Samaranch, 89, Reshaped Face Of Modern Olympics

Former International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch died Wednesday at age 89. The Spaniard is being remembered as the man who shaped the face of the modern Olympic movement.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The man who led the Olympics for two decades has died. Juan Antonio Samaranch was 89. He presided over the International Olympic Committee during times of triumph and times of scandal. NPR's Howard Berkes has covered both over the years. He's on the line.

Hi, Howard.

HOWARD BERKES: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I suppose it's worth remembering the amazing era in which this man presided over the Olympics, beginning in 1980.

BERKES: Well, it was a time which gave Juan Antonio Samaranch the opportunity to both be the savior of the Olympics and to show that he was a bit tone deaf when it came to some very serious problems for the games, like performance-enhancing drugs and ethics. He went into the IOC at a time of great crises. The organization was near bankruptcy. There were political boycotts. Jimmy Carter had arranged the boycott of the 1980 games in Moscow. But at the end of this two decade-long tenure, the IOC went through two of its most serious scandals ever.

In between, he was able to elevate the international stature of the organization. He considered himself a kind of Olympic diplomat, which was a remnant of his time as a Spanish ambassador to Moscow in the fascist regime of Francisco Franco. He liked to be referred to as his Excellency, even when he was at the IOC. Reporters ridiculed him for that and for being imperious. But he did pull the Olympics out of very serious crises early in his tenure. So he can't be dismissed, certainly.

INSKEEP: And there were big and successful Olympics, like the ones in 1984 in Los Angeles. But you used the phrase tone deaf in the way that he handled scandals over doping and also bribery, I suppose we should mention.

BERKES: Right. The problem of performance-enhancing drugs existed early in his tenure, and he just didn't believe that it was a problem. He didn't pay much attention to it. Famously, in 1998, during the scandal involving the Tour de France, Samaranch said that unless the athletes were hurting themselves, this wasn't a problem. And there was huge negative reaction to that, because, you know, there's the issue of fairness with doping, of whether the playing field is level. And that negative reaction prompted a change in his position and the position of the IOC, and they quickly then started to tackle doping in a serious way, organizing the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Something similar happened with a culture of corruption at the IOC, which existed, again, early in his tenure. But Samaranch always said show me the proof. I hear rumors about it. Show me the proof. He never bothered, by the way, to investigate and dig up the proof. And then in 1998, when a television station in Salt Lake City provided proof, it was proof that was devastating to the IOC, millions of dollars in what were essentially brides, and a huge problem for Samaranch and for the organization.

INSKEEP: And then he left in 2001. We've just got a few seconds. I want to ask one other question, Howard Berkes. In the end, the Olympics are a big show. What kind of a showman was he?

BERKES: I don't know that showman would be a term associated with Juan Antonio Samaranch. He was a diminutive, quiet, as I said, diplomatic kind of man, not demonstrative at all, feared by people at the IOC. He wasn't a showman himself, but he surrounded himself with people who could make the organization both a financial success and a diplomatic success in terms of international acceptance. And he will be remembered for that, certainly.

INSKEEP: NPR's Howard Berkes. Thanks very much.

BERKES: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: And Juan Antonio Samaranch has died at the age of 89.

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