US & World

Former Olympic President Samaranch Dies At 89

Juan Antonio Samaranch was credited with making the Olympics financially sound during his 21 years as head of the International Olympic Committee. He also encouraged the inclusion of women delegates and representatives from poor countries. But his tenure also saw ethics scandals that led to strict reforms. Samaranch died Wednesday at a Barcelona hospital.

Juan Antonio Samaranch had one last request for the members of the International Olympic Committee gathered in Copenhagen in October 2009. As a past president of the group, Samaranch had actually hand-picked many of the delegates in the room and was credited with making the Olympics financially sound during his 21 years at the helm.

"I am, as you know, 89 years old," he told the group. Samaranch wanted the Olympics back in his home country of Spain, and Madrid was a candidate for the 2016 Summer Games. "I know that I am very near the end of time," he added, seeming to seek a final favor.

The group chose Rio de Janeiro instead.

Samaranch died in a Barcelona hospital Wednesday after being admitted with serious heart trouble. He was 89 years old.

The former Spanish diplomat was elected IOC president in 1980, a challenging time for the Olympic group. Montreal's billion-dollar debt from the 1976 Summer Games had discouraged other cities from bidding for the Olympics, and President Carter's boycott of the Moscow Olympics posed a serious threat to the Games.

"The IOC was essentially bankrupt," recalls Richard Pound, a Canadian member of the IOC since 1978. "We had just gone through a devastating boycott. … It was not a very stable situation."

Then came the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, which was the target of a retaliatory boycott by the Soviet Union and its allies. Organizing committee chief Peter Ueberroth tapped corporate coffers to help pay for the games, which finished with a budget surplus. Samaranch saw the path to Olympic prosperity.

"He got the IOC on a fine financial footing," says David Wallechinsky, author of an ongoing series of books titled The Complete Book of the Olympics. "He figured out how to make the whole thing profitable."

Samaranch tapped the corporate model Ueberroth created. That increased the Olympics' value, and Samaranch was able to start bidding wars among TV networks for the exclusive right to broadcast the Games. The Olympics became a billion-dollar brand.

Samaranch also "democratized" the IOC, according to Wallechinsky.

"The International Olympic Committee was almost exclusively rich white men and so Samaranch tried to open it up," Wallechinsky says. "He encouraged the inclusion of IOC members from all over the world, including women."

The IOC began to pay expenses for Olympic meetings so that the group could include delegates from poor countries. The same concept was applied to athletes and National Olympic Committees from developing nations, which got IOC subsidies.

But this mix of big money and new blood had a downside.

"Under Samaranch, the type of members changed," notes Lisa Delpy Neirotti, an Olympic scholar at George Washington University. The IOC "included more [members] from third-world countries, and sometimes they were used to receiving gifts for their votes and their support."

The gift-giving and favors reached epic proportions during Salt Lake City's bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics. In 1998, that successful bid turned scandalous with revelations about millions of dollars in cash payments, shopping sprees, paid vacations and even college scholarships for the kids -- all of it given to IOC members to sway support for the city's bid.

"These kinds of payoffs and shenanigans were going on all over the world for many years during the Samaranch regime," says A. Craig Copetas, who covered the Olympic bribery scandal for the Wall Street Journal and is now a senior writer at Bloomberg News. "In fact, Samaranch told me once that he preferred having the Olympic Games held in a more or less totalitarian environment because there weren't so many prying eyes."

Copetas and other reporters suggest that this culture of corruption mirrored Samaranch's own past as a top official in the fascist regime of Spain's Francisco Franco. Samaranch was Franco's minister of sports and ambassador to the Soviet Union.

"He came from a culture that didn’t know about democracy, didn’t know about open debate," says Andrew Jennings, an investigative journalist in Great Britain. The Franco regime "existed as all dictatorships on the left or the right exist -- on patronage, bribery and corruption. [Samaranch] brought corruption into the IOC."

Veteran IOC member Dick Pound says the corruption exposed by the Salt Lake City scandal was neither venal nor deliberate.

"[Samaranch] got a lot of people inside the IOC because they were important figures in sport, but they did not necessarily share the Olympic sense of values and fair play," Pound says. "And we ended up getting into trouble over that."

Pound and others are not so sanguine about what they consider Samaranch's failure to recognize and aggressively tackle the use of performance-enhancing drugs by Olympic athletes.

"It's certainly true that doping was not high on his agenda," says Pound. Neirotti of George Washington University agrees, saying, "That was a downfall of his leadership."

Pound recalls an especially embarrassing moment for the IOC during the 1998 Tour de France doping scandal.

Samaranch "was caught on record saying that, for him, all of the stuff that was going on in the Tour de France is not really doping unless you can prove to him it damaged health," Pound says. "He just didn’t see what the trouble was."

Pound says the outraged backlash to Samaranch's comment galvanized IOC members, including Samaranch. The group began an aggressive effort to combat doping, and Pound was named director of a newly formed, IOC-sponsored group called the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Meanwhile, the fallout from the Salt Lake City scandal was escalating. Samaranch struggled to respond to federal and congressional investigations, criminal indictments and internal Olympic probes. He was pressured to appear before Congress and forced to use the public entrance to the hearing room. That meant he had to pass through a metal detector and empty his pockets like everyone else.

But Samaranch wasn't like everyone else, at least in his own eyes. He considered the Olympic presidency as another international diplomatic post and seemed to prefer royal treatment.

"It was a lifestyle better than the athletes [and] better than the [Olympic] spectators," says Jennings, noting that Samaranch and other IOC officials often stayed in "the most expensive hotels in the finest cities."

"He wanted to be referred to as his Excellency," Copetas adds. "He traveled around in great style -- helicopters, limousines, private planes -- always supplied by many of his prosperous friends."

Pound suggests Samaranch was misunderstood.

Reporters "didn't like the fact that he had this view of himself as the head of an international organization that should be recognized on a worldwide basis," Pound says. "And so this business about helicopters and private planes and sumptuous living quarters all got blown way out of proportion."

In fact, Pound insists, Samaranch "was almost monkish" in his "personal living style."

"He actually led a very austere life," Copetas adds.

Testifying before Congress, Samaranch said it was his "personal hope … to be able to deliver to my successor in 2001 an International Olympic Committee with a fully restored prestige and credibility."

By 2001, the IOC had adopted ethics reforms that severely restricted interaction between IOC members and cities bidding for the Olympics. Term limits were established for IOC presidents. Close to two dozen IOC members implicated in the Salt Lake City scandal had been sanctioned or expelled.

Still, Samaranch's successor seemed to consider it necessary to distinguish himself from the presidency he inherited. During his first Olympics on the job, Jacques Rogge didn't stay in the luxury hotel in downtown Salt Lake City where IOC officials slept. Instead, he stayed in a university dorm room in the Olympic Village where athletes were housed. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit