Thursday April 22nd, 2010

As former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch was waiting to receive a guest at the Chateau de Vidy, the IOC headquarters, in 1989, his assistant, Jose Sotelo, was preparing his daily reading material. "Just some items to review before breakfast," Sotelo noted. In his hands was a thick binder of 225 pages. Each of the five color-coded sections denoted a different language in which a story appeared during the previous 24 hours about either the IOC, the Olympic and international sports world or Samaranch himself. "He wants to know what people are thinking of him," Sotelo explained. "Every day he wants to know."

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 Francisco Franco to his first permanent administrative sports position in 1967 and later served as Spanish Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Mongolia. He ruled as Spanish Olympic Committee president and then IOC President from 1980 to 2001.

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 Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Roger Federer and perhaps in 2016 Tiger Woods to participate in the Games regardless of income.

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 Ben Johnson tested positive after winning the 100 meters at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Still, the testing of Olympic athletes has been and remains years ahead of testing for athletes in U.S. professional leagues. Yet, even those who acknowledge WADA's preeminent role in combating doping in sport ask why the IOC did not act sooner and more definitively.

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.

Carlos Arthur Nuzman, the president of Rio's 2016 committee, called Samaranch's death, an irreplaceable loss for world sport and added, "Juan Antonio Samaranch transformed the history of the Olympic Games. From a loss-making event without commercial and media appeal, Samaranch made the Olympic Games the biggest spectacle on the planet, spreading the Olympic values across the world. Thanks to his strategic vision, the Olympic brand began to be valued and the competition to host the Olympic Games became a race between major countries, even involving world leaders. ... Everything we have today in terms of the Olympic Games was born out of Juan Antonio Samaranch's vision."

Dick Ebersol, Chairman of NBC Sports & Olympics, hailed Samaranch as, "a towering figure in the world of sport and a diplomat of consummate skill who navigated through turmoil to reunite the Olympic Movement. As large as he loomed on the world scene, Juan Antonio Samaranch was a great partner and an even better man. In the best of times he was a good friend and, more importantly, in the worst of times he was an even better one. He was a truly magnificent and thoughtful gentleman."

Seb Coe, the head of London's organizing committee, called him "the most intuitive leader I have ever met." It was Samaranch who once suggested that Coe, then a two-time Olympic champ at 1,500 meters, should be granted a waiver and placed on Britain's Olympic team in 1988 after British officials did not select him to the team.

Samaranch wielded immense power even as he was retiring as IOC President -- his son, Juan Antonio Jr. became a member the same year he left -- and in his days as an emeritus. At the IOC Sessions in 2005 and 2009, he greatly enhanced Madrid's bids to host the Games by making a sort of do-it-for-me appeal to the membership. They almost did. But Samaranch also had a sort of passive-aggressiveness to his diplomacy that could placate and enrage or complement and insult at the same time. The man who spoke excellent English talked in Castilian Spanish that day in Congress, which roiled some congressmen as a polite defiance in the face of the scrutiny he received.

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.

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