Juan Antonio Samaranch made choices that compromised the modern Olympics even as he helped save them in 21 years as International Olympic Committee president.
Samaranch's ethics were situational, reflecting the character of a man whose life's work was compromised by two decades as a willing functionary in the government of Spain's fascist dictator, Francisco Franco.
"What makes Samaranch difficult to evaluate is we want a person to be all bad or all good,'' said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. "He was both.''
Samaranch took over the IOC at a time, 1980, when it had assets of barely $2 million and one year after just one city, Los Angeles, was interested in playing host to the 1984 Summer Games. When he left the presidency after four terms, the IOC's resources were $335 million, and Beijing had just prevailed in a competition with 10 cities to become host of the 2008 Summer Games.
In restoring unity to an Olympic movement fractured by successive Summer Games boycotts in 1976, 1980 and 1984, Samaranch turned a blind eye to doping and scandalous vote-buying by Olympic bid cities; gave the Olympic movement's highest honors to despots from former Soviet Bloc nations; and appointed IOC members with links to brutal regimes.
Samaranch turned his years as IOC head into an imperial presidency featuring an often imperious president, one who was forced to lead major reforms of the IOC after nearly one-third of its members were linked to the bidding corruption that focused on Salt Lake City's successful 2002 Winter Games campaign.
"No IOC president has had such a pervasive influence on so many issues as Juan Antonio Samaranch,'' said Jacques Rogge of Belgium, the IOC president since the Samaranch era ended.
Richard Pound of Canada, an IOC member since 1978, summed up that assessment of the Samaranch years in an email.
"He took a movement that was impecunious, under heavy political attack and not universal and turned it into a movement that is united, well-financed, universal and respected on the international political scene,'' Pound wrote.
"(But) he allowed himself, in the pursuit of the objectives referred to above, to be surrounded with some people of questionable character. He was, despite cosmetic appearances to the contrary, not all that concerned about doping in sport. (And) he was not willing generally to take stands based on principle in a movement ultimately based on ethical principles.''
Rather than risk offending powers-that-be by attacking the drug use behind the success of countries like East Germany, he gave its ruthless leader, Erich Honecker, the Gold Olympic Order. Rather than offend sports federation leaders by cutting or placing limits on the Summer Games program, he gave everyone what they wanted, and the Summer Olympics have turned into an unwieldy behemoth.
The unity he strove for at all costs did have a stunning symbolic manifestation at the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when the North and South Koreans marched together.
"He became successful in bringing people together where politicians failed,'' IOC member Arne Ljungqvist of Sweden said.
Samaranch governed essentially by executive fiat, never letting an issue reach a vote without knowing he would easily win.
"What else could you expect from someone with almost no background in democracy?'' said an IOC member, requesting anonymity, as Samaranch overwhelmed opposition from his membership during the 1999 bid city scandal that threatened to bring down both him and the Olympics.
With guidance from Horst Dassler, the late president of sporting goods giant Adidas, and the financial model of funding the Games through corporate sponsors devised by Peter Ueberroth for the 1984 Olympics, Samaranch presided over the creation of the IOC's global sponsorship program and TV negotiations that brought in billions of dollars.
He turned some of that revenue into Olympic Solidarity, which has helped athletes -- and, sadly, lined some local officials' pockets -- in some of the world's poorest countries. He gave athletes their first significant voice in IOC decisions and successfully championed a younger membership, yet backed an increase in the age limit that allowed him to remain president until 80.
Samaranch, who spent four years as ambassador to the Soviet Union, brought the ideologically riven movement back together at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. It was an achievement of no small consequence, since South Korea did not have diplomatic relations with more than a dozen of the 161 countries -- including China and the Soviet Bloc -- that accepted Seoul invitations, which only six countries declined.
Juan Antonio Samaranch dead at 89
Served 21 years as International Olympic Committee president
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