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Former IOC president Samaranch dies at 89

Published:Thursday | April 22, 2010 | 12:00 AM
This July 25, 2002, file photo shows former International Olympic Committee president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, waving during a homage given to him in Barcelona, Spain. - AP File


Juan Antonio Samaranch, a reserved but shrewd dealmaker whose 21-year term as president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was marked by both the unprecedented growth of the Games and its biggest ethics scandal, died yesterday at a hospital. He was 89.

Samaranch, a courtly former diplomat who served as Spanish ambassador in Moscow, led the IOC from 1980 to 2001. He was considered one of the defining presidents for building the IOC into a powerful global organisation and firmly establishing the Olympics as a world force.

Samaranch was admitted to the Quiron Hospital in Barcelona on Sunday after experiencing heart trouble. The hospital said he died at 1:25 p.m. (1125 GMT).

"If there is a good way to die, I guess it was this way," Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr told The Associated Press. "He had a full life and career."

IOC president Jacques Rogge will be among the dignitaries attending a special ceremony this morning before the funeral at Barcelona's cathedral later today.

"I cannot find the words to express the distress of the Olympic family," Rogge said in a statement. "I am personally deeply saddened by the death of the man who built up the Olympic Games of the modern era, a man who inspired me, and whose knowledge of sport was truly exceptional."

Samaranch's body will be taken to the regional government's headquarters this morning, so the public can pay its respects from noon (1000 GMT) until 5 p.m. (1500 GMT). It will then be taken to the Barcelona cathedral, where the funeral will begin at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT). The funeral will also be open to the public.

Eventful era

Small in stature and shy by nature, Samaranch appeared uncomfortable appearing or speaking in public. But behind the scenes, he was a skilled and sometimes ruthless operator who could forge consensus in the often fractious Olympic Movement, and push IOC members to deliver exactly what he wanted.

Samaranch was also a lightning rod for critics, who attacked him for his ties to the Franco era in Spain, his autocratic style, and the IOC's involvement in the Salt Lake City corruption scandal.

The Samaranch era was perhaps the most eventful in IOC history, spanning political boycotts, the end of amateurism and the advent of professionalism, the explosion of commercialisation, a boom in the growth and popularity of the Games, the scourge of doping, and the Salt Lake crisis.

Even in retirement, Samaranch remained active in Olympic circles, and tried to help Madrid secure the Games of 2012 and 2016. Madrid finished third behind winner London and Paris in the 2005 vote for the 2012 Olympics, and second to Rio de Janeiro for 2016.

Samaranch spoke during Madrid's presentation in Copenhagen on October 2, 2009, virtually asking IOC members to send the Games to the Spanish capital as a parting gift for an old man close to his final days.

"Dear colleagues, I know that I am very near the end of my time," Samaranch said. "I am, as you know, 89 years old. May I ask you to consider granting my country the honour and also the duty to organise the Games and Paralympics in 2016."

In Moscow in 1980, as a little-known Spanish diplomat, Samaranch was elected the seventh president of the IOC, taking the most powerful job in global sports.

Unprecedented popularity

Twenty-one years later, as a well-known world figure, Samaranch returned to Moscow to finish his term - basking in the unprecedented popularity and riches of the Games but still bearing the scars of the scandal that led to the ouster of 10 IOC members for receiving improper benefits from the 2002 Salt Lake bid committee.

While his closest friends said Samaranch was extremely emotional and sentimental, outwardly he remained cool and philosophical in his final days in office.

"I'm feeling OK," he said. "Life is life. There is a beginning and an end. This is the end of my presidency. I've known for a long time that this day was coming."

Even at the end of his Olympic reign in 2001, Samaranch worked hard to achieve three electoral victories as part of his final legacy: the awarding of the 2008 Olympics to Beijing, the election of Rogge as the new president, and the appointment of his son, Juan Antonio Jr, as an IOC member.

Samaranch retired as the second-longest serving president in the history of the IOC.

Only Pierre de Coubertin, the French baron who founded the modern Olympics, was in office longer, serving for 29 years (1896-1925). American Avery Brundage served for 20 years (1952-72).

In addition to his 50-year-old son, Samaranch is survived by a daughter, Maria Teresa. Both of his children and his partner, Luisa Sallent, were by his side when he passed.

As a youth, Samaranch competed in field hockey, boxing and football. He became an IOC member in 1966 and was vice-president from 1974-78.

Samaranch served as honorary chairman of La Caixa savings bank in Spain.

"He will have his place in history with Olympism," Juan Antonio Jr said. "I think he's been very recognised in life and that will only grow with his death."