ATHENS (Reuters) – Juan Antonio Samaranch was the second-longest serving president of the International Olympic Committee after its founder Pierre De Coubertin, but the Spaniard left arguably a bigger mark in turning the Games into the world’s richest multi-sports event.
Samaranch, a Catalan who had served for years on local and national positions under the regime of former dictator General Francisco Franco in Spain, had also been involved in sports administration in his home country.
He entered the IOC in 1966 and also led his country’s Olympic Committee.
An IOC Vice President from 1974 to 1978, he was elected president in 1980 and essentially carried the Games from the brink of financial and political destruction to an era of unprecedented wealth, growth and power.
That, however, ultimately led to the biggest corruption scandal the organisation has ever seen.
Samaranch took over the IOC at a time when the Olympic movement was in disarray following the financially disastrous 1976 Montreal Olympics, a Games that also marked the start of a series of boycotts.
Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984 were also hit by major boycotts but by then Samaranch, known for his deal-making abilities, had already recognised the commercial potential of the Games.
Despite the Soviet Union’s boycott of Los Angeles, the 1984 Olympics were a massive financial success that turned things around for the IOC.
The hugely profitable Games instantly breathed new life into the event, turning the Olympics into an attractive prospect which cities would fight over for decades to come, spending millions to bid for them.
Samaranch, criticised by some for a perceived autocratic style and for being too commercially driven in his decisions, also opened the Games to professional athletes, guided China back into the Olympic fold, while also attracting billions of dollars from major companies as the IOC’s own sponsors and broadcasters.
From a cash-strapped body serving amateur athletes, the Olympics became a powerful force in professional sports under Samaranch.
When he stepped down after 21 years to be succeeded by Jacques Rogge, Samaranch had cemented his position as the great renovator of the Olympics.
But his departure in 2001 was also preceded by a corruption scandal that saw 10 members forced out and several others issued with warnings in the 1999 votes-for-gifts scandal involving Salt Lake City’s successful bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
That scandal left an indelible stain on Samaranch’s Olympic legacy and led to major reforms within the organisation.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)