Juan Antonio Samaranch, 89

Olympics leader Juan Antonio Samaranch dies at 89

By Liz Clarke
Thursday, April 22, 2010

Juan Antonio Samaranch, who ushered unparalleled prosperity and professionalism into an Olympic movement that was rife with financial and political strife when he was named president of the International Olympic Committee in 1980, died April 21 of cardiac arrest at a hospital in Barcelona. He was 89.

Mr. Samaranch served as Spain's ambassador to the Soviet Union before taking the IOC's top job. Despite having an autocratic leadership style, he was capable of great personal charm in his one-on-one dealings. That, combined with a deft political hand, represented his strength as he set about transforming the near-moribund modern Olympics into the world's biggest sporting event during his 21-year tenure as the IOC's seventh president.

When Mr. Samaranch was elected to succeed Lord Killanin of Ireland on July 16, 1980, the very unity of the Olympic movement was in question, as was its financial viability.

The United States, joined by 50 other nations, had announced it would boycott the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. And Montreal was saddled with nearly $1 billion in debt after staging the money-hemorrhaging 1976 Summer Games.

Given the relationships Mr. Samaranch had forged through his diplomatic posting in Moscow, IOC insiders thought he would be well positioned to assuage international hostilities. Although generally effective in that regard, Mr. Samaranch couldn't prevent the Soviets from responding in kind when Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Summer Games.

But Los Angeles, spearheaded by American businessman Peter Ueberroth, marked a turning point for the Olympic movement in a financial sense. Los Angeles was the only city to bid for that year's hosting rights and posted a $235 million profit, despite the Soviet boycott, by maximizing private income, such as TV rights fees, corporate sponsorships and licensing deals. The lucrative 1984 Games became the blueprint that Olympic organizers have followed since.

Mr. Samaranch named the first two women to the IOC in 1981 and increased the participation of female athletes in the Games. Anita DeFrantz, the first American woman to serve on the IOC, lauded him as "the president of inclusion."

During Mr. Samaranch's tenure, the number of Summer Olympic events increased nearly 50 percent, from 203 to 300. And the number of participating nations and athletes more than doubled -- from 80 nations to 200, and from 5,217 athletes to 10,649. The increased participation was due in large part to Olympic Solidarity, a fund that Mr. Samaranch created to steer millions in IOC proceeds to promote sports in developing countries.

Controversial decisions

Mr. Samaranch broadened the participation of nations in the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. Seoul was marred nonetheless by Ben Johnson's positive drug test, and the Canadian sprinter was stripped of his 100-meter gold medal.

Mr. Samaranch opened the Olympics to professional athletes beginning with the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona. USA Basketball's gold-medal winning "Dream Team," headlined by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, became the public face of that controversial decision.

Critics blasted Mr. Samaranch for defaulting on the Games' core value of amateurism as professional hockey players and tennis players joined the ranks. Others thought the IOC president was ending an era of massive hypocrisy, known as "shamateurism," in which state-sponsored professional athletes from Eastern bloc countries had passed as amateurs for decades.

Mr. Samaranch's tenure, which ended in July 2001 on the eve of his 81st birthday, was not without controversy -- notably, the 1999 Salt Lake City corruption scandal that resulted in the expulsion or resignation of 10 IOC members.

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