Juan Antonio Samaranch, Saved Olympic movement, (1920-2010), by Larry Eder

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Updated 4/22/10

Juan Antonio Samaranch, who lead the I.O.C. and Olympic movement from 1980-2001, died on Wednesday evening, local time, in Spain, from heart failure. Mr. Samaranch was 89 years old, and had lead the I.O.C. and Olympic movement through its most problematic era.  In truth, for better or worse, Samaranch shaped much of what we see and have come to know as the modern Olympic movement.

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Juan Antonio Samaranch, was the colorful and problematic leader of the largest sports movement in history, the Olympics, from 1980-2001. Much of the pagentry, commercialism and near religious pagentry that has evolved around the modern Olympics were developed under his tutelage.

Samaranch was a brilliant politician and a cruel taskmaster. He had risen through the ranks of Francisco Franco's fascist regime, and then, rose again through the democratic government of Spain that King Juan Carlos nurtured after Franco's death. At the eve of the 1980 Moscow
Olympics, Juan Antonio Samaranch found himself the ambassador of Spain, appointed by the King himself!

Born in 1920 to a family in the textile business, Juan Antonio Samaranch played soccer as a young man until an injury shattered those sports dreams. Samaranch then married Marie Teresa Salisachs, the daughter of a wealthy Spanish family, with political connections in the Franco regime. Samaranch cemented his political life with this marriage and moved up through the Spanish sporting bureaucracy ranks, due to the success of the sport of roller hockey, a sport which he managed in Spain in the 1950s.

Samaranch never apologized for his time and support of the Franco regime. Yet, it was after Franco's death in 1975 that Samaranch showed his true political savvy. Due to his support by
King Juan Carlos of Spain, Samaranch became a delegate in the Spanish parliament in 1977,
and was made ambassador to Moscow in 1979. He continued to be a delegate of the IOC, which he had joined in 1966, moving up the sports power food chain during the last decade of the Franco regime, and then during the first years of Spanish democracy. I am not sure what the spanish words are for his political surivival skills, but in German, it might be called, realpolitik( to borrow something from Mr. Bismark).

Samaranch learnt much in his time as ambassador, living in Moscow. He knew that the IOC was nearly bankrupt. He understood that the Montreal Olympics of 1976 were still $ 1 billion in debt. Juan Antonio Samaranch appreciated the boycott by the U.S. and 46 other nations of the Moscow Olympics would virtually kill the Olympic movement. Yet, he used all of his savvy, enlisting the help of third world and Eastern bloc nations (with some help from the late Horst Dassler), and using his position in the IOC of Press liason (same position held by Lord Killanin, his predecessor), Samaranch developed the support to become the I.O.C. President in 1980.

Samaranch developed much of the pagentry and ostentation that many found difficult to digest as the Olympic movement grew. His appreciation of men like the late Horst Dassler, the adidas
leader, who used the Olympic movement to develop a global sports marketing plan for his company and change sports. Samaranch embraced the IOC delegates from third world countries, flew them to events, in order to give small countries a larger say in the world of global sports politics.

Samaranch was a quick learner. His observations of Peter Ueberoth, the leader of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, taught him that global companies would pay millions for the value of communicating their brand messages on the Olympic billboard. Some say that this is where he made his Faustian deal, or deal with the devil. I am not so sure. I believe that, while commercialism would be criticized at the 1996 Atlanta Games, without the global sponsorship, and Samaranch's ability to develop a mysticism and veil around the Olympic oligarchy, the Olympic movement would never have made it to the 1988 Games.

Juan Antonio Samaranch had three difficult issues that, in my opinion, he failed to appreciate.
I believe Samaranch's most difficult issues were the virtual buying of votes (which did not start, by any means with Salt Lake City, but which all but ended there). I believe that Samaranch's inability to comprehend the cancer that performance drugs have in sports, especially the Olympic movement, may have been his Achilles heel. In 1988, neither Samaranch nor Primo Nebiolo (the IAAF chief executive and a life long rival), truly appreciated the calamity that Ben Johnson's positive test brought on the Olympic and athletic movements. And finally, and most controversially, I believe that the true Faustian deal, the deal that both helped save the Olympic movement and could cripple the Olympic movement, is the heavy hand that television/media has in the Olympics. TV contracts, as negotiated by Mr. Dick Pound, have filled IOC coffers. However, TV controls which sports are scene, how the sport is viewed, and gives way too much power to modern sports media. Consumer wants for Olympic media, be it digital, tv/cable, web or print, are insatiable. This is not a problem that the IOC will address at this time, but what saved the movement could kill the movement if the power of the sponsoring TV conglomerate is not culled.

Jaques Rogge, the current IOC President, is quite different from Samaranch, but the wisened old sports leader played a role in the sport, which will have his spirit until 2016, when Rio hosts the games. Samaranch's plea for Madrid to get the games very much destroyed the last chances of the already flawed Chicago 2016 bid.

Rogge has added a gleam of legitimacy to the voting, and most IOC
procedures. Chicago did not loose because of someone paying lots of money, they lost because the USOC had forgotten about sports politics 101: even though your country may have the most money, that does not mean your country can be the most arrogant. Third world IOC voters showed their displeasure with the country whose corporations cover most of the bills for the modern Olympics, and shut down Chicago's bid in round one.  

A life long sports bureaucrat, a man who made his own Faustian deal, Juan Antonio Samaranch changed the world of sport, as we see it, as we perceive it, as we enjoy it. Whether you like him or hate him is immaterial, Samaranch started with an Olympic movement that was bankrupt and built the strongest global sports franchise in history. Would Baron Pierre de Coubertin recognize what Samaranch built? I am not so sure, but he would recognize that the Olympic movement has tried to right itself from its excesses.

Where does the Olympic movement go from here? There needs to a rapprochment with the USOC, which will take three Olympiads in my humble opinion. There needs to be a balanced battle against performance enhancing drugs.  While WADA catches 90-95 percent of cheaters, real money is being spent beating the system, and the IOC must spend real money catching the five percent of cheaters who are ruining the world of sport. And there needs to be limits
on the control of sports media over the Olympics, from schedule to access to the viewing
of sports.

Samaranch was both respected and feared. One veteran global sports marketer called Juan Antonio Samaranch, " a man of action." Another veteran of the global sports wars, one who sat across from Mr. Samaranch on a few occasions noted, " The World of Olympic sports has lost a great leader, visionary, innovator and passionate sports personality that we will find
hard to replace in our lifetime."

Juan Antonio Samaranch saved the Olympic movement. It is Mr. Rogge and the future leaderships' mission to develop a more transparent management style. Samaranch would never have understood or comprehended such concerns, but, that was spending half his life living and working for a fascist regime, and the rest of his life building an opulent global sports bureaucracy, giving global sport an nearly religious aura.

To read other views of Juan Antonio Samaranch, may we suggest:


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