Juan Antonio Samaranch, longtime Olympics chief, dies at 89

Juan Antonio Samaranch, the longtime president of the International Olympic Committee who led the Olympic movement out of turmoil to unprecedented influence and prosperity, only to see his legacy tarnished by the specter of doping in sports and a corruption scandal, has died. He was 89.

Samaranch, a Spaniard who served as IOC president from 1980 to 2001, died Wednesday, hospital authorities in Barcelona told the Associated Press.

He had been in failing health since he collapsed one day after the last of his four terms ended, in July 2001.

Samaranch possessed a keen sense of politics and diplomacy and a fanatic devotion to the possibilities of the Olympic movement. He believed passionately in the power of sport to advance the cause of world peace.

Under his watch, even as the Games became a global television phenomenon, Samaranch sought to push the peace process along in such diverse places as the Balkans and the Korean peninsula.

In Sarajevo, site of the 1984 Winter Games, the IOC helped rebuild an ice skating arena shattered during the lengthy mid-1990s war there. At Samaranch’s last Summer Games, in Sydney in 2000, athletes from North and South Korea -- two nations still at war -- marched together during the opening ceremony.

For all his political and diplomatic successes, however, Samaranch was never able -- critics say he wasn’t willing -- to eradicate the use of performance-enhancing substances among Olympic athletes. And, late in his presidency, a corruption scandal erupted amid revelations that bidders in Salt Lake City had showered IOC members with more than $1 million in cash and gifts in a winning campaign to land the 2002 Winter Games.

“I am prepared to say that of the IOC’s [first] seven presidents, Juan Antonio Samaranch was the most important president in 105 years,” said John Lucas, a Penn State professor emeritus and an Olympics historian.

“This does not mean he was a man without flaws or one who did not make serious errors.”

Echoed the current IOC president, Jacques Rogge: “He was, with [Pierre] de Coubertin, the greatest president in the history of the IOC.”

In the late 19th century, “De Coubertin created the modern Olympic Games,” Rogge said. And in the late 20th century, “Samaranch created the modern Olympic movement. He had a clear vision of what was needed. And he had the time to do it.”

Peter Ueberroth, chief of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, the Games that launched the economic transformation of the movement, observed: “He really did an incredible job of taking an institution that had very little net worth and very little direction and making it arguably one of the two or three most powerful [non-governmental] organizations in the world.

“He engineered the saving of the Olympic movement, and then once it was properly engineered he sailed it for 20 years, to be sure it was seaworthy,” said Ueberroth, chairman of the United States Olympic Committee from 2004 to 2008.

The IOC that Samaranch took over in 1980 was a club made up primarily of white men from Europe. It faced severe financial pressures. The Games were also threatened by boycotts.

Now the IOC is a billion-dollar enterprise supported by many of the world’s leading multinational corporations. The boycotts are over. There are more member countries in the IOC than in the United Nations. IOC members now include significant numbers of delegates from the Third World and some women, and female athletes have taken part in increasingly large numbers at the Games. “I call him the president of inclusion,” said Anita DeFrantz, the senior U.S. IOC member.

Professional athletes, the best from each nation in each sport, take part now in the Games; the days of sham amateurism are over.

Samaranch did not, however, escape significant failures, and he remained a source of controversy throughout his presidency and beyond.

Some describe him as authoritarian, arguing that his personality and his management of the Olympic movement were shaped by his early years as an official in fascist Spain under Gen. Francisco Franco.

Others note that Samaranch either did not know -- or did not want to know -- the scope and nature of institutionalized doping that has come to plague the Olympic movement, and in particular the wide use of anabolic steroids that characterized the Olympic sport system in the former East Germany.

And, of course, in late 1998, the Salt Lake corruption scandal erupted. It led to the resignations or expulsions of 10 IOC members and then in December 1999 to the enactment of a reform plan that included a ban on visits by IOC members to cities bidding for the Games.

The Salt Lake City scandal sparked savage criticism worldwide of Samaranch, and many calls for him to resign, which he resisted. He was typically described as aristocratic, aloof and out of touch; reference was often made to his suite at the Palace hotel near IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, his base for many of his years as president.

The fifth-floor suite actually consisted of two rooms -- a bedroom with a ratty blue blanket from the Lake Placid Winter Games of 1980 that Samaranch had draped over his bed, and a living room where he frequently ate a simple dinner and worked into the night.

Samaranch’s life was full of such contradictions.

He worked for 21 years as IOC president without being paid a salary; his expenses were reimbursed, including the two rooms at the Palace (about $200,000 annually for the suite), and experts in executive compensation said he was a bargain.

Most of the world saw him as imperious or autocratic. Family and close colleagues said he was shy but generous, patient, sometimes even impishly funny.

The son of a textile manufacturer, Samaranch was born July 17, 1920, and studied business in school and boxing in the gyms of his native Barcelona. In his 20s, he played roller hockey and dabbled in sportswriting -- his pen name was “Stick.” In Barcelona, he was known as a ladies’ man.

At 35, in a union that cemented his station in Barcelona society, Samaranch married Maria Teresa Salisachs-Rowe. Salvador Dali designed their wedding menu card.

As a deputy sports minister in the Franco government, Samaranch was inducted into the IOC in 1966. In 1973, he was named president of Catalonia’s provincial government.

In 1977, two years after Franco’s death, Samaranch accepted a post as ambassador to the Soviet Union.

His relations with the Soviet bloc would help propel him to the IOC presidency. But he would be dogged by his association with the Franco regime.

Andrew Jennings, a British author of several books sharply critical of the IOC in general and Samaranch in particular, said, “What the Olympic movement didn’t want to take aboard was that this man was a fascist by choice. This was not an accident. The fascist attitudes he brought together in his 20s, 30s, 40s lasted all way through his life and did incalculable damage to the Olympics because he believed through that credo in trickle-down power. He thought democracy was foolish.”

Samaranch insisted that his time in Spain could be judged only by Spaniards. In December 1999, the night before he testified before the U.S. Congress about the Salt Lake scandal, Samaranch anticipated that he might be asked the next day whether he was fascist.

“It is not true,” he told NBC executive Dick Ebersol, who recalled that Samaranch went on to say, “All of us who have lived under conditions like that have at some point or another been a part of things because we wanted to be involved in the life of our country -- and for me, it was sport.”

Samaranch was elected IOC president in July 1980 in Moscow and inherited an organization beset by problems.

The 1972 Summer Games in Munich were stained by the attack by Palestinian terrorists on Israeli athletes and coaches; 11 Israelis were killed.

The Summer Games in 1972, 1976 (Montreal) and 1980 (Moscow) were hit by boycotts. The Montreal Games ended up with a $1-billion cost overrun. And in 1980 the IOC itself had little in its bank accounts.

Samaranch had long before seen, however, that the IOC’s financial future lay in the sale of television rights and in marketing the five interlocking Olympic rings to major corporations.

Ueberroth had a similar vision, and provided the working model for the IOC: The 1984 Los Angeles Games turned a $232-million profit.

In the mid-1980s, the IOC began a concerted marketing program; today the Olympic movement’s revenues top more than $1 billion annually.

TV emerged as -- and remains to this day -- the IOC’s most important source of revenue. NBC, the IOC’s single-largest financial underwriter, agreed in 2003 to pay slightly more than $2 billion to televise the 2010 Winter Games and the 2012 Summer games.

John MacAloon, a University of Chicago professor and expert on the IOC, maintains that the financial growth of the IOC is “secondary to [Samaranch’s] larger accomplishment,” a political transformation.

Samaranch infused a “high level of political competence” that brought the IOC influence within “high-level diplomatic circles,” with the United Nations and non-governmental organizations and within the complex circle of key Olympic players -- primarily the international sports federations and national Olympic committees.

“An astonishing transformation,” MacAloon said. “That to me was his real genius.”

As Samaranch solidified the IOC’s financial and political underpinnings, he also set out to broaden the sweep of the Olympic movement.

He actively recruited IOC members from developing nations and increased funding for their activities. He opened IOC membership to women. He sharply expanded the number of women’s sports at the Games.

Professionals were allowed in -- such as Michael Jordan and the U.S. basketball “Dream Team” that dominated the scene at the Barcelona Games in 1992. The appearance of such stars has sparked concerns by some that the Games have become too commercialized.

A business approach to the Olympics was nothing new, though. Extravagances that came to be associated with the process by which cities bid for the Games were well-known as far back as 1985 -- the year after the L.A. Games proved there could be big money in landing the rings.

It would have taken a team of accountants, lawyers and investigators little effort to unearth questionable practices. Samaranch never assigned any such team.

The enduring mystery is why.

Theories abound, but the answer may lie in the very skills and personality traits that enabled Samaranch to effect so many good works. Samaranch preferred a big-tent and big-picture approach -- that is, identifying those who oppose him on a particular issue and, over time, bringing them into the so-called “Olympic Family” with the hope of moderating that opposition.

Jean-Claude Ganga of the Republic of Congo, for instance, was one of the leaders of the 1976 African boycott of the Montreal Games. He became an IOC member. Later, he was revealed to have been the chief abuser of the Salt Lake largesse. According to court papers filed in Salt Lake, Ganga received $320,000 in cash and gratuities.

“It was much better to have him inside than outside,” Samaranch, speaking of Ganga, once told The Times.

But he also said in a later interview with The Times, “I regret, I really regret, what happened in Salt Lake.”

Samaranch was named IOC honorary president for life after his presidency ended. His real influence never waned because 70 of the current 114 members were nominated or elected during his reign.

In his final days as president, he assured the election of his son to the IOC. In July 2007, he called in old chits to help Sochi, Russia, get the votes to become host of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

He also made what amounted to a deathbed plea on behalf of Madrid during the Spanish capital’s presentation before the October 2009 vote for the 2016 Summer Games.

“Dear colleagues, I know I am very near the end of my time,” Samaranch said. “May I ask you to consider granting my country the honor and also the duty to organize the Games and the Paralympic Games in 2016.”

The members’ respect for Samaranch was enough to allow Madrid a respectable defeat to Rio De Janeiro in the final round.

Samaranch’s wife, Maria Teresa, died of a long illness in Barcelona as her husband was presiding over his last Olympic opening ceremony in Sydney. He is survived by his son, Juan Antonio Jr.; his daughter, Maria Teresa, and seven grandchildren.

Abrahamson is a former Times staff writer.

Tribune Olympic writer Phil Hersh contributed to this report.