Juan Antonio Samaranch made choices that compromised the modern Olympics even as he helped save them in 21 years as International Olympic Committee president.
Samaranch's ethics were situational, reflecting the character of a man whose life's work was compromised by two decades as a willing functionary in the government of Spain's fascist dictator, Francisco Franco.
Samaranch, left a complex and controversial legacy when he died Wednesday at age 89.
"What makes Samaranch difficult to evaluate is we want a person to be all bad or all good,'' said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. "He was both.''
Samaranch took over the IOC at a time, 1980, when it had assets of barely $2 million and one year after just one city, Los Angeles, was interested in playing host to the 1984 Summer Games. When he left the presidency after four terms, the IOC's resources were $335 million, and Beijing had just prevailed in a competition with 10 cities to become host of the 2008 Summer Games.
In restoring unity to an Olympic movement fractured by successive Summer Games boycotts in 1976, 1980 and 1984, Samaranch turned a blind eye to doping and scandalous vote-buying by Olympic bid cities; gave the Olympic movement's highest honors to despots from former Soviet Bloc nations; and appointed IOC members with links to brutal regimes.
Samaranch turned his years as IOC head into an imperial presidency featuring an often imperious president, one who was forced to lead major reforms of the IOC after nearly one-third of its members were linked to the bidding corruption that focused on Salt Lake City's successful 2002 Winter Games campaign.
"No IOC president has had such a pervasive influence on so many issues as Juan Antonio Samaranch,'' said Jacques Rogge of Belgium, the IOC president since the Samaranch era ended.
Richard Pound of Canada, an IOC member since 1978, summed up that assessment of the Samaranch years in an email.
"He took a movement that was impecunious, under heavy political attack and not universal and turned it into a movement that is united, well-financed, universal and respected on the international political scene,'' Pound wrote.
"(But) he allowed himself, in the pursuit of the objectives referred to above, to be surrounded with some people of questionable character. He was, despite cosmetic appearances to the contrary, not all that concerned about doping in sport. (And) he was not willing generally to take stands based on principle in a movement ultimately based on ethical principles.''
Rather than risk offending powers-that-be by attacking the drug use behind the success of countries like East Germany, he gave its ruthless leader, Erich Honecker, the Gold Olympic Order. Rather than offend sports federation leaders by cutting or placing limits on the Summer Games program, he gave everyone what they wanted, and the Summer Olympics have turned into an unwieldy behemoth.
The unity he strove for at all costs did have a stunning symbolic manifestation at the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when the North and South Koreans marched together.
"He became successful in bringing people together where politicians failed,'' IOC member Arne Ljungqvist of Sweden said.
Samaranch governed essentially by executive fiat, never letting an issue reach a vote without knowing he would easily win.
"What else could you expect from someone with almost no background in democracy?'' said an IOC member, requesting anonymity, as Samaranch overwhelmed opposition from his membership during the 1999 bid city scandal that threatened to bring down both him and the Olympics.
With guidance from Horst Dassler, the late president of sporting goods giant Adidas, and the financial model of funding the Games through corporate sponsors devised by Peter Ueberroth for the 1984 Olympics, Samaranch presided over the creation of the IOC's global sponsorship program and TV negotiations that brought in billions of dollars.
He turned some of that revenue into Olympic Solidarity, which has helped athletes -- and, sadly, lined some local officials' pockets -- in some of the world's poorest countries. He gave athletes their first significant voice in IOC decisions and successfully championed a younger membership, yet backed an increase in the age limit that allowed him to remain president until 80.
Samaranch, who spent four years as ambassador to the Soviet Union, brought the ideologically riven movement back together at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. It was an achievement of no small consequence, since South Korea did not have diplomatic relations with more than a dozen of the 161 countries -- including China and the Soviet Bloc -- that accepted Seoul invitations, which only six countries declined.
"Only someone with his unique ties to the Soviet Union and understanding of diplomacy could have helped the movement through the Moscow (1980) and Los Angeles boycotts and then pulled off a successful Games in South Korea,'' said former USA Track and Field chief executive Craig Masback, who worked briefly at the IOC under Samaranch. "He will be remembered as the greatest president in IOC history.''
Samaranch's commercialization and professionalization of the Olympics, which began in earnest after the word "amateur'' was dropped from the Olympic Charter in 1981, was a double-edged sword.
To some, it made the Olympics just another big-money sporting event. To others, it opened doors in places with no money at all.
"The commercialization of the Olympic Games allowed numerous persons from poorer countries to participate in the Games and allowed the Olympic Games in general to survive a difficult time,'' said two-time German Olympic rowing medalist Roland Baar, one of the first to gain IOC membership in the ex-athlete category created by the 1999 reforms.
Although he was generally seen as aloof and authoritarian, allowing few IOC members to know him well, Samaranch's demeanor owed as much to an innate reserve as to a desire to appear superior.
"He was not a very communicative man, not one to clap you on the shoulder or joke when you met with him,'' IOC vice-president Thomas Bach of Germany said.
But when a reporter's tape recorder malfunctioned during a one-on-one interview, Samaranch reached across a table in his office for the machine and spent five minutes in a futile attempt to fix it.
Samaranch, a roller hockey goalie and boxer who gave athletes their first significant voice in IOC decisions, had the second longest tenure of the eight men who have presided over the IOC since its foundation in 1894.
He was the first president since modern Games founder Baron de Coubertin to live near IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland and to take an active, daily role in the administration of its activities.
Samaranch was born July 17, 1920, in Barcelona to textile manufacturer Francisco Samaranch and his second wife, Juana. While working in the family business, which made him wealthy when he sold it in 1968, Samaranch began his career as a sports official with the Spanish Roller Hockey Federation in the 1940s and was appointed to the Spanish Olympic Committee in 1956.
Former IOC president Avery Brundage of the United States made Samaranch an IOC member in 1966, and he became an executive board member in 1970 and a vice-president in 1974.
Married in 1955 to Maria Teresa Salisachs-Rowe, who died of a long illness in Barcelona as her husband was presiding over his last Olympic opening ceremony in Sydney, he is survived by his son, Juan Antonio Jr.; his daughter, Maria Teresa, and seven grandchildren.
Samaranch was named IOC honorary president for life after his presidency ended. His real influence never waned because 70 of the current 114 members were nominated or elected during his reign.
In his final days as president, he assured the election of his son to the IOC. In July, 2007, he called in old chits to help Sochi, Russia, get the votes to become host of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
He also made what amounted to a deathbed plea on behalf of struggling Madrid bid during the Spanish capital's presentation before the October, 2009 vote for the 2016 Summer Games.
"Dear colleagues, I know I am very near the end of my time,'' Samaranch said. "May I ask you to consider granting my country the honor and also the duty to organize the Games and the Paralympic Games in 2016.''
The members' respect for Samaranch was enough to allow Madrid a respectable defeat to Rio in the final round.Perhaps the best way to understand the duality of Samaranch's legacy is through the 1992 Olympics.
There was little doubt he cut a backroom deal to have the 1992 Winter Games go to Albertville, France, so his hometown, Barcelona, would beat Paris in the vote for the Summer Games.
The Barcelona Games turned out to be among the best in history, a magical experience for anyone who was there. They also marked the return of South Africa after a long ban because of racial discrimination laws repealed in the early 1990s.
"I think how lucky I was to be president of the IOC during the wonderful organization of the Games in my own country,'' he said.
He never was a man to leave anything to luck.
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