Two days before the Summer Games opened in his native city, International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch announced that he was seeking another four-year term. During the 12 years he has already served, Samaranch, 72, has virtually eliminated the hypocrisy of "shamateurism" in the Olympics, put the Games on firm financial ground and, through his considerable diplomatic skills and relentless globe-trotting, helped make the Barcelona Olympics the first boycott-free Summer Games since 1972.
But recent months have been rocky for the IOC and Samaranch. Former U.S. Olympic Committee president Robert Helmick, who was also an IOC member, resigned in disgrace last year when it was learned he was using those posts to benefit himself in his business dealings. A controversial book, The Lords of the Rings, published several months ago in England, discusses in embarrassing detail the inner workings of the IOC, the alleged corruption of some IOC officials, Samaranch's seemingly autocratic style and his staunchly Francoist past. Asked at a press conference last week whether he regretted his role in that fascist regime, Samaranch unflinchingly replied, "I am very proud of my past, you can be sure."
On the eve of the Barcelona Games, Samaranch talked with SI managing editor Mark Mulvoy, assistant managing editor Jerry Kirshenbaum and senior writer E.M. Swift.
Sports Illustrated: Mr. Samaranch, did you ever dream you would see the day when the biggest-name athletes at the Olympics were a bunch of multimillionaire professional basketball players? Is this a shock?
August 2, 1992
Juan Antonio Samaranch: The world is changing. Maybe you in the United States have the perception we are opening the Games to professionals. But for many years in the Olympic Games, professionals from Europe were playing. Spain. Italy. France. Germany. And not only from these countries, but 100 percent of the athletes from the Communist countries. They were more professional than the professionals from the United States. What we are doing now is providing the possibility to have all the best in the Games.
SI: Given the increasing commercialization of the Olympics, isn't it inevitable that someday there will be advertising at the Games on uniforms and billboards?
JAS: We have to keep the Olympics different in some way, no?
SI: With reference to the Helmick scandal, there's a perception in the U.S. that he's the tip of the iceberg, that corruption among IOC members is rampant.
JAS: I have to trust the IOC members. What happened with Helmick is something we regret very much.
SI: Are you suggesting Helmick is an isolated case?
JAS: Well, yes. It is isolated.
SI: But over the years there have been reports of IOC members receiving gifts, under-the-table payments, payoffs, bribes....
JAS: Let me show you the kinds of gifts we are receiving. [He looks around.] Well, it's not here, but a vase.
SI: But not money?
JAS: I don't think so.
SI: You don't think it ever happens, or that it happens rarely?
JAS: I have to think it never happens, because as president of the IOC, as I said before, I trust the members 100 percent.
SI: There is a report that the IOC and other international sports bodies are considering requiring athletes to sign an agreement that they will give up their right to sue those bodies in doping cases. Where do you stand on this?
JAS: We cannot do away with the right of a citizen to go to court in his own country. What we are saying is, before going, maybe we can have some arbitration court.... You have the case of Butch Reynolds. [After he failed a doping test, Reynolds, the world-record holder in the 400 meters, obtained a U.S. Supreme Court order blocking officials from banning him from the U.S. trials.] The judge for United States is for the United States. Not for Spain or England. If the athletes go to court in their own countries, then it will be a mess. We have to do something before 1996.
SI: You appointed Primo Nebiolo of Italy as an IOC member. He's the powerful head of the IAAF, the world track and field governing body. He has also been implicated in the cheating scandal at the 1987 world track championships in Rome, in which the effort of an Italian long jumper, Giovanni Evangelisti, was intentionally mismarked so that he finished ahead of Larry Myricks of the U.S. And according to The Lords of the Rings, Nebiolo took $20 million from the South Koreans before the Seoul Olympics. There is also a report that he threatened to hold track and field athletes over the age of 23 out of the Olympics unless you appointed him to the IOC. Is that the kind of man who should be a member of the IOC?
JAS: Mr. Nebiolo is head of the most important Olympic federation. He had been elected by national governing bodies from all around the world. That includes the United States' governing body. I have to accept the president of the most powerful Olympic federation.
SI: But does that mean you have to make him an IOC member?
JAS: We need to have presidents of international federations inside the IOC, because as the International Olympic Committee alone, we are nothing. The importance is the Olympic movement—the unity we have with the international sports federations and the national Olympic committees.
SI: Do you have an opinion about what happened in Rome with that long jump?
JAS: Yes. I know. But that must be judged by the governing body of track and field.
SI: But does it concern you personally that the long jump in Rome was fixed and that Mr. Nebiolo may have been involved?
JAS: There is no proof Mr. Nebiolo was involved.
SI: Was there any effort by the IOC to find out whether he was involved before you appointed him to his IOC positions?
JAS: When I appointed him, I was thinking only that he was presiding over the most important federation in the world.
SI: And that's all that matters?
JAS: He was not elected by us. He was elected by you, by all the countries in the world involved in track and field.
SI: Shouldn't IOC members be voted on by the entire IOC body, as opposed to being selected by you alone?
JAS: No, that is my right. They voted to give me that power.
SI: Princess Anne, who is one of the two IOC members from the United Kingdom, was quoted in the London Times on July 21 as saying that IOC members feel they are only a rubber stamp, that the IOC is not a democratic organization.
JAS: I can answer this one very easily. Princess Anne is presiding over an international federation [she is the president of the world governing body for equestrian sports]. I think we should not copy anything from this federation to improve or democratize our organization.
SI: She has been mentioned as a possible rival of yours for the IOC presidency. Several stories have mentioned that you believe her supporters were somehow behind The Lords of the Rings and that there has been an effort on the part of the British to get you out of office.
JAS: I never said that. I read that in the British press. I am not very interested in the book. I consider the book as very bad. I am not interested in giving more publicity to the book.
SI: You did file a lawsuit against it.
JAS: In Switzerland, yes. But not because they are attacking me. Because they are attacking the IOC.
SI: But aren't you attracting a lot more attention to the book with the lawsuit than it otherwise would have received?
JAS: We have to do something, no? Some things are written in the book that we cannot allow to stand.
SI: Yugoslav team-sport athletes were forced to stay home from Barcelona, and only individual athletes have been allowed to compete, because of your compromise with the UN over its sanctions. There are members of the Yugoslav water polo team, for example, who dreamed of competing in these Games yet have been left out for political reasons. Nevertheless, you lauded these as "universal games." Well, they're not quite universal, are they?
JAS: But many others came. About 50 percent [of the Yugoslavs] came.
SI: What about the 50 percent who were not allowed to attend? You are in a position to exert tremendous moral authority on the world of spoils. Why wouldn't you express regret about those 50 percent who aren't here?
JAS: I am very sad that these four teams, these athletes, they cannot come. But we fought, and we got nearly 50 percent of these athletes to come to Barcelona. We could also have chosen the other way and had no athletes from Yugoslavia come to Barcelona. We went the difficult way. To fight to the last meter.
SI: You have been quoted as saying, "That which I dislike most in life is disorder and chaos." But disorder and chaos are part of any democracy. What, if anything, does this say about the way you run the IOC?
JAS: I am more a coordinator for the IOC than president. I have given a lot of power to the people surrounding me, mainly to the executive board. The executive board members make the main decisions. I want very much to give a lot of power to the people surrounding me. Is the IOC a dictatorship? I think not.