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Samaranch, Head of Olympics for 21 Years, Dies at 89

Juan Antonio Samaranch, who during a 21-year tenure overseeing the Olympic Games dealt with boycotts by the U.S. and the Soviet Union and a bribery scandal tied to a host city, has died. He was 89.

He died today at a hospital in Barcelona after being admitted April 18 with heart problems, according to Spain’s Olympic committee.

Only Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman who founded the modern Olympics, served a longer term than Samaranch, who was president of the International Olympic Committee from 1980 to 2001. It was a turbulent two decades for the games and for Samaranch, who faced criticism for his earlier participation in the government of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

Corporate sponsorship and television revenue soared during his tenure, as did the desire of cities around the world to host the games, which had endured a run of financial losses. The 2000 summer games in Sydney, the last under Samaranch, reaped broadcast revenue of $1.3 billion. Sponsorship income rose more than five-fold between 1988 and 2000.

“Thanks to his extraordinary vision and talent, Samaranch was the architect of a strong and unified Olympic movement,” the IOC’s current president, Jacques Rogge, said in a statement today.

Detractors pointed to the increased use of drugs by athletes and the gifts accepted by IOC members who were considering applications to host the 2002 Winter Games.

Samaranch “wasn’t interested in the issue” of drug use, Dick Pound, then-chief of the World Anti-Doping Agency, told Reuters in 2007. Pound had served as a member of the IOC’s executive board under Samaranch.

Defense on Drugs

Samaranch shot back that Pound was bitter because he had lost his 2001 bid to become the next IOC president. Samaranch said his commitment to fighting drugs was shown by the IOC’s role in creating the anti-doping agency as well as the Court for Arbitration for Sport, which handles disputes over alleged drug use and other disciplinary matters.

He also pointed to the IOC’s decision to strip the gold medal of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson at the 1988 Olympics after a positive drug test. “The Johnson decision was the beginning of a major fight in the war against doping,” he told the newspaper El Pais in his final weeks as president in 2001.

Samaranch’s most trying stretch was when scandal arose from how the organization, in 1995, awarded the 2002 Winter Games to Salt Lake City. Subsequent investigations found that Salt Lake City bid officials had given $1 million in gifts to IOC members and their families. Ten IOC members were expelled or resigned. U.S. lawmakers criticized Samaranch when he testified on the scandal before Congress in December 1999.

World Traveler

Noted as a behind-the-scenes lobbyist, Samaranch visited all 199 states or countries that made up the IOC membership during his presidency. His home for much of the time was Suite 309 at the five-star Palace Hotel in Lausanne, the Swiss city where the IOC is based.

Samaranch brought the Olympic Games to his hometown of Barcelona in 1992. It revitalized the city’s port area and infrastructure, lifted civic pride and boosted tourism for years afterward. Asked once how he’d like to be remembered, Samaranch said, “as someone who managed one day to bring the Olympic Games to his country -- nothing more.”

Minutes before a 2009 vote to decide the 2016 host city, Samaranch appealed to IOC members to pick Madrid, telling them, “I know I am very near the end of my time.” In the voting, Rio de Janeiro bested Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago.

Roles for Women

Among the vast changes under Samaranch’s leadership, the IOC’s assets grew to $900 million in 2001 from $2 million in 1980, John E. Findling and Kimberly D. Pelle wrote in their “Encyclopedia of the Modern Olympic Movement.” The role of women, both in the IOC and in Olympic competition, also grew during his presidency, they said.

“In many ways,” they wrote, “Samaranch pushed the IOC into the realities of the late-20th-century political and economic life, earning in the process heated criticism from those who believed that his policies trampled the original ideals and meaning of the Olympic Movement as Coubertin conceived it a century ago.”

Samaranch was born in Barcelona on July 17, 1920, the son of a wealthy textile merchant.

He formed a roller-hockey league in 1943 and helped Barcelona land the 1951 world championship competition. He became a leading sports official under Franco’s dictatorship, accompanying the Spanish delegation to Olympic competitions starting in 1956. He joined the IOC in 1966 and became Spain’s secretary for sports in 1967.

Two years after Franco’s death in 1975, King Juan Carlos named Samaranch as ambassador to the Soviet Union.

Book Dispute

In their 1992 book, “The Lords of the Rings,” British journalists Andrew Jennings and Vyv Simson portrayed Samaranch as having been an active supporter of Franco and accused him of corrupting the Olympic movement with secrecy and greed.

Samaranch had the IOC sue the journalists for criminal libel. The writers didn’t attend the trial in Lausanne, at which, according to an Associated Press account, Samaranch said of his service under Franco: “I was a high-ranking civil servant. It is wrong to say I organized the repression.”

The writers were found guilty in absentia and ordered to serve five days in jail if they set foot in Lausanne.

“There were a lot of people like me who, because of the circumstances, held positions of responsibility with Franco,” Samaranch told sports daily Marca in 2004.

Fought Boycott

Samaranch won the IOC presidency in 1980, succeeding Lord Killanin. He was voted in during the Moscow Games, which the U.S. boycotted to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union retaliated by not sending athletes to the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

Drawing on his diplomatic experience, Samaranch traveled around the world and persuaded judges and officials from Soviet-bloc countries to attend the 1984 games, though he couldn’t get the Soviet Union and its allies to abandon the boycott by their athletes.

He was more successful in 1988, when North Korea boycotted the games in Seoul. Samaranch persuaded other communist countries not to join the boycott. And in 2000, he helped persuade the two Koreas to march together at the opening ceremony in Sydney.

Samaranch relinquished the post in 2001 and was replaced by Rogge, a Belgian surgeon.

For 12 years through 1999, Samaranch was chairman of La Caja de Ahorros y Pensiones de Barcelona SA, Spain’s largest savings bank. He remained honorary chairman.

His wife, Maria Teresa Salisachs, died of cancer during the 2000 Sydney Games. They had a daughter, Maria Teresa, and a son, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., who was elected as an IOC member in 2001.

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