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Juan Antonio Samaranch (1920-2010)

FORMER president of the International Olympic Committee Juan Antonio Samaranch died today at the age of 89. He had been admitted to a Barcelona hospital after being taken ill at the weekend with acute heart problems, but passed away with cardio-respiratory failure.

He took over as IOC president just after the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow, which were the third summer games in a row to be remembered for all of the wrong reasons. The events in Munich were still fresh in the mind; the huge financial loss in Montreal would be felt for a generation and now Moscow had seen 65 countries – including the United States – boycott the games. Los Angeles was the only city to bid for the next summer games in 1984 because no country other than America wanted them. Mainly because no summer games had made a profit since L.A. last held the summer games in 1932. The IOC was also in a deep financial crisis itself, and modern Olympic Games seemed to be doomed.

But Samaranch secured big TV deals as well as sponsorship, and the LA games – despite the Soviet boycott – proved to be a huge success.  He also helped with the gradual acceptance of professional athletes into a traditionally amateur sports event. Without this move we wouldn’t have the high standard of competitions we see today. Furthermore, Samaranch increased the number of nations taking part at each summer games during his presidency. Before he took over, Moscow ’80 had 80 nations taking part. Los Angeles ’84 had 140, Seoul ’88 had 160, Barcelona ’92 had 169, Atlanta ’96 had 197 and Sydney 2000 had 199 nations present. This trend has continued after his presidency as well.

In 2001, the current IOC president, Jacques Rogge, took over from Samaranch who became honorary president for life. His 21 years as president is the second longest in history of the IOC. The founder of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin was president for 29 years.

There were allegations of corruption in the IOC during his presidency, but he was cleared of any wrong doing. But some still wanted him out. When vote buying allegations became public in light of Salt Lake City being awarded the 2002 winter Olympics, runaway corruption was exposed in the IOC.

But to me, Samaranch will always be the man who saved the modern games from an apparent abyss. Without him we wouldn’t have the global sporting spectacle we have now.


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