The Legacy Of Ex-IOC Chief Samaranch

Former International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch died in Barcelona on Wednesday after being hospitalized for heart trouble. The former Spanish diplomat was a major force in the Olympic movement, leading the IOC for 21 years and presiding over a massive transformation, along with disruptive doping and ethics scandals.

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The man credited with helping to save the Olympics from financial ruin has died at the age of 89. Juan Antonio Samaranch was president of the International Olympic Committee during an era of boycotts, near bankruptcy and scandal. NPR's Howard Berkes looks back at one of the IOC's most controversial leaders.

HOWARD BERKES: Juan Antonio Samaranch finished his 21 years as Olympic president in 2001.

Mr. JUAN ANTONIO SAMARANCH (Former President, International Olympic Committee): The situation of the International Olympic Committee is excellent. You cannot compare International Olympic Committee of today or 21 years ago, when I was first elected here in Moscow.

BERKES: That's an understatement, given the milestones and the scandals of the Samaranch tenure. First, the milestones.

Mr. DAVID WALLECHINSKY (Olympic Historian): He transitioned the IOC into a modern era, in which it could make money and in which it included all the nations of the world.

BERKES: Olympic historian David Wallechinsky recalls the debts and political boycotts of 1980, when Samaranch took over.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: The IOC was in big financial trouble. Nobody really wanted to host the Olympics. And when the Los Angeles Olympics not only broke even but turned a big profit, it opened people's eyes that money could be made.

BERKES: Big money from corporate sponsorships and television rights. The Olympics became a multi-billion-dollar brand. They also became more diverse.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: The International Olympic Committee was almost exclusively rich white men, and so Samaranch tried to open it up. He encouraged the inclusion of IOC members from all over the world, including women.

BERKES: And he set up a program that subsidized Olympic committees and competitors from poor countries. But this mix of big money and new blood had a downside. Some of the new IOC members came from places with cultures of corruption. A bribery scandal erupted in Salt Lake City in 1998, involving millions of dollars in cash payments and gifts. Close to two-dozen IOC members were sanctioned or expelled, but they weren't all new members from poor countries.

Craig Copetas covered the scandal for the Wall Street Journal.

Mr. CRAIG COPETAS: These kinds of payoffs and shenanigans were going on all over the world for many years during the Samaranch regime. In fact, Samaranch had told me once that he preferred having the Olympic Games held in more or less a totalitarian environment because there weren't so many prying eyes. And I'm just paraphrasing what he said.

BERKES: Copetas says Samaranch himself came from a culture of corruption, as an ambassador in the fascist regime of Spain's Francisco Franco. He considered himself an Olympic diplomat, using the title: Your Excellency. Reporters chronicled royal treatment. Dick Pound was an IOC vice president at the time.

Mr. DICK POUND: He didn't get a great press. And I think it's probably because folks in your business didn't like the fact that he had this view of himself at the head of an international organization that should be recognized on a worldwide basis. And so this business about helicopters and private planes and sumptuous living quarters all got blown way out of proportion.

BERKES: Pound says that diplomatic image and effort helped legitimize the IOC until the bribery scandal.

Unidentified Man #1: Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?

Mr. SAMARANCH: I do.

BERKES: Samaranch was hauled before Congress and forced to bear the indignity of passing through metal detectors and emptying his pockets like a commoner.

Mr. SAMARANCH: And my personal hope is to be able to deliver to my successor in 2001 an International Olympic Committee with a fully restored prestige and accountability.

BERKES: But Samaranch also failed to recognize and attack the growing problem of performance-enhancing drugs. A belated anti-doping program and major ethics reforms helped restore some credibility but not influence. In October, Samaranch made a sentimental appeal to his former colleagues. He wanted the Olympics back in his home country of Spain. I am 89 years old, he said, seeking a final favor. Brazil was chosen instead.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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