Former Olympics president Juan Antonio Samaranch, 89, dies; term marked by success, scandal

By Stephen Wilson, AP
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ex-Olympics head Juan Antonio Samaranch dies at 89

BARCELONA, Spain — Shy, reserved and unimposing at first glance, Juan Antonio Samaranch also was a shrewd and sometimes ruthless operator who built consensus and got what he wanted during some of the most turbulent times in Olympic history.

Samaranch, who died Wednesday in a Barcelona hospital at 89, was a master of negotiation, persuasion and behind-the-scenes diplomacy during his 21 years as president of the International Olympic Committee.

His was a simple formula: Pick the right people around you, use phone calls and one-on-one meetings to line up support, wait for the right moment to proceed, and, more often than not, come away with a resounding victory.

A former Spanish ambassador to Moscow, Samaranch oversaw a landmark era from 1980-2001 — a period that saw political boycotts, the end of amateurism and the advent of professionalism, the explosion of commercialization, a boom in the growth and popularity of the games, the scourge of doping and the Salt Lake City corruption scandal.

“He did essentially a two-century jump,” said senior Canadian IOC member Dick Pound, one of Samaranch’s most trusted allies. “He got us from being in the remnants of the 19th century and got us into the 21st century. He gave the organization financial stability, international presence and a certain gravitas it never had before.”

When Samaranch came to power 29 years ago, the IOC was virtually bankrupt, the Olympics were battered by boycotts, terrorism and financial troubles, and no cities wanted to host the games.

When he left, the IOC’s coffers were bulging from billions of dollars in commercial revenues, the boycott era was over, cities around the world were vying for the games, and the Olympics were firmly established as the globe’s favorite sports festival.

“He took over the Olympics at a time of bankruptcy and led perhaps the most important turnaround of all time,” said former IOC marketing director Michael Payne.

During his term, the IOC also awarded a series of lucrative U.S. television rights contracts, including two groundbreaking deals worth $3.5 billion with NBC for five Olympics from 2000 to 2008 — agreements that Samaranch and Pound negotiated in secret.

“He was a towering figure in the world of sport and a diplomat of consummate skill who navigated through turmoil to reunite the Olympic movement,” NBC Sports and Olympics chairman Dick Ebersol said.

In addition, Samaranch took over a male-only private club that now has 20 women among its 100-plus delegates and brought more female athletes into the Olympics, from 18 percent in 1980 to about 45 percent today.

But Samaranch also was a lightning rod for critics who attacked him for his ties to the Franco era in Spain, his autocratic style, the IOC’s privileged image of first-class flights and luxury hotels, and the IOC’s involvement in the Salt Lake City case.

Samaranch, who had battled frequent health problems during retirement, was admitted Sunday to the Quiron Hospital after experiencing heart trouble. His condition deteriorated and he died Tuesday at 1:25 p.m. local time.

Samaranch, a big tennis fan, had just watched TV coverage of Spanish star Rafael Nadal’s victory at the Monte Carlo Masters when he went to the hospital. He collapsed and never regained consciousness.

“If there is a good way to die, I guess it was this way,” his son, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., an IOC member himself, told The Associated Press. “He had a full life and career.”

Tributes and condolences poured in from around the world.

“I cannot find the words to express the distress of the Olympic family,” said Jacques Rogge, who succeeded Samaranch as president. “I am personally deeply saddened by the death of the man who built up the Olympic Games of the modern era, a man who inspired me, and whose knowledge of sport was truly exceptional.”

Peter Ueberroth, a key organizer of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 who is widely credited with inventing the modern Olympic format, said Samaranch “took a disparate organization and provided firm and strong leadership and resuscitated the Olympic movement.”

Samaranch’s body will be taken to the regional government’s headquarters Thursday for a civil ceremony attended by international athletes and dignitaries. The public will be able to pay its respects before the coffin is taken to Barcelona’s cathedral for the funeral.

About 300 dignitaries and officials — including Rogge and Spain’s King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia — are scheduled to attend.

Despite his advanced age and medical troubles, Samaranch continued to travel to IOC meetings around the world. He looked increasingly frail in recent months. Attending the IOC session at the Winter Games in Vancouver in February, he walked with the aid of a female assistant.

Samaranch, who brought the 1992 Olympics to his hometown of Barcelona, tried to help Madrid secure the 2012 and 2016 games, but failed. Madrid finished third behind winner London and Paris for the 2012 Olympics, and second to Rio de Janeiro for 2016.

Samaranch spoke during Madrid’s presentation in Copenhagen last year, essentially asking the IOC to send the games to the Spanish capital as a parting gift for an old man close to his final days.

“Dear colleagues, I know that I am very near the end of my time,” Samaranch said.

In Moscow in 1980, as a little-known Spanish diplomat, Samaranch was elected the seventh president of the IOC, succeeding Ireland’s Lord Killanin. Pound said Samaranch’s election victory — coming in as an outsider against some established rivals — showed right from the start how he could bring people over to his side.

“You can go right back to him being elected,” Pound said in a telephone interview. “He organized the campaign with some help and managed to get elected on the first round. Then he stepped in and took over and developed a whole series of priorities for the Olympic movement and the IOC and pursued them with the same kind of energy.”

Samaranch and Ueberroth worked closely together to get more than 150 nations to the Los Angeles Games despite a Soviet-led boycott.

“Every time we had a major crisis, he was a partner, and he saw the solution right away,” Ueberroth said. “We basically reported up to him. But whenever there was a crisis, he stepped out of his titled position and, in a two- or three-person coffee table setting, we would figure out what to do.”

Pound said Samaranch’s greatest success was in running the 1988 Seoul Olympics against a Cold War backdrop and demands by Communist North Korea to host half of the games.

“The negotiations he conducted were life-and-death political negotiations that affected the free world and the not-so-free world,” Pound said. “He was able to persuade the South Koreans to let him run it. He said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll never let North Korea co-host the games. You have to trust me. This will never happen. Let me run it.’ They followed his advice, crossed their fingers and let him do it.”

“He manipulated and out-negotiated the North Koreans,” Israeli IOC member Alex Gilady said. “Today, much more powerful people than the IOC are trying to negotiate with the North Koreans and don’t seem to have much success.”

Time and again, Samaranch used his tactical skills to achieve his goals.

“Samaranch was a master in consulting people before taking a decision,” Rogge said. “So when it was time to take a decision, he already knew he would have wide support for his project. … Samaranch was really a team worker.”

He also knew how to push through a difficult vote when he needed it.

In 1999, Samaranch asked the IOC assembly to approve a 50-point reform plan in the wake of the scandal that led to the ouster of 10 members for accepting cash, scholarships and other inducements from Salt Lake City representatives bidding for the 2002 Winter Games. The key proposal was a ban on member visits to bid cities.

Rather than hold a customary secret ballot, Samaranch asked those in favor of visits to raise their hands, putting them on the spot. Only 10 did so. The proposal, Samaranch announced, was approved.

“What I regret, really regret, is what happened in Salt Lake City,” he said near the end of his term. “We used this crisis to change the structure of the IOC. Maybe without this crisis, this would not have been possible.”

Samaranch also showed his savvy when he appeared in 1999 at a U.S. congressional hearing into the reforms. While comfortable speaking in English, he kept skeptical lawmakers at bay — and bought himself time to compose answers — by insisting on having their questions translated into Spanish and then replying through a translator.

Samaranch was a stickler for details, always scribbling notes, and kept up with everything happening inside and outside the Olympic world.

“He had ears everywhere,” Gilady said. “He had a way to cross-check and confirm everything.”

As Samaranch was finishing his term in 2001, he basked in the unprecedented popularity and riches of the games but still bore the scars of the Salt Lake City affair.

“I’m feeling OK,” he said at the time. “Life is life. There is a beginning and an end. This is the end of my presidency. I’ve known for a long time that this day was coming.”

Even at the end of his Olympic reign, Samaranch worked hard to achieve three victories as part of his final legacy: the awarding of the 2008 Olympics to Beijing, the election of Rogge as president and the appointment of his son as an IOC member.

Samaranch retired as the second-longest serving president in IOC history. Only Pierre de Coubertin, the French baron who founded the modern Olympics, was in office longer, serving for 29 years (1896-1925). American Avery Brundage served for 20 years (1952-72).

“You have to compare what is the Olympics today with what was the Olympics 20 years ago — that is my legacy,” Samaranch said before his retirement. “It is much more important. Also, all our sources of finances are coming from private sources, not a single dollar from the government. That means we can assure our independence and autonomy.”

Critics accused him of being imperious, demanding royal treatment and using the title “excellency.” Samaranch, in fact, preferred informal greetings and lived in a modest hotel room in Lausanne.

“I always thought he got a bad rap for that,” Pound said. “His lifestyle was practically monkish. He wasn’t into banquets and luxury. Certain things had to be done in order to fit the head of an international organization. But his room couldn’t have been simpler.”

Critics also said the Olympics were over-commercialized and riddled with performance-enhancing drugs.

“He was a very bad man. He nearly destroyed the Olympics,” said Andrew Jennings, a British critic who wrote several books about the IOC and other international sports officials. “We didn’t need all that money in sport. It created this imperial world where he had to get lots of money to maintain his excellencies (IOC members) touring the world.”

Jennings and others also denounced Samaranch for serving the Franco dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s. Samaranch said he had only a modest role as director general of sports and parliamentary leader of the Falangist movement.

“Maybe some critics pushed me to be president for 21 years,” Samaranch said. “I have to thank the critics. Maybe without the critics, I had to leave the IOC before.”

His wife, Maria Teresa, died of cancer in 2000 at 67, shortly after Samaranch presided over the opening of the Sydney Olympics.

Besides his 50-year-old son, Samaranch is survived by a daughter, Maria Teresa. Both his children and his partner, Luisa Sallent, were at his side when he died.

As a youth, Samaranch competed in field hockey, boxing and soccer. He became an IOC member in 1966 and was vice president from 1974-78.

Samaranch served as honorary chairman of La Caixa savings bank in Spain.

Wilson reported from Washington, Logothetis from Barcelona. AP National Writer Eddie Pells in Denver contributed to this story.

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