Samaranch leaves mixed legacy
As former IOC President
Indeed Samaranch's interest was more than just professional. He was a man obsessed with legacy. Not nearly savvy enough to shape it, nor stealth enough to run from it, he reveled and ached at its changing fortunes throughout his life, even as he maintained an outward calm. At times he wanted to modernize, but more often, he wanted to seem modern. He could get behind a wave of public sentiment once he felt it sweeping him away. He didn't much care to fight the currents.
He was field hockey player in his youth, and served as Spain chef de mission at the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Olympics. He was appointed by
To his credit, he greatly improved the committee's finances, a happenstance that owed itself as much to ballooning television rights as to any financial acumen. But he also embraced the notion of creating global sponsors who made greater financial commitments for the rights to associate with the Games.
He ushered out the era of amateurism that coaxed Western athletes to accept money under the table, while East bloc athletes were permitted to participate, even as their lives were entirely government sponsored. Thanks largely to Samaranch, the litmus test shifted from "amateur" status to the more financially-neutral "eligibility." This push ultimately allowed the likes of
He championed the rebuilding of Sarajevo, the city that had been torn apart by war after its time as an Olympic city in 1984. The IOC helped rebuild a number of sport venues there, bringing a sliver of normality to peacetime.
He added diversity to IOC membership, including ex-athletes, helping to minimize the notion that IOC members were often out of touch with the athletes' needs and concerns.
Under great public pressure, he supported the establishment of the World Anti-Doping Agency. The race between testers and cheaters is still a treacherous one, and those close to Samaranch say he was deeply stung when Canadian sprinter
The detractors would also point to his ties to the Franco regime as a good example of the way he read the winds, choosing to advocate change only with a groundswell of popular support at his side. A book released last year accused Samaranch of taking gifts from the KGB while he served in Moscow.
He failed to stem the IOC's culture of the entitlements-for-votes that mushroomed into the bid scandals of the late-90s. Ultimately, they became known as the Salt Lake bribery scandals, because the recriminations hit the IOC and the organizing committee as they prepared for the 2002 Olympics in Utah, but the practice of IOC members committing their votes in return for money, jobs, scholarships, lavish gifts and other favors had been going on for years. Samaranch simply let it pass, never making an attempt to convince his committee members that the entitlements would be exposed, publicized and lampooned, ultimately leading to resignations and expulsions and bringing great shame to the IOC. He agreed to appear before a Congressional committee in Washington to explain the committee's actions, promise reform and placate anyone who government who might try to regulate sponsor and television revenues that went to Lausanne from U.S. entities.
Samaranch wielded immense power even as he was retiring as IOC President -- his son,
He would traditionally sign off at the closing ceremonies by declaring an Olympics to be the "best ever." It was a designation that became so commonplace, it was more like a participation ribbon than a gold medal. But in 1996, Samaranch stared into the crowd at the Games in Atlanta, where the Games had been fraught with blunders and politely declared them to be "exceptional Games." To those on the outside, it was a lovely sentiment. To those in the know, it was a vicious backhanded slap.
In looking at the dimensions of Samaranch's immense impact on the movement and his legacy, it has always been necessary to unpeel the layers, good and bad, and look deeper before reaching a verdict.