After 21 years as president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch is larger than life this week in Moscow. In his final days as Lord of the Rings -- the most powerful position in all of sport -- his owlish likeness looks down benevolently on Red Square like a head of state from a different time.
Indeed, only Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has a larger presence. Samaranch met with former President Boris Yeltsin last week at his country home in nearby Barvikha and opened a children's tennis complex with Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
This is how Samaranch, the consummate politician, has engineered the passing of his own torch. One day before his 81st birthday, in the very city he took the exchange from Ireland's Lord Killanin, the Spaniard will step down. His legacy is far less tidy.
Samaranch leaves behind a complicated, convoluted presidential reign tinged with Machiavellian moments. The Olympics are bigger, better and more profitable than ever, but was some of that noble, ethereal Olympic spirit sacrificed in the process?
Canadian Richard Pound, one of three serious candidates to succeed Samaranch -- the vote by 122 IOC members comes Monday -- defended Samaranch's tenure earlier this week.
"He inherited an organization that was impecunious, disorganized and not universal, and made it universal, well-funded and respected by the world's political organizations," Pound told Jere Longman of the New York Times. "He handled situations like China-Taiwan, South Africa, the Soviet boycott of L.A. and the breakup of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia. In seeking
universality, he had to make choices. He got some people in that were not as acquainted with the ethical values that you wish.
"Was the price worth it? It got messy, but it was worth it. He got rid of those people and kept the universality."
Messy, but worth it. That seems to be the general consensus of Samaranch's tenure.
But the cynics -- and they are numerous -- beg to differ.
The Russia Journal, an English-language newspaper based in Moscow, wrote earlier this week: "It all seems so appropriate. One of the most corrupt organizations in the world coming to one of the world's most corrupt cities to choose a successor to its leader, a former fascist official, who personally chose the location because he was anointed in the former Communist capital exactly 21 years ago."
A powerful force
|IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch is honored by Russian President Vladimir Putin with the Russian Order of Honor on Thursday.|
Samaranch's first window to the power and grandeur of the Olympics came in 1952. He was a sportswriter for a Barcelona newspaper when Czechoslovakian Emil Zatopek, who had already won the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races, entered the stadium in Helsinki, Finland to the cheers of 60,000 spectators. Running a marathon for the first time, Zatopek was the dramatic winner and Samaranch says he was deeply moved.
"You can see this kind of very historical moment only in the Olympic Games," he once said.
At the time, Spain was ruled by General Francisco Franco, whose Fascist dictatorship had been facilitated by Germany's Adolph Hitler and Italy's Benito Mussolini. Samaranch, the son of an upholstery factory owner, soon found himself involved in the Franco cause. He worked his way up through the general's ministry of propaganda and became a ranking senior bureaucrat in the oppressive regime. There is a photograph, circa 1956, of Samaranch standing proud in his blue fascist shirt, that captures the right-wing zeal of the time.
Sport, notes British author Andrew Jennings, was the opiate of the Spanish people. On days when the underground opposition threatened to burst into the street and the public eye, Franco's ministry filled the state-run television schedule with Brazilian soccer.
"I used politics to benefit sport," Samaranch has said, "never the opposite."
Jennings, co-author of "The Lord of the Rings," a book critical of Samaranch and the IOC, said, "You cannot understand what has happened to the IOC since he took over unless you comprehend what it means that he is a creature of an authoritarian society."
Samaranch flourished under Franco's reign, as a property speculator and, eventually, a banker. In 1966, Samaranch became a member of the IOC when President Avery Brundage of the U.S. nominated him. Franco died in 1975 and Samaranch, already an IOC vice president, was named the newly democratic country's first ambassador to the Soviet Union. Five years later, he became the IOC's seventh president.
In that role, Samaranch has grown accustomed to the trappings of power and wealth. He lives in Lausanne, Switzerland, the IOC headquarters, in a two-room suite at the Palace Hotel. His IOC office overlooks Lake Geneva. Samaranch, always impeccably tailored, travels the world at will with rich friends and his reportedly generous IOC expense account. He does not easily suffer fools or the mundane chores of everyday life. At a breakfast with reporters four years ago, he impatiently gestured for an assistant to cut his grapefruit into sections.
After 21 years, Samaranch has routinely declined to assess his tenure. But last week, he told the Los Angeles Times, "I think the balance is not bad. The IOC I am leaving my successor has nothing to do with the IOC I received in 1980."
This is fundamentally true.
When Samaranch became president during the Olympics at Moscow, the United States and some of its allies were at home because President Jimmy Carter decided a year earlier to boycott the Games. This, after an African-bloc boycott of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and the later Soviet Union boycott of the Los Angles Games in 1984. There hasn't been a boycott since -- Samaranch was intimately involved in the delicate negotiations between North Korea and South Korea that brought the Olympics to Seoul in 1988 -- and it can be argued that today's IOC has a better grip on global politics than any other organization. The IOC, it is worth noting, has more members than the United Nations.
Change, at least with respect to the bottom-line numbers, has been positive:
On the verge of bankruptcy when Samaranch took over in 1980, the IOC has since collected $12 billion in rights fees. The 1995 deal with NBC for television rights from 2000-2008 alone was worth $3.5 billion.
Before Samaranch, the Olympics was dominated by so-called amateur athletes, many of whom were essentially professionals. Today, the world's best athletes, both professional and amateur, compete.
Previously, the Olympics were dominated by the wealthy nations that could afford to rigorously train amateur athletes in academies and universities. Today, the field is more wide open. Before Samaranch, all the Olympic medals went to 48 countries during the Munich Summer Games in 1972, 41 during the African-boycotted Montreal Games in '76. Most recently, the number climbed to 80 during the Sydney Summer Games last year.
||The IOC I am leaving my successor has nothing to do with the IOC I received in 1980. ”
||— Juan Antonio Samaranch, who steps down as IOC president next week
In 1980, women comprised less than 20 percent of the Olympic participants. In Sydney, the total was 42 percent. And while there were no women among the IOC's members in 1980, the total today is 13, more than 10 percent. Anita DeFrantz of the U.S., another presidential candidate, is the first woman to hold the office of IOC vice president in the 107-year history of the organization.
John MacAloon, a University of Chicago professor who served on the IOC commission that drafted 50 points of reform in 1999, believes Samaranch is the most important IOC president since Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern games.
The IOC, according to MacAloon, was "completely inept diplomatically" and "turned it into an organization that, despite its scandals, continues to have a cachet and respect around the world."
NBC's Dick Ebersol -- whose views may be colored by those hefty rights fees -- goes even further. He says Samaranch's retirement is the equivalent to NBA commissioner David Stern, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig all resigning on the same day.
Striking a balance
|Anita DeFrantz, the IOC's first vice president and the highest-ranking American in the Olympic community, is one of five IOC presidential contenders.|
If politics is the art of compromise, Samaranch is a master -- value judgments aside.
The 1980 U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games, along with 64 other nations, and the Soviets' quid pro quo decision to skip Los Angeles in 1984 were a severe blow to the Olympic movement. Samaranch, desperately wanting Eastern bloc countries to participate in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, ignored clear evidence of institutionalized doping in some Eastern-bloc countries and awarded the IOC's highest honors to Erik Honecker of East Germany and his sports minister, Manfred Ewald, Romanian strongman Nicolae Ceaucescu and Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria.
Up to 10,000 athletes, many of them minors, were subjected without their knowledge to illegal drugs with dangerous side-effects. For many, the awards seemed to endorse a reckless disregard for human life, not to mention a level playing field. But was it ignorance on the part of Samaranch, or merely cynicism? Was he simply motivated by expediency?
There have also been charges over the years that the IOC has suppressed positive drug tests at the Olympics because great performances, even illegally induced, make great theater and, therefore, command larger rights fees. This trend changed in Sydney last year when pressure from members forced the IOC to adapt an independent testing system.
For years, IOC members have visited potential Olympic sites and received lavish gifts and favors in return. In 1998, this barely disguised, wink-nod secret became public news when reports alleged that the Salt Lake City bid committee was paying university tuition for the daughter of an IOC member.
The trial of Tom Welch and Dave Johnson, leaders of the Salt Lake City bid effort, is scheduled to begin at the end of the month. Charged with bribing IOC members with more than $1 million in cash and other gifts, they face 15 felony counts for conspiracy, fraud and racketeering.
Ten IOC members were forced out, travel to Olympic sites was discontinued and a committee was assembled to reform the system. Still, the question begs itself: would the perk-rich system still be in place if it had never been made public? Was Samaranch, a product of the Franco regime, comfortable to a degree with the inevitable taint of corruption?
Samaranch addressed the Salt Lake City backlash earlier this week in Moscow.
"I regret the reforms we took two years ago were not made at the beginning [of his term]," Samaranch said, "but it was not easy to convince the members of the IOC that it was time to change [because] our organization was not up to date. We convinced them after the crisis of Salt Lake City."
Samaranch earned a vote of confidence from IOC members after the scandal, but the 86-2 count was probably more of a reaction to the approaching end of his term.
One of Samaranch's tendencies has been to embrace enemies of the cause. After Jean-Claude Ganga of the Congo Republic led the African boycott of the 1976 games, Samaranch made him an IOC delegate. Later, Ganga was a victim of the Salt Lake purge. According to the indictment, he accepted $320,000 in cash and gifts.
At the same time, Samaranch deserves credit for insisting that South Africa be banned from the Olympics until apartheid was eliminated and the IOC's exclusion of Afghanistan from Sydney reinforced the widespread belief that the Taliban's treatment of women was unacceptable.
The next chapter
||I used politics to benefit sport, never the opposite. ”
The world is changing and, belatedly, the IOC is changing with it. Two of the viable three presidential candidates, Canada's Pound and Jacques Rogge of Belgium, are 59 and seen as reformers.
"Cemeteries are full of people who thought they were indispensable," Samaranch told the L.A. Times. "I will leave. And another president will come."
Perhaps, but Samaranch will exert great influence on the choice of his successor. Experts say that Rogge has the best chance to become the new president largely because of Samaranch's support. They say this is because he is more malleable than Pound, who has a reputation for being blunt.
In Moscow, the IOC revealed its new advertising campaign for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Bud Greenspan's dead-pan narratives and the orchestral flourishes of John Williams have been replaced by extreme snowboarding and the weirdly beautiful art-rock of Radiohead.
With the departure of Samaranch, the IOC is likely to lose much of its old-boy clubbiness and function more like a modern business. There are many parallels between the IOC and the U.S. Senate, where favors for constituents are a way of life.
One of Samaranch's most cherished achievements was bringing the Olympics to his beloved Barcelona in 1992. Would Spain have won the bid without his huge leverage?
After campaigning for years for a younger IOC, Samaranch successfully engineered a 1995 change of the by-laws that raised members' retirement age from 75 to 80. This, conveniently, allowed him to extend his reign into the new millennium.
In another deft maneuver, Samaranch has taken steps to secure his future. He has said publicly he'd like to stay in Lausanne, specifically in his hotel suite. He will negotiate a severance package with the incoming president. The Olympic Museum in Lausanne already has been named in his honor and he has been made the honorary president for life. In a rare defeat, the local city council rejected a proposal to make Samaranch an honorary citizen of Lausanne in March when opponent cited his ties to Franco.
Samaranch's final act? A poignant piece of symmetry: In May, he nominated his son, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., as an IOC member. On the very same day he departs the IOC, "Juanito" almost certainly will be voted in, raising charges of nepotism.
Told by numerous IOC members that his son's nomination would tarnish his reputation as well as the IOC's, Samaranch was typically defiant.
"I don't care," he said.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
||Cemeteries are full of people who thought they were indispensable. I will leave. And another president will come. ”