Former Olympic President Samaranch Dies At 89 Juan Antonio Samaranch inherited an Olympic movement struggling to survive and is credited with making the games financially sound during his 21 years as head of the International Olympic Committee. He also presided over the death of amateurism at the Olympics, as well as major doping and ethics scandals that challenged the integrity of athletes and Olympic officials.
NPR logo Former Olympic President Samaranch Dies At 89

Former Olympic President Samaranch Dies At 89

Juan Antonio Samaranch, who led the International Olympic Committee for decades, presented Madrid's bid for the 2016 Olympics last year in Copenhagen. Charles Dharapak/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Charles Dharapak/AFP/Getty Images

Juan Antonio Samaranch, who led the International Olympic Committee for decades, presented Madrid's bid for the 2016 Olympics last year in Copenhagen.

Charles Dharapak/AFP/Getty Images

One of the longest-serving and most controversial presidents of the International Olympic Committee died Wednesday at a hospital in Barcelona, Spain.

Juan Antonio Samaranch was admitted to the hospital Tuesday with heart problems, and his condition quickly deteriorated. The former Spanish diplomat was 89 years old.

Samaranch served as head of the IOC from 1980 to 2001, an era of transition from political boycotts and near bankruptcy to billions of dollars in revenue. He also presided over the death of amateurism at the Olympics, as well as major doping and ethics scandals that challenged the integrity of athletes and Olympic officials.

From Near Ruin To Billion-Dollar Brand

As president, Samaranch inherited an Olympic movement struggling to survive. The 1976 Summer Games left Montreal with a staggering debt of $1 billion. Few cities were interested in hosting the Olympics, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led President Carter to boycott the 1980 Moscow games.

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"The IOC was essentially bankrupt," recalls Richard Pound, a Canadian member of the IOC since 1978. "We had just gone through a devastating boycott. … It was not a very stable situation."

Then came the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, which was the target of a retaliatory boycott by the Soviet Union and its allies. Despite the absence of Soviet bloc athletes, L.A. organizing committee chief Peter Ueberroth was able to open corporate coffers to help pay for the games. They finished with a budget surplus — and Samaranch saw the path to Olympic prosperity.

"He got the IOC on a fine financial footing," says David Wallechinsky, author of a series of books titled The Complete Book of the Olympics. "He figured out how to make the whole thing profitable."

Samaranch tapped the corporate model Ueberroth created. That increased the Olympics' value, and Samaranch was able to start bidding wars among TV networks for the exclusive right to broadcast the Games. The Olympics became a billion-dollar brand.

Samaranch also "democratized" the IOC, according to Wallechinsky.

"The International Olympic Committee was almost exclusively rich, white [European] men, and so Samaranch tried to open it up," Wallechinsky says. "He encouraged the inclusion of IOC members from all over the world, including women."

The IOC began to pay travel expenses for Olympic meetings so that the group could include delegates from poor countries. The same concept was applied to athletes and National Olympic Committees from developing nations, which got IOC subsidies.

But this mix of big money and new blood had a downside.

'Payoffs And Shenanigans'

"Under Samaranch, the type of members changed," notes Lisa Delpy Neirotti, an Olympic scholar at George Washington University. The IOC "included more [delegates] from third-world countries, and sometimes they were used to receiving gifts for their votes and their support."

The gift-giving and favors reached epic proportions during Salt Lake City's bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics. In 1998, that successful bid turned scandalous with revelations about millions of dollars in cash payments, shopping sprees, paid vacations and even college scholarships for the kids — all of it given to IOC members to sway support for the city's bid.

"These kinds of payoffs and shenanigans were going on all over the world for many years during the Samaranch regime," says A. Craig Copetas, who covered the Olympic bribery scandal for the Wall Street Journal and is now a senior writer at Bloomberg News. "In fact, Samaranch told me once that he preferred having the Olympic Games held in a more or less totalitarian environment because there weren't so many prying eyes."

Copetas and other reporters suggest that this culture of corruption mirrored Samaranch's own past as a top official in the fascist regime of Spain's Francisco Franco. Samaranch was Franco's minister of sport and ambassador to the Soviet Union.

"He came from a culture that didn't know about democracy, didn't know about open debate," says Andrew Jennings, an investigative journalist in Great Britain. The Franco regime "existed as all dictatorships on the left or the right exist — on patronage, bribery and corruption. [Samaranch] brought corruption into the IOC."

Veteran IOC member Dick Pound strongly disagrees. He says the corruption exposed by the Salt Lake City scandal was an unintended result of diversifying the IOC membership.

"[Samaranch] got a lot of people inside the IOC because they were important figures in sport, but they did not necessarily share the Olympic sense of values and fair play," Pound says. "And we ended up getting into trouble over that."

Backlash From Doping Scandal

Pound and others are not so sanguine about what they consider Samaranch's failure to recognize and aggressively tackle the use of performance-enhancing drugs by Olympic athletes.

"It's certainly true that doping was not high on his agenda," Pound says. Neirotti of George Washington University agrees, saying, "That was a downfall of his leadership."

Pound recalls an especially embarrassing moment for the IOC during the 1998 Tour de France doping scandal.

Samaranch "was caught on record saying that, for him, all of the stuff that was going on in the Tour de France is not really doping unless you can prove to him it damaged health," Pound recalls. "He just didn't see what the trouble was."

Pound says the backlash over Samaranch's comment galvanized IOC members, including Samaranch. The group began an aggressive effort to combat doping, and Pound was named director of a newly formed, IOC-sponsored group called the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Meanwhile, the fallout from the Salt Lake City scandal was escalating. Samaranch struggled to respond to federal and congressional investigations, criminal indictments and internal Olympic probes. He was pressured to appear before Congress and was forced to use the public entrance to the hearing room. That meant he had to pass through a metal detector and empty his pockets like everyone else.

But Samaranch wasn't like everyone else, at least in his own estimation. He considered the Olympic presidency another international diplomatic post, and he seemed to prefer royal treatment for himself.

"It was a lifestyle better than the athletes [and] better than the [Olympic] spectators," says Jennings, noting that Samaranch and other IOC officials often stayed in "the most expensive hotels in the finest cities."

"He wanted to be referred to as His Excellency," Copetas adds. "He traveled around in great style — helicopters, limousines, private planes — always supplied by many of his prosperous friends."

Pound suggests that Samaranch was misunderstood.

Reporters "didn't like the fact that he had this view of himself as the head of an international organization that should be recognized on a worldwide basis," Pound says. "And so this business about helicopters and private planes and sumptuous living quarters all got blown way out of proportion."

In fact, Pound insists, Samaranch "was almost monkish" in his "personal living style."

"He actually led a very austere life," Copetas adds.

Testifying before Congress, Samaranch said it was his "personal hope ... to be able to deliver to my successor in 2001 an International Olympic Committee with a fully restored prestige and credibility."

By 2001, the IOC had adopted ethics reforms that severely restricted interaction between committee members and cities bidding for the Olympics. Term limits were established for IOC presidents. Close to two dozen IOC members implicated in the Salt Lake City scandal had been sanctioned or expelled.

A Final Favor

Still, Samaranch's successor seemed to consider it necessary to distinguish himself from the presidency he inherited. During his first Olympics on the job, Jacques Rogge didn't stay in the luxury hotel in downtown Salt Lake City where IOC officials slept. Instead, he stayed in a university dorm room in the Olympic Village where athletes were housed.

In October 2009, Samaranch was in Copenhagen to address a gathering of IOC delegates, many of whom he had hand-picked during his presidency.

"I am, as you know, 89 years old," he told the group. He wanted the Olympics back in his home country of Spain, and Madrid was a candidate for the 2016 Summer Games. "I know that I am very near the end of my time," he added, seeming to seek a final favor.

The group chose Rio de Janeiro instead.

In response to his death, the International Olympic Committee issued a statement from Rogge.

"Samaranch was the architect of a strong and unified Olympic movement," Rogge said. "I can only pay tribute to his tremendous achievements and legacy."