Juan Antonio Samaranch, 1920–2010

The Spanish autocrat who saved the Olympics

As president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch led the Olympic Games into its greatest era of prosperity, negotiating multibillion-dollar fees from television networks and corporate sponsors. But he also presided over one of the worst scandals in Olympic history, when IOC members were caught taking bribes to award the 2002 Winter Games to Salt Lake City.

Samaranch, who died in his native Barcelona last week, climbed to the pinnacle of the Olympic movement through a combination of luck, opportunism, and patronage politics, said the London Sunday Times. The son of a prosperous textile merchant, he fought on the Fascist side in the Spanish Civil War. When peace came, he rose from manager of Spain’s roller hockey team to minister for sport in the Franco government. He joined the IOC in 1966, building a network of supporters who saw to his election as the committee’s president in 1980.

He took over the IOC at an inauspicious time for the Olympic movement, said the Chicago Tribune. The U.S. had boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games, and the Soviets had made it clear that they would boycott the 1984 Los Angeles Games. The IOC was down to its last $2 million. That didn’t deter the autocratic Samaranch, who always insisted on being addressed as “Your Excellency.” Governing “essentially by executive fiat,” he opened the Games to professional athletes and expanded opportunities for women and athletes from poorer countries. But he reportedly turned a blind eye to the use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes, and was in charge during the lead-up to the scandal-ridden Salt Lake City Games.

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“What makes Samaranch difficult to evaluate is we want a person to be all bad or all good,” says Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. “He was both.”

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