For His Excellency Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, the final thin hope of a change of Russian heart dissipated on the last day of May. A good two hours earlier than expected, he and his small delegation were aboard a white tri-jet Falcon 50 retreating west from Moscow, on course for rain-soaked Paris. The day before, they had been formally greeted at Sheremetyevo Airport and borne by black Zil limousine to a villa in the Lenin Hills reserved for guests of the state. At 10 o'clock the next morning they were accorded a meager, 90-minute meeting at the Kremlin. The proceedings were predictable in every way, save for the studied insult in the government's choice of one Nikolai Talyzine, a state functionary of the middle rank, to deliver the final nyet!
And more than a week later, not even the tranquilizing splendor of a suite at the Plaza Athénée off the Champs Élysées in Paris had cleared the bleakness from the president's face. "I knew nothing would be given," he said. "I went there for the sake of history. To show that I tried to the end. I was surprised at the man they sent to meet me, that they thought this was the level at which the problem must be treated. But nothing else was a surprise."
The shirt of His Excellency may be starched but it is not stuffed. A mischievous smile broke through. "Listen," he said dryly, "you know who was all nerves? You know who really got the big disappointment in Moscow? It was Nebiolo, that's who."
The delegation consisted of Samaranch, Primo Nebiolo, president of the Summer Games Sports Federations, IOC director Monique Berlioux and Mario Vàzquez Ra√±a, president of the Association of National Olympic Committees, and as Samaranch related, Nebiolo, the Italian, spent his evening in the Lenin Hills crouched over a shortwave radio, listening to the commentary on the European Cup, the soccer final between Rome and Liverpool. The game had gone into overtime before Liverpool won.
July 15, 1984
"Poor Primo," said the president. "He was sad all the way home." Samaranch turned to his visitor. "Remember last April?" he said. "When you flew with me? This was the same airplane. But let me assure you the ambience was quite different coming back from Moscow. And no one played dominoes."
His visitor recalled it well, the Falcon with the red, green and white colors of Mexico emblazoned on its tail heading northwest across the mountains of Venezuela, and the way it had been transformed into a smoky airborne taverna of Old Spain as it echoed to the barks of triumph, the groans of surrender that go with the ancient game of dominoes, and how, suddenly, to cries of chagrin, El Presidente of the Olympics snapped down a double zero to take the series, grinning and stowing away the $10 pot.
He had earned his small triumph. For the first time in six days, aside from minimal hours of sleep, he had slipped out of his jacket and loosened his tie. He had been in five countries, listened to more than 100 speeches and made close to 20 of his own. He had been closeted in as many meetings, had traveled more than 15,000 miles and had eaten too many indifferent buffet meals. Three hours earlier he had left Paramaribo in the Republic of Suriname and an hour more would see him in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but still far from home. The Falcon would pause for refueling, then head over the dark Atlantic first to the Azores, then to Geneva.
Juan Antonio's Flying Circus had set a killing pace. "Every time we land there's a fresh team waiting for me," he had said ruefully on touchdown in Suriname, and his bone-tiredness was registered in his face. At 63, he was working 15-hour days, and Suriname was the 122nd country he had visited since he took office in 1980.
Then, as the dominoes were cleared away, the bleak look faded and his natural charm broke through. Samaranch is slight and vulnerable-looking; a Disney animator would see him as a bright-eyed woodsy little animal, head cocked winningly to one side. Now, mischievously, he said, "Ask me what of all things on earth I should like to be."
"World dominoes champion," you say, feeding him.
"The president of the IOC!" he cries. "To be in a post like this is wonderful. I love what I am doing. This is a beautiful year for me!"
Now, weeks later in Paris, his visitor, cruelly perhaps, reminds him that the Greeks had a word for this kind of tempting of, well, the Olympians, the gods. That wasn't hubris but happiness, he said. The glow of Sarajevo was still with him. "And I am elected for eight years," he said. "If I keep my health, I will fight until the last day for the Olympics."
But the trauma of May 8 was still vivid. He remembered each detail, the rain of the early morning in New York at the Olympic torch ceremony, and how, at 10 a.m., he had been waiting at La Guardia airport for the weather to clear at Washington's National Airport so that his plane could leave—anxiously, because his meeting with President Reagan was scheduled for noon. And then, suddenly, one of those anonymous airport voices was paging him to pick up a courtesy phone. "It was Alain Coupat in Lausanne, my press secretary," Samaranch recalled, "and he said, 'Listen, all the Soviet press this morning is bad, very critical. And it's just been announced that in two hours' time there'll be a meeting of the Soviet National Olympic Committee.' Once I'd taken that call, I knew it was the end."
At first Samaranch was careful to stress the diplomatic necessity of not burning any bridges ("To destroy things would be very easy. But in a few weeks we must begin to rebuild the Olympic movement and we must keep a close relationship open with the U.S.S.R.") Later, though, he couldn't keep some bitterness from showing. "In 1980 and afterwards," he said, "top people in the Soviet Union said to me that the word 'boycott' did not exist in their dictionaries and that they would never use it, that never would they use sport and the Olympic movement as a political weapon. But I had always known that sport and politics did not live on separate planets."
His bitterness had a special edge. In part at least, he is the president because in 1980 the IOC felt there could be no better man to heal the wounds of the Moscow boycott. Last winter the Comte de Beaumont, an 82-year-old veteran of the IOC, from his fastness behind the chairman's desk of the club he frequents on the Rue St. Honoré in Paris, said he saw no mystery in the way Samaranch came to power. "He got himself nominated as Spanish ambassador to Moscow and there he went down very well. The Russian people are very sentimental, much more than you would believe. He got all the Eastern votes. There was no problem at all. Samaranch is a very complete fellow, strong, clever. His brains are working beautifully."
Almost six months later, after Samaranch had left Moscow empty-handed, the Comte saw no reason to revise his verdict. "His influence is undiluted," said the ebullient octogenarian by phone from a hunting lodge in Alsace, where he had gone to pursue wild boar. "He will still be president in 1992. Have you been to Moscow? Could you handle those people? Nobody can." He claimed that Samaranch, at the Paris junket early in June that marked the 90th anniversary of the Olympic movement, had growled between formal speeches, "Let them go to hell. They are the losers."
If he said that, the urbane Samaranch was acting out of character, for what had distinguished his rise in world sport was his careful diplomacy. He had begun systematically to campaign for the IOC presidency in 1976, as soon as Lord Killanin had declared his intention of quitting in 1980, and he had followed the same inside track to the top as the Irishman had—by being appointed both chef de protocol and president of the press commission, which gave him access to the media and a direct connection to every member, every clique of what is still very much a gentleman's club.
"For me," he says, "this election in Moscow was very, very easy. We had four candidates and since you need a clear 41 votes to win, it is normally very hard to get them in the first rotation. But my majority came in the first vote." That success, on the eve of his 60th birthday was certainly due in part to his Soviet connection. But, paradoxically, there was a royal connection also.
To learn of the latter you must head to Barcelona, Spain's second city (though in population only, her proud citizens will tell you), where a couple of miles northwest of the city center, Samaranch and his wife, Bibis, live in an apartment that overlooks a small park with a bronze fantasy of a sculpture that commemorates Pablo Casals.
There, even on a midwinter Sunday morning, you find a clarity of Mediterranean light to remind you that this is also the city of Picasso and Miró. More prosaically, you discover that men are working on the elevator, which means a ride in the service lift and an informal entry through the kitchen, where disconcertingly, you find two soldiers. They are reading the Sunday papers but they have weapons at hand. "The president," one says gravely, "would be an important prize for a terrorista."
All the same, for the Samaranches, this is a rare morning of domesticity. Once a month, if he's lucky, Juan Antonio gets home for a quiet weekend, though even on this one he can't do what he really wants to, which is to watch Barcelona vs. Sevilla in the Spanish soccer league. "They'll have more than 100,000 there," he says wistfully, "but if I go, all the sportswriters will chase me." Not, it turns out, to quiz him about the L.A. Games but to hit him with their perennial question: "Hey, Juan Antonio, will we get the Games here in Barc'a in '92?"
"They think I have it in my gift," he says wryly, showing his visitor into a formal study aglitter with silver and gold orders, from the French Legion of Honor to the Italian Order of Civil Merit. There is a signed photograph of a handsome couple in their 40s, the man wearing an Olympic blazer. The scribbled superscription declares that they are Juan and Sophia who send their best wishes to Bibis and Juan Antonio. You make the connection. This is King Juan Carlos I of Spain and his queen, and the crest on the king's blazer reminds you that he represented his country in sailing at Kiel, West Germany, in the 1972 Games.
High-flown stuff, but then to put things in a gentler perspective, Bibis herself enters, bathrobe-clad, to find out just what's afoot this Sunday morning. She's a woman of striking beauty and presence, the former Maria Theresa Salisachs-Rowe, an English mother accounting for the second barrel of her surname. Now she joins her husband as he leads you to a fine romantic portrait, Bibis herself, windblown, at dusk, gazing out across the Moscow River.
The king, the Russians.... When Samaranch became His Excellency the Ambassador of Spain to the U.S.S.R., he was the first to hold the post since the Civil War of 1936-39, when the forces of Generalissimo Francisco Franco overthrew the nation's elected government and instituted a dictatorship that lasted 36 years. Even now, in the Barcelona of 1984, it's difficult for a visitor who as a child read that war's headlines and for whom, later, George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia would make real the smoke and slaughter of the defense of Barcelona, one of the last cities to fall, to grasp how much of a miracle it was, when the old fascist died, that Spain returned so swiftly to the comity of the West.
The healer, of course, was the king, and for Juan Antonio Samaranch his restoration was the key to a new world. Although Samaranch had become president of Catalonia's provincial assembly toward the end of the Franco regime, his public career (in private life, after inheriting his father's upholstery business he had gone into banking) had been mainly concerned with the politics of sport, obscurely at first as president of the Spanish Rink (roller skate) Hockey Association, then as chef de mission for Spain at the Winter Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo in 1956 and the '60 and '64 Summer Games in Rome and Tokyo, respectively. By 1966 he was an IOC member, a year later president of the Spanish Olympic Committee.
"Always," he said in Barcelona, "I used my political power to help sport." All that time he also had been a king's man. "I was so happy when the king came back," he said. "He was the only answer to our problems." Before the king gained the throne, Juan Antonio and Bibis had seen much of the royal couple socially. When the moment for the normalization of relations with the Soviet Union coincided with preparations for the 1980 Games, Samaranch, the sportsman-politician who had been too young to be involved in the Civil War, seemed the perfect choice both for king and Kremlin.
In Barcelona, the domestic weekend, which didn't begin until Saturday evening, proves to be short-lived. There is a family reunion for lunch on Sunday at El Reno, one of Barcelona's finest restaurants, with son Juan Antonio Jr., an engineer, and Maria Theresa, the married daughter. "You are fortunate," says Juan Antonio Sr. "In Spain we are now in the partridge season. Ask for it vinaigrette." Unhappily, he explains, there is no time after lunch to take the 60-mile drive along the Costa Brava to Roca Rodona, the farmhouse outside the village of Santa Cristina de la Polvorosa that Bibis bought and handsomely converted in 1970 in the hope of long country vacations. They now seem postponed until at least 1989, when, says Samaranch, he will decide whether or not to seek reelection.
Monday morning is preempted by a less-than-riveting occasion, the draw for the Olympic volleyball finals. However, there is the compensation that it's held in the Generalitat, the seat of the Catalan government, a Mediterranean-Gothic edifice bedecked with orange trees and gargoyles where Samaranch presided from 1973 to 1977. A visitor could take refuge in examining the exuberant murals, depicting shipwrecks, the apotheoses of numerous saints and, yes, of course, a neatly turned out Christopher Columbus flanked by parrots and well-tamed Indians reporting to Ferdinand and Isabella. The year 1992 will mark the 500th anniversary of the great sailor's discovery of the New World, making, wouldn't you agree, Spain, and the city of Barcelona, the perfect site for the Games that same year? As young ladies in warmup suits post the names of the nations in the finals, their president maintains an expression of interest. Only later does he confide, deadpan, "I think this draw might have been arranged beforehand." By which time he has taken his visitor to inspect something in which he takes much pride. "Look at the door handle," he commands. It is a casting of a human hand. He holds out his own. They are identical. "When I left to become ambassador," he says with pride, "the assembly honored me in this way."
The seasoned politician, you are learning by stages, is in many ways still the boy who began collecting stamps with a packet of foreign issues obtained from a corner shop. Later, at the office he maintains in downtown Barcelona, Samaranch proudly displays row upon row of albums that hold—in blocks of four—a collection of Olympic stamps beginning with a rare Greek issue from the first modern Games in 1896 and, in the most recent volume, an issue from the Philippines that features him as president. "Soon San Marino will put out a similar set also," he tells you happily.
Aside from the stamp collection there are four broad shelves of other volumes bound in soft leather, green for his term as president of the Spanish Olympic Committee, blue to enclose his press cuttings from Barcelona days, red for his Russian period and 12 white volumes that chronicle his Olympic reign to date.
There is another collection that he is most obsessed with. In his hotel suite in Lausanne, in Bibis's Costa Brava finca, in this office and in his apartment, the walls are lined and tables are piled with paintings, icons and sculptures all of the same subject—St. George, that legendary, probably mythical, warrior from Lydda in Palestine who slew the dragon and became patron saint of England, Portugal, Georgia and Lithuania in Imperial Russia and, you soon learn, of the city of Barcelona and Juan Antonio Samaranch.
It was as designated dragon killer that Samaranch took up his spear after the Moscow Games, and soon he had a couple of hits to his credit. "The first problem I found on my table," he recalls, "was the Taiwan/China issue." It was a problem that had haunted Killanin and had almost become a Games-wrecker in Montreal in 1976. The new president finalized a simple solution. Let the Taiwanese appear under the flag of their National Olympic Committee, not their nation.
Next came the challenge of Baden-Baden in 1981, where more than a thousand delegates would assemble for the Olympic Congress on the soil of a nation—West Germany—which had boycotted the Moscow Games. "It was dangerous," Samaranch said later. "World sport could have split in two." The wounds of '80, though, seemed miraculously to have healed. Samaranch, who claimed, it seemed with some justice, "to know the socialist countries better than any other outsider," appeared to have wrought a reconciliation that was beyond the battle-weary Killanin.
Meantime at Olympic headquarters, at the Chateau de Vidy itself, there were unmistakable signs that a direct, very personal rule would replace that of the easygoing Killanin who worked, most of the time, from his home in Dublin. "Every president has his own way to run the IOC," Samaranch said this spring. "Michael, Lord Killanin—a good friend of mine, I worked with him for many years—had his own methods. I have another way to work. Mine is to work at headquarters, to put every man in his place in the organization. And I assure you also that the director is only the director, and the president is the president." The uncompromising words can only refer to Berlioux, who for the past 13 years, and particularly during the Killanin presidency, had often seemed to be the de facto Olympic boss; but those days have surely gone. Loyal to the institution she has served so long, she will make no public pronouncement on the seeming coolness between herself and Samaranch, but it's apparent that there are now two distinct secretariats at the Ch√¢teau de Vidy, the regular IOC apparatus that has always been there with Berlioux as director and a smaller one that reports directly to Samaranch.
"The most important decision I made after my election," he says, "was to live in Lausanne and work there as de Coubertin did so many years ago. I must give all my time." And live at Lausanne he does, for 200 days a year, in a suite at the Palace Hotel ("They charge the IOC $120 a night," he says, adding, a touch defensively, "When I'm away they rent out the bedroom"). An aide says, "The workload has gone up to the sky. He looks at every letter, every paper that comes in. He has six wire services, from AP to Tass, that he checks constantly; he is on the phone to Ueberroth every day. He is not an easy boss but he will listen and he is tr√®s intelligent."
Though he has increased the staff at Lausanne from roughly 20 in Killanin's time to more than 70, Samaranch says, "I have some people but my organization is not the best. Later there will be more surrounding me. I have to reinforce the presidency. I am waiting for many things after the L.A. Games."
Meanwhile, in what must now be called Samaranch's pre-boycott period, it hadn't been difficult to find other evidence of a certain grandiosity of mind in presidential projects. There was, for example, his wish to build a new and splendid Olympic headquarters at Lausanne. The new palace, which a Scandinavian IOC member called with heavy irony La Casa Samarancha, reached the model stage; it was designed by Ramirez Vasquez, a renowned Mexican artist, and would have cost between $10 and $15 million. Franz Weber, a crusading Swiss journalist, led the opposition, which complained that the proposed site was on a magnificent sweep of lawns that run down to Lake Geneva. Because of the public outcry, the city and canton vetoed the project. Now the IOC must be content with additions to the chateau itself. Another presidential project, though, which might have seemed grandiose at the time, has proved in the light of events to have been farsighted. That was Samaranch's attempt to follow up Killanin's earlier efforts to have the Olympic Charter powerfully underwritten by the United Nations, with the aim of taking it outside politics by giving it specific U.N. status, regardless of where the Games were held. "I am still waiting," Samaranch had said before the Soviet defection. "Our friends at the U.N. have advised us to hold on. This is not the right moment."
Now, obviously, he feels that the right moment has come. In June at the Paris anniversary, the French minister of sport, Mme. Edwige Avice, raised a strong voice in support of a declaration by the United Nations that, in a key phrase, would "recognize and protect the celebration of the Olympic Games."
"During the Games," said Samaranch, "the site would be special U.N. territory, international territory, wherever they were held. It could be the answer."
And conceivably, also, the answer to the prospect of yet another Soviet boycott in four years' time, when the Games are to be held in South Korea, a nation not recognized by the U.S.S.R. At the Plaza Athénée, when the subject of Seoul 1988 was raised, at first, as he was bound to, the president would merely fence. "It's not the right moment to speak to the Russians about Seoul now," he said, reasonably enough. "We have just one problem on that table, and that is Los Angeles." But he was willing to admit how, with elegant brushstrokes, the IOC had painted itself into a corner. "Listen, we took a decision," he said. "We signed a contract, though as president I didn't vote. They've spent hundreds of millions of dollars. They'll be opening the main stadium in September. Can we tell them, now we withdraw the Games? Easy to say. Impossible to do.
"If South Korea tells the IOC they cannot have the Games, or that they would like to postpone their hosting of them, then that is another matter," said Samaranch. "But I spoke to them last week and they are very strong, they have the strongest feelings, that they must have the Games there."
As president of the IOC, Samaranch has to stick—though he does it with increasing sketchiness—to the official line that Soviet fears over Los Angeles security caused their pullout. Still he finds it hard to comprehend how the Californians could have been naive enough to present them with the excuse they needed. "Forget the Communists," he said. "Even for me, from Europe, it is very difficult to understand how in a city where the Games will be held you can sell badges that read 'Kill a Russian.' "
Privately, of course, he knows that the IOC vs. the U.S.S.R. was a grotesque mismatch once the Kremlin had made up its mind, and he's human enough to speculate on might-have-beens. Brezhnev, he felt, might not have taken the action had he been alive—"He was always close to the Olympic movement"—and Samaranch's own closest contact with Soviet sport, Serguei Pavlov, president of the Russian National Olympic Committee at the time of the Moscow Games, had been replaced, perhaps significantly, a few weeks before Andropov took power. Marat Gramov, the replacement, Samaranch told his Paris visitor, wasn't "a sports official.... He worked for the Central Committee, in the propaganda department," said the president. "He was around at the '80 Games."
Interestingly, Samaranch turned out to be receptive to a popularly advanced theory, which is that even though the Cold War was in one of its deep lows, until March of this year there was still a dovish faction in the Central Committee fighting for Soviet participation, and that the doves had had to concede defeat after the last-minute denial of a U.S. visa to the nominated Olympic attaché, Oleg N. Yermishkin.
Samaranch felt no personal betrayal, he said, by old Russian friends. The drama had been played out on a far higher level than that of friendship. Nevertheless, because of his Soviet connections, he seems to have been saddled with much more personal responsibility in the boycott of '84 than Killanin was when the Americans pulled out of the Moscow Games. Samaranch's undisguised euphoria after the success of Sarajevo didn't help. Neither did his unguardedly expressed opinion following the Winter Games that, should Los Angeles go well, the IOC would be a strong candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.
There is no doubt, either, that there are those in the Old Guard of the IOC who have privately relished what they regard as Juan Antonio's comeuppance. One such, who didn't want to be identified, spoke of the president as "a product of the Latin wave, a man from outside sport, on an ego trip." The faction to which he belongs points to Samaranch's close associates, Vàzquez Ra√±a of Mexico and Nebiolo, who accompanied the president on his abortive mission to Moscow. The implication of the opposition is that the Olympic movement has been taken over by a power-hungry group whose tacky, marketplace ethics are far removed from those of such Anglo-Saxon gentlemen as Michael Killanin and Avery Brundage. In all of this there isn't much difficulty in identifying the sour taste of disappointed ambition, of paranoia with more than a touch of racism, but it's worthwhile burrowing a little further. Given Samaranch's acknowledged pragmatism, he would be foolish indeed, in the case of Nebiolo, not to seize any means possible to nullify a plain threat that one day the world championships of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, of which the Italian is president, might outshine the Games themselves. Giving its leader an honored place at the Olympic table is a tactic as old as time.
As for the other bogeyman, Vàzquez Ra√±a, it's certainly true that he's close to the president, close enough, indeed, to have been on the losing end of that game of dominoes on the trip home from Suriname aboard the Falcon 50—which, in fact, he owns, in addition to 70 newspapers in Mexico, another aircraft, Mexico City's ABC radio station and the TV station in Durango. Vazquez Ra√±a is a jovial, thickset man of 52 who became a figure in world sport (though at the Pan American Games of 1963 he represented Mexico in shooting) when the fall of Allende's government meant Chile couldn't host the 1975 Pan Am Games. In seven months he had reorganized them to take place in Aztec Stadium, Mexico City, where the gates were opened for the memorable closing ceremony, which drew 145,000 people.
Four years later Vàzquez Ra√±a was unanimously elected president of the Association of National Olympic Committees and, as he freely admits, promoted Samaranch "heavily" at the Moscow election. All the same, he denies having undue influence on Samaranch. "He simply asks me for comments," Vàzquez Ra√±a says, "takes what he wants and uses it."
It's no secret, though, that under Samaranch's presidency the NOCs have been given greater importance in the Olympic movement than the General Association of International Sports Federations, which brings together the world's governing bodies in each individual sport, and whose president is Thomas Keller of Zurich.
Keller is an unashamed conservative who believes in such unfashionable tenets as amateurism in the Games (his own sport, rowing, is one of the few that have held steadfastly to the old ideals), but his main concern is with the way the movement has become awash with money. Samaranch, he said earlier this year in Switzerland, had come to power at a time when the really big cash flow started. "L.A. paid early," he said, "and the prime rate helped a lot. What will happen when all these huge sums come in from Seoul, from Calgary [site of the '88 Winter Games]? I am frightened by this. Out of L.A. each of our federations will get roughly $600,000. That's fine. There's development work to be done in India, say, and the Far East. But what if that sum gets three times bigger? What do you do? Build palaces? Is this to the real profit of sport, or will it go to pieces? Mme. Berlioux," he confides, "has been told not to speak to me. She, too, defends the idealistic side. But I must tell you in fairness, Samaranch is the product, not the creator, of these problems." To such misgivings, Samaranch is unsympathetic. "The IOC budget," he said recently, "is not so important. Much of our money [said to be around $50 million at present] is in Switzerland, in U.S. dollars. All our fortunes are put in dollars." Now he's becoming increasingly concerned that these fortunes are too exclusively tied to network TV in the U.S., even though the rights to the Calgary Games will net the IOC more than Los Angeles. "We would like to have other income," he says. "We are studying it."
In fact, there are disquieting indications that the IOC has made up its mind about this question and that a group called International Sports, Culture and Leisure Marketing, Inc. (ISL), which includes Dentsu of Japan, the world's largest advertising agency, and Horst Dassler, son of the founder of Adidas, has already won the right, as it expressed it in a presentation offered to an IOC special commission in New Delhi last year, to market what it called "the most valuable unexploited symbol in the world." Perceptively, in the light of later events, ISL pointed to the "risk from boycotts and international crises" and told the IOC commission bluntly, "To get at the big money nowadays one has to go international, to the big multinationals." It recommended offering, via ISL of course, a "total international communications package incorporating the Olympic rings."
"These people," Samaranch said, meaning ISL, "I think are very interesting because they are helping sports in poor countries. But we must avoid that the rulers of sport can be other than the IOC, the international federations and the NOCs." Which is more or less what the fellow said when he took a long spoon with him to sup with the devil.
If anyone could come away from that meal with the devil holding the check, though, it might well be Samaranch. He may not be able to change the Kremlin's mind, but he shows an admirable presence under lesser pressures. At the end of the Sarajevo Games, he was able to invoke Catch-22, or Rule 26 of the Olympic Charter, by defining the latter so that it dumped on the hapless Marc Hodler, president of the Winter Games Federations and once Samaranch's rival for the IOC presidency, the impossible task of trying to explain how Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark, who chose to receive his payments directly instead of through the ski federation fund, could find himself on the wrong side of the eligibility line while athletes in other disciplines, for example, Sebastian Coe, with his contracts arranged by Mark McCormack's International Management Group, stayed on the path of virtue.
Samaranch fields other controversial questions with dexterity. Word has gone around, for instance, that there are sports he would as soon see out of the Games; modern pentathlon, for instance, and even swimming, but principally boxing. Put this to him and he counterpunches deftly. "I will show you a very nice portrait," he says, producing a sepia snapshot, old and faded. "I was 20 years old, a featherweight, just after the Civil War, in the amateur championships of Catalonia. I went through one round but then I retired because I was studying and I had the feeling it was dangerous. I am not speaking at the moment as the president, but when I got older I realized it was a very dangerous sport." He moves into a more cautious mode. "It is a question that must be studied after Los Angeles. We must study very carefully what it means to box today."
When he's being interviewed, his limber mastery of the ancient technique of the preemptive strike—putting a question to an interrogator before the latter can frame it—is impeccable. ("What should we do about South Africa?") But such things are the trimmings of the presidency. He has more profound matters closer to heart, which, when the Soviet boycott has dwindled to a footnote in the history of sport, may prove far more significant. And, in the furthering of what he sees as the most important task of his presidency, he pays a savage price.
Last April, his Caribbean whistle-stop had started at 11 a.m. Swiss time, with a Geneva to Frankfurt flight and a nine-hour Atlantic crossing to follow, putting him into Puerto Rico at 11 p.m. by his own body clock. Ueberroth awaited him in San Juan and there was business afoot, arrangements to be made for the daily 8 a.m. planning sessions that will go on right through the L.A. Games. It was 2 a.m., Samaranch time, before he saw his hotel room, where a wake-up call jangled to summon him to another two-hour meeting with the Los Angeles chief, which ended on schedule so that he could watch a gymnastic display by local youngsters. So, lunch? Certainly not. First there was a meeting with Puerto Rico's NOC, with 14 speeches that included two jokes. Lunch then? Very well, but only a hurried buffet because private meetings followed and Samaranch had to be ready for cocktails—and of course speeches—with local notables at Casa Blanca, then dinner at the governor's residence, starting at 9:30 p.m., so that bed by midnight was only a dim possibility. Don't forget the wake-up call, an 8:30 a.m. press conference, then a really serious speechfest with the Senate and House of Representatives.
"Up to now I think I have flown a million miles," said Samaranch on the afternoon of Day 2, heading in the Falcon to the Dominican Republic, where he will meet President Salvador Jorge Blanco. "The travel agency we have in Lausanne gave me their million-kilometer plaque months ago, and I am flying many times also in private planes. So I must have a rule, a discipline. I don't take food in the plane. I take a lot of water and always my vitamin C. No cinema, no drinking. I stopped drinking even a glass of wine two years ago. I have to give something from my side to continue. Every three or four months I have a medical check. In my room I make my own regimen, 30 or 40 minutes of exercise. I never siesta. In the night I sleep only for five hours or so, and first I try to catch the BBC World News and Sports Roundup on my shortwave set."
On occasions of mind-boggling dullness, Samaranch may now and then glance at the ceiling, pull silently at his nose before rising to make a speech from his basic repertoire of three, but his expression of intrigued interest rarely wavers.
Inevitably you ask yourself, what is the point of all this? Puerto Rico seemed a public relations charade. Could the ego-trip theory be right after all? It isn't until you leave the island's sophisticated shores that this journey, so mortifying to the flesh, begins to make sense.
Santo Domingo, Port-au-Prince, Georgetown, Paramaribo...as the swing goes on, your mind melds the scene into one archetypal Third World tropical republic: the airport with the steel-helmeted guards and the colonels with shoulderboards sagging under heavy metal, or puritanical in beret and khaki shirt; the four-lane highway into town that deteriorates into a narrow, pot-holed way lined with lottery-ticket vendors and the shacks of the poor; then out of town again, the luxury hotel on the shore, where they have problems with foreign exchange. And always, the meeting with the group of men in carefully pressed suits who aren't there to warm their egos at the Olympic flame or merely to orate. They are members of their country's National Olympic Committee.
Georgetown, Guyana. Sir Lionel Luckhoo speaks: We don't want handouts. We are self-reliant. But before, we were treated as an appendage, of no value. Now we are regarded as people for whom you care.
Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the spokesman Maxime Antoine: He knows our needs! It is very good and practical. We hear of the IOC but when your president comes it is real. He has made Olympic Family a true saying.
Paramaribo, Suriname, an anonymous NOC member, in a whisper at a meeting with the head of state: This prime minister is not elected. He is appointed by the soldiers. Last February, when the Cubans left, 14 of the government were shot. Last year we thought our NOC would be dissolved. The army said they should run sport here. But listen to president Samaranch now. He is talking to the minister as much as to us when he is saying the government must respect our autonomy.
In Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, where life isn't as harsh, there are lighter scenes, but warming also, as when the nation's female judo champion is escorted to the presidential dais with a male hand at her elbow, in courteous Latin style, in case she should find the walk exhausting.
From among these four little nations, you have time to reflect later, fewer than 40 athletes will go to Los Angeles. But if the Olympic flame, movement, spirit count for anything, they have been present wherever Juan Antonio Samaranch has gone.