Sunday 11 December 2016

Juan Antonio Samaranch

The International Olympic Committee president revitalised the Games, but was accused of encouraging corruption

Published 25/04/2010 | 05:00

JUAN Antonio Samaranch, who died last Wednesday aged 89, was the seventh -- and arguably the most influential -- president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

  • Go To

During his 21-year tenure, from 1980 to 2001, Samaranch turned an organisation on the brink of collapse into one that was not only solvent, but also wielded more power than many nations.

Despite his achievements, his autocratic management style, relying on patronage and placemen, was identical to the one he adopted when he was an official in Franco's regime in Spain in the 1960s, and created a culture that incubated the corruption scandals that blighted the last years of his presidency.

Samaranch took over the role from the Irish Lord Killanin in the wake of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Killanin's time had been an unhappy one for the Olympic movement, which had struggled to emerge from the horrific events of the 1972 Munich Games.

The Montreal Olympics of 1976 almost ruined its host city, and the American boycott of the 1980 Games had nearly split the movement in two. Killanin, although a genial figure, was felt not to possess the necessary political wiliness to deal with world leaders such as America's Jimmy Carter and Russia's Leonid Brezhnev.

The IOC looked to the Spanish Samaranch to restore the Olympics to the almost hallowed ground envisaged by its founder, Pierre de Coubertin. Indeed, so low had the Games' reputation fallen that Los Angeles was the only bidder to come forward to host the event in 1984, a situation that is unimaginable today.

In Samaranch, the IOC saw a man who could take the movement by the scruff of its neck, and make it face a threatened Soviet boycott of the 1984 Games as well as rise to the commercial challenges raised by television.

Samaranch was well-qualified for his new role. Over the previous 10 years he had successfully networked and schmoozed his fellow IOC members, and by the time he took over from Killanin his grip on Olympic power was total.

Furthermore, he had plenty of political experience to draw on. Under Franco, Samaranch had served as the regime's de facto minister for sport. He had also acted as the civil governor of Barcelona, during which time garottings were a favoured method of state execution.

Supporters of Samaranch were later to minimise his role in the Fascist regime, and were to claim that his responsibilities did not extend beyond sport. Whatever his depth of involvement, however, the death of Franco in 1975 did not seem to dent Samaranch's career.

In 1977 he was appointed Spain's first post-Franco ambassador to Moscow. A former KGB agent claimed last year that Samaranch was also a secret spy for the KGB, recruited at this time.

It was in the Soviet Union that Samaranch was able to forge important connections with the Eastern Bloc sporting hierarchy that would stand him in good stead not only when he sought the presidency of the IOC, but also when he had to deal with the Soviets during the run-up to the 1984 Games, which they would nevertheless boycott.

Even his most savage critics would acknowledge that Samaranch worked hard during his presidency. He globe-trotted frequently, and in many countries was afforded the same reception as a visiting head of state. His tireless efforts ensured that an ever-greater number of nations attended the Games, and when they were held in Samaranch's home city of Barcelona in 1992 no fewer than 169 countries sent athletes, compared with the relatively pitiful 80 who had gone to Moscow.

Juan Antonio Samaranch Torello was born in Barcelona on July 17, 1920. His father was a prosperous textile merchant, and Juan Antonio was schooled at the German College in the city. The third son in a family of six, he showed a reasonable aptitude for athletics, although his method of diving over the high jump rope head first was said to have alarmed his teachers.

The outbreak of civil war in 1936 was to fundamentally alter the course of Samaranch's life.

Drafted into the ranks of the Republicans, he emerged at the end of the conflict firmly on the opposing side. Little is known of his time during those dark years, but it may be that his schooling at the German College and an opportunistic realisation that the Republicans would lose caused him to switch his allegiance to Franco.

Samaranch's entry into the infant world of global sport came in the early Fifties, when he acted as the manager for the Spanish rink-hockey team, which became the world champions. It was then that he started to build up his contacts, and in 1955 his efforts were rewarded with the task of organising the Mediterranean Games, which, by all accounts, he did successfully.

As well as pursuing a career as a sports administrator, Samaranch was also climbing up the far greasier political pole. Elected to the Barcelona city council, he found that he had an aptitude for working within the Fascist regime, and he rose to become the city's civil governor.

In 1966 he became a national figure when Franco appointed him government secretary in charge of sports. In the same year he was also elected a member of the IOC. Although he was later to claim that he was a relatively junior member of the regime, he was undoubtedly a loyal one.

The political lessons that Samaranch had learned in Spain served him well when dealing with an IOC riven by national rivalries.

Throughout his time in office Samaranch, who was created a marquess by the King of Spain in 1991, was able to ensure that the IOC was stuffed with members who waved through his decisions. Indeed, his style was so autocratic that he insisted on being referred to by his ambassadorial title of "Your Excellency", which many saw as indicative.

In addition he lived well, always staying at the best suites in the best hotels in whichever city he visited.

Nevertheless, many of his decisions resulted in consequences of lasting benefit to the Olympics. One of Samaranch's greatest achievements was to make the movement truly rich, by negotiating vast deals with television companies to broadcast the Games.

He also instigated extremely lucrative sponsorship deals. The participation of women was encouraged both on the track and field, as well as on the IOC. Less successful was his promised war on doping, which some say was little more than fine words.

By the late-Nineties, however, there was a far more lethal intoxicant for the Olympics: money. The movement was awash with it, largely, it was said, in the form of bribes paid out by bidding cities to naive members of the IOC.

Scandal was inevitable, and it broke in Salt Lake City in December 1998, when it was announced that several members had taken bribes worth millions of dollars from the Salt Lake Bid Committee.

There were immediate calls for Samaranch to resign, his critics saying that he was responsible for establishing a system that was inherently corrupt.

Some even pointed to the IOC president's acceptance of two firearms as gifts from Salt Lake City as evidence of his own personal corruption. Despite the accusations, which became increasingly ad hominem, Samaranch survived the scandal.

One of Samaranch's last acts as president was to nominate his son, Juan Antonio Jr, to become a member of the IOC. Samaranch had his way, and his son continues to sit on the IOC.

After stepping down in 2001, Samaranch was succeeded by Jacques Rogge.

Juan Antonio Samaranch's wife, Maria Theresa Salisachs-Rowe, with whom he had a son and a daughter, died in 2000, on the second day of the Sydney Olympics.

Sunday Independent

Read More

Promoted articles

Editors Choice

Also in World News