Samaranch, Juan Antonio

views updated May 08 2018

Juan Antonio Samaranch


Spanish athletic administrator

In his two decades at the helm of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Juan Antonio Samaranch worked a miraculous transformation, turning what was a largely amateur enterprise into a billion-dollar showcase for the world's finest professional athletes. Sadly, however, when he stepped down as IOC president in July 2001, he left behind an organization badly tainted by scandal, much of it generated by the charges of widespread corruption and bribe-taking in connection with Salt Lake City's successful bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Although he surrendered the IOC presidency to Belgian surgeon Jacques Rogge in mid-2001, Samaranch will never be far from the heart of the Olympic movement, having been named honorary president for life of the Olympic organization. And he's not the only Samaranch deeply involved in IOC affairs. Before Samaranch stepped down, his son, Juan Antonio Samaranch, Jr., known as Juanito, was elected a member of the IOC.

Born in Barcelona

He was born Juan Antonio Samaranch Torello in Barcelona, Spain, on July 17, 1920. The son of Francisco, the wealthy owner of a prosperous upholstery business, and Juana (Torello) Samaranch, he showed an early interest in sports. After graduating from the Higher Institute of Business Studies in Barcelona, he worked briefly in the family business and later became involved in the banking industry. At college Samaranch became interested in roller hockey, a sport for which he later organized the world championships. He also got involved in local and national politics, serving for a time as city councilor in Barcelona. In 1954, Samaranch was named to Spain's Olympic Committee and two years later served as his country's chief representative at the 1956 Winter Games. He also represented Spain at both the 1960 and 1964 Summer Games. In 1955, Samaranch married fellow Barcelonan Maria Teresa Salisachs Rowe, whose mother was British. The couple has one son, Juan Antonio, Jr.

In 1966 Spanish dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco named Samaranch to a cabinet-level post over-seeing sports development in Spain. Shortly thereafter, he was elected a member of the IOC. A year after joining the IOC, Samaranch was elected president of the Spanish Olympic Committee. His involvement in Spanish politics continued, and in the late 1970s, after the death of Franco, he served as Spain's first ambassador to the Soviet Union, a country with which Spain had had a strained relationship during Franco's rule. The contacts Samaranch made with influential Soviets during his years as ambassador were to serve him well as he rose through the ranks of the IOC.

Elected President of IOC

The 1980 Olympic Summer Games in Moscow were boycotted by the United States and many of its allies. The athletes of only 81 countries participated in the Moscow Games. Against this backdrop, Samaranch, who was then serving as the IOC's chief of protocol, was elected president of the Olympic organization. A major factor in his election was Samaranch's close ties to influential political figures in both the West and the East. It was believed that he was ideally positioned to broker some sort of Olympic détente between the opposing political forces of East and West. Despite his best efforts, however, Samaranch was unable to head off a Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, staged largely in retaliation for the 1980 U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Games. According to the official Soviet line, the boycott was motivated by growing concerns about anti-Soviet hysteria in Los Angeles. The Soviets cited in particular the activities of the Ban the Soviets Coalition, a group formed to conduct letter-writing campaigns to Soviet officials and open safe houses where Soviet Bloc athletes could be encouraged to defect.


1920Born in Barcelona, Spain, on July 17
1954Joins Spanish Olympic Committee
1955Marries Maria Teresa Salisachs
1956Serves as Spain's chief representative at 1956 Winter Olympics
1960Serves as Spain's chief representative at 1960 Summer Olympics
1964Serves as Spain's chief representative at 1964 Summer Olympics
1966Joins International Olympic Committee (IOC) as member
1967Elected president of Spanish Olympic Committee
1974-78Serves as vice president of IOC
1977-80Serves as Spain's ambassador to Soviet Union and Mongolia
1980Elected president of IOC
2001Steps down as president of IOC

Although he had failed to prevent a boycott of the Los Angeles Games by the Soviet Bloc, Samaranch did manage to heal bruised feelings among all parties in time to attract a record total of 160 countries to the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea. Under Samaranch's direction, the Olympic Games became a prize that cities around the world competed fiercely to attract. In the process, the IOC's coffers grew accordingly. He managed to increase participation in the Olympic Games by broadening the membership of the IOC, bringing in more of the less developed countries. Critics of Samaranch pointed out that IOC delegates from the poorer nations of the world were easier for him to keep in line and manipulate.

Recruits Corporate Sponsors

Another important way in which Samaranch strengthened the Olympics franchise was through his successful recruitment of big business sponsors. In return the corporate sponsors enjoyed unprecedented worldwide marketing opportunities. At the same time he was growing the corporate sponsorship of the Olympics, Samaranch and the IOC seemed to be doing little about the problem of doping. The IOC's anti-doping enforcement measures hardly made a dent in the thriving practice, critics argued.

According to its critics, pressure to open up the IOC and make it more accountable for its actions and inaction has had little effect on the organization, which remains pretty much a closed shop. Delegates to the IOC are not elected, nor do they represent their home countries or those countries Olympic committees. Instead, they are co-opted by the IOC, ensuring that their loyalty lies with it. Upon their induction into the IOC, new members take an oath to respect the decisions of the IOC, which Samaranch considered to be nonnegotiable. Further cementing Samaranch's hold on the closed shop of the IOC was the fact that no delegate joined the committee without the express approval of His Excellency, as Samaranch was known by obedient delegates.

Guides IOC to Financial Success

Despite the criticism of certain aspects of the Olympic operation, there can be no argument with the overall success of the IOC under the direction of Samaranch. At the time he took over the reins of the organization in 1980, the IOC reportedly had only $500,000 in its treasury. In mid-2001, the committee's coffers held approximately $350 million. In 1980 worldwide television rights brought in $122 million; the current host, NBC, paid $1.8 billion for the rights to five Olympics. According to a report in New Zealand's Sunday Star Times, under Samaranch's leadership, Olympic broadcast hours increased from 500 to 3,800; ticket sales swelled from $13 million to $625 million; and total income from marketing rose tenfold to $3.7 billion.

Marring the Olympic success story was the scandal related to Salt Lake City's successful bid for the 2002 Winter Games. In June 1995 the IOC announced the selection of Utah's largest city as the site for the 2002 Winter Games. A little over three years later, reports surfaced in the media alleging that the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) had in effect bribed IOC members to win approval. In the end, the ensuing scandal cost ten IOC members their jobs. While Samaranch himself was never implicated in the scandal, he and other top IOC officials were widely criticized for their failure to thoroughly investigate earlier complaints of inappropriate behavior.

Samaranch managed to survive the Salt Lake City scandal but about seven months before the Winter Games of 2002, he stepped down as IOC president, surrendering the post to Belgian surgeon Jacques Rogge, a former Olympic sailor. But Samaranch will never stray far from the Olympic movement, having been named Honorary President for Life shortly before he stepped down. He also presided over the selection of his son, Juan Antonio Jr., as a new delegate to the IOC. In his formal farewell to IOC members, Samaranch said: "Thank you for having allowed me to serve the Olympic movement. Goodbye and hasta la vista." Despite the taint of the Salt Lake City scandal, there can be little doubt that Samaranch left the organization in far better shape than that in which he found it more than two decades earlier.

Awards and Accomplishments

1988Attracts record number of nations (160) to Seoul Summer Games
1989Donates collection of Olympic stamps to Olympic Museum
1992Attracts record number of nations (169) to Barcelona Summer Games
1996Attracts record number of nations (197) to Atlanta Summer Games
1998Opens internal IOC probe into Salt Lake City scandal
1999Announces expulsion of six IOC members over scandal on March 17; others had resigned earlier
2000Attracts record number of nations (199) to Sydney Summer Games

Related Biography: IOC President Jacques Rogge

Former Olympic yachtsman Jacques Rogge succeeded Samaranch as president of the scandal-tainted International Olympic Committee (IOC) on July 16, 2001. An orthopedic surgeon by profession, Rogge has been a delegate to the IOC since 1991. In 1998 he was elected to the organization's executive board and was a protégé of Samaranch.

Born in Ghent, Belgium, on May 2, 1942, Rogge participated in yachting competitions at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, and the Montreal Summer Games in 1976. Away from the Olympics, he was for a time a member of Belgium's national rugby team.

Married and the father of two children, Rogge served as president of the Belgian National Olympic Committee from 1989 to 1992. In 1989, he was elected president of the European Olympic Committees.


Address: Juan Antonio Samaranch, c/o International Olympic Committee, Chateau de Vidy, 1007, Lausanne, Switzerland; 40 Bay St., Ste 300, Toronto, ON, Canada, M5J 2X2. Fax: (41 21) 621-6216. Phone: (41 21)621-6111.


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Sketch by Don Amerman