those who know or have worked with him. 'He is the perfect chameleon,' said one Spanish commentator. 'He is a man of the situation,' said another. 'He is like a cork, he always seems to manage to float.' And the cold exterior is, it seems, not just a facade. 'A humourless man,' according to one British sports writer who covers IOC politics. 'A fairly cold fish,' said another. Even Samaranch's wife Maria Teresa, widely known as Bibis and a leading member of Spain's 'los beautiful', seems to agree. 'It's unusual to find him happy, yet he's not an unhappy man, merely always having something on his mind,' she has said.

'What's interesting is how little his enemies really know him,' according to his PR officer, Michele Verdier, quoted in Samaranch's authorised biography, Olympic Revolution, by David Miller. The book, which provided something of an antidote to The Lords of the Rings when it was published last month, is an excellent, comprehensive chronicle of Samaranch's 12 years at the head of the IOC and essential reading for anyone interested in the Olympic movement. But, even ignoring its subject's switch from dictator's tool to torchbearer of the Olympic ideal, it skips too lightly over the IOC's increasing metamophorsis into an elite club often motivated less by sporting ideals and more by cash and clout.

Whether Samaranch and his IOC can survive the charges of corruption, as well as the devastating potential of over-commercialisation and doping, remains to be seen. 'I admire Samaranch, though sometimes he's walking on the edge of a precipice,' a retired IOC member, Comte Jean de Beaumont of France, was quoted as saying in Miller's book. 'He is clever, but he should be aware of the danger of a fall. I would not take a bet to say how long they (the IOC) are going to last.'

Some friends say Samaranch may quit next year when he sees the realisation of another dream, the opening of a dollars 40m Olympic museum in Lausanne, described by his wife as 'his passion'. But there are those who would rather have seen some of that money go into efforts to combat drugs in sports. Others believe the day may not be far off when the IOC itself becomes a museum piece of its own.

(Photograph omitted)