By David Eade
As I write this the great and good of Spanish life as well as the international sports community have gathered in Barcelona to pay homage to Juan Antonio Samaranch, the former president of the International Olympic Committee.
Samaranch died on Tuesday in a Barcelona hospital aged 89. He has been described as a master of negotiation, persuasion and behind-the-scenes diplomacy during his 21 years at the helm of the IOC. His remains rested at the Catalan parliament before being taken on Thursday to Barcelona’s cathedral. Plenty will be singing his praises at his funeral. The Spanish heir to the throne, the Príncipe de Asturias, Felipe de Borbón described him as a “colossus of the modern Olympics” and “firmly loyal to the Crown”.
However he was also a divisive figure in both Spanish politics, especially for those on the left, and in wider international sport. As I started penning this I received an email via Facebook asking me to support a call to not have Samaranch honoured with a minute’s silence at Barcelona’s Camp Nou soccer stadium.
Yet he is a hero to many in Barcelona. It was Samaranch who brought the 1992 Olympics to his hometown. However his attempts to do the same for Madrid failed miserably. He tried to help Madrid secure the 2012 and 2016 games. Madrid finished third behind winner London and Paris for the 2012 Olympics and second to Rio de Janeiro for 2016.
Samaranch spoke during Madrid’s presentation in Copenhagen last year asking the IOC to send the games to the Spanish capital as a parting gift for this old man in his final days. “Dear colleagues, I know that I am very near the end of my time,” Samaranch said. The IOC ignored his plea.
Andrew Jennings has written several books about the IOC. He has no doubt about his feelings on Samaranch: “He was a very bad man. He nearly destroyed the Olympics. We didn’t need all that money in sport. It created this imperial world where he had to get lots of money to maintain his excellencies (the IOC members) touring the world."
Samaranch has also been condemned for serving the Franco dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s – before his appointment to the IOC he was Spain’s ambassador to Russia. Samaranch claims he had only a modest role as director general of sports and parliamentary leader of the Falangist movement. I doubt whether the leader of the Falange in parliament was ever modest.
Anna Simó, the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya spokesperson in the Spanish parliament said the party never had any sympathy for him because of his past links to the Franco regime. Ernest Benach of the same party only spoke in a very brief statement of his sadness for the family. The ICV, linked to the far left Izquierda Unida, avoided offering any words of praise at all.
The major scandal that overshadowed his term in office led to the ousting of 10 IOC members for accepting cash, scholarships and other inducements from Salt Lake City representatives bidding for the 2002 Winter Games.
When Samaranch came to power 29 years ago, the IOC was virtually bankrupt, the Olympics were battered by boycotts and terrorism and few cities wanted to host the games. When he left his post, the IOC’s coffers were full with billions of dollars in commercial revenues, the boycotts were over, cities around the world were fighting each other furiously for the games, and the Olympics were firmly established as the world’s major sporting festival. True – but the rumours of corruptions hang over his legacy like a funeral pall.
(The above article appeared in Panorama)