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Samaranch hailed as 'great man'

Published:Friday | April 23, 2010 | 12:00 AM
The coffin of the late former International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch is carried by Spanish athletes including tennis great Rafael Nadal (front left) as it leaves the cathedral during his funeral in Barcelona, Spain, yesterday. Samaranch died Wednesday at age 89 in the Quiron Hospital in his home city of Barcelona of cardiorespiratory failure three days after being admitted with heart problems. - AP
Jacques Rogge (left) president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with Prince Albert II of Monaco during the funeral of former International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch at the cathedral in Barcelona, Spain, yesterday. - AP


A host of international figures and dignitaries paid tribute to former Interna-tional Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch yesterday at the funeral service for the man who changed the Olympics.

Tennis star Rafael Nadal was one of the pallbearers who helped carry Samaranch's coffin, draped in the Olympic flag, from Catalonia state headquarters to Barcelona's cathedral, where a solemn and emotional service paid final homage to the 89-year-old Spaniard, who died on Wednesday from heart failure.

Hundreds gathered inside the gothic cathedral to cap nearly 10 hours of tributes.

"It's been a rollercoaster of emotions," Samaranch's son Juan Antonio Jr said from the cathedral steps. "It was a day that will help the family get over such a bitter drama."

During his 21 years in power, Samaranch transformed the nearly bankrupt IOC, in the process turning the Olympic Games into a thriving, multibillion dollar industry that cities around the world compete to host.

Private ceremony

IOC president Jacques Rogge said earlier in a private ceremony attended by about 100 people that Samaranch made the Olympics the premier sporting event in the world.

"We've come from the four corners of the world to say farewell to an old friend and great man," Rogge said. "Juan Antonio Samaranch was the most influential president after our founder Pierre de Coubertin."

Rogge was among a number of international figures who joined Juan Antonio Jr, Samaranch's daughter Maria Teresa, partner Luisa Sallent and other family members - including all seven grandchildren - to honour a "generous, compassionate man" who archbishop Lluis Martinez Sistach called "a universal Catalan".

Spanish King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, and Prince Albert of Monaco were among the state leaders in attendance at the cathedral, while Cuba's Fidel Castro and Raul Castro paid their respects through one of the growing number of flower arrangements.

Crown Prince Felipe called Samaranch a "colossal figure" in Spanish sports and a "universal" figure in world sports.

"Behind a great man there is a rich personality. He was a man of few words but each of these words would resonate loudly and were always meaningful," said Rogge, who succeeded Samaranch in 2001. "He has left a great legacy. And I pledge in the name of the International Olympic Committee that we shall preserve and perpetuate his legacy and his heritage.

"On behalf of the Olympic movement I would like to express my warm condolences to the family - you have lost a beloved father and grandfather; Spain has lost an illustrious son; the Olympic movement has lost a leader, a mentor and a friend."

Men and women of all ages streamed into the state headquarters' Salon Sant Jordi room in the afternoon to pay their respects, many bringing flowers. Manuel Rodriguez was the first member of the public to get close to Samaranch's coffin.

"He's loved by all. Not just by Barcelona but all of the world," said Rodriguez, who is 87. "The city changed very, very much because of him."

Nadal was among 30 Olympic athletes who alternated in carrying Samaranch's coffin down the Carrer del Bisbe street to the cathedral, including tennis greats Manolo Santana and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Olympic water polo champion Manel Estiarte.

Earlier, IAAF president Lamine Diack, IOC vice president Tomas Bach, two-time Olympic champion Sebastian Coe, Olympic champion Rosa Mota and Barcelona football president Joan Laporta were among those who attended the private ceremony.

"Merci pour tous," Rogge wrote in French in the book of condolences - meaning "Thanks for everything."

Before the start of Samaranch's time at the helm of the Olympic body, the IOC was cash-strapped, the Olympics were battered by boycotts, terrorism and financial troubles, and no city wanted to host the games.


Samaranch changed all that when he came into office in 1980. His mastery of negotiation, persuasion and behind-the-scenes diplomacy helped do away with political boycotts and amateurism and bring in an explosion of commercialisation that helped to grow the popularity of the games.

"He had the wisdom to modify and change the IOC itself and make it a modern, transparent, representative and financially independent organisation," Rogge said.

Samaranch created the Court of Arbitration for Sport, took over a male-dominated IOC that now has 20 women among its 100-plus delegates, and brought more female athletes into the Olympics.

"Many years will have to pass before we can know the authentic scope of his work," Spanish Olympic Committee president Jose Alejandro Blanco said.

Even the scourge of doping, the Salt Lake City corruption scandal and Samaranch's ties to Spain's Franco era were forgotten on this day.

Samaranch was to be cremated and then laid to rest on Friday on Montjuic mountain, home to the city's Olympic stadium.