The Samaranch Olympic Legacy
Those who saw him at the final session of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) when voting to decide the host of the Summer Olympics of 2016 may well have thought that he was still quite strong. Not long after that however the news emerged that former IOC President, Juan Antonio Samaranch, was not well.
The announcement of his death therefore came as no great surprise for those who have been following his fortunes since the conclusion of the 2016 vote.
While no doubt there were many who quickly recounted the successes of the Samaranch era in the Olympic Movement there were several who took the time to engage in critical analysis of the years that Samaranch spent as IOC President and the developments that took place at the time.
At best any serious analysis almost inevitably sees the Samaranch epoch as something of a mixed bag. There were good times and bad times and the jury is out on which held sway the most over the period of his reign.
The founding fathers of the modern Olympics sought to ensure that the Games were a celebration of the youth of the world. They were people of their time and advocated the emergence of a global movement that fitted in with the historical period in which they lived.
Sport, like any other aspect of social life, is reflective of the state of the society at any given point in time. The Olympic Games is no exception.
Thus it was that the Olympics were committed to pure amateurism. There was a belief that the nobility, the wealthy and scholars should be the practitioners of sport as a frivolous pastime. The working classes were, for many years, seen as unworthy to compete alongside the foregoing. The truth is therefore that for several years the Olympic Games reflected the class biases inherent in the various societies that had the good fortune of being members of the IOC.
Professionals were seen as engaging in activities that stood in stark contradiction to this lofty ideal.
The Olympic Games literally hobbled along. In the early days the Games were held in tandem with a World’s Fair that allowed countries to showcase their industrial development achievements. It did not take long for the custodians of the Olympics to recognise the expansion of the quadrennial event and the attendant costs for host cities.
The Games grew into an expensive undertaking that left many host cities exposed to hard economic times for decades following the conclusion of the sporting spectacle.
Under Lord Kilanin the expenses grew and the Olympic Games were a serious financial burden even as he closed the Moscow Olympics in 1980 and ushered in Juan Antonio Samaranch as the organisation’s new president. The hapless Kilanin left on a rather sour note. In 1976, he stood at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies in Montreal, Canada, where the African nations called for a relatively successful boycott. This boycott received the support of one Caribbean nation, Guyana, whose President, Forbes Burnham, insisted that no national team would be participating.
Four years later, Kilanin again sat in the hot seat as the Moscow Olympics suffered from a boycott that threatened the very core of the international Olympic movement. Several National Olympic Committees stayed away in support of a boycott which in reality came from the string stance adopted by the US and British governments. Rather interestingly, the NOCs of the two aforementioned countries sought to highlight their independence and the independence of sport from politics. The British NOC insisted that it was going to the Games and did. Unfortunately while the USOC made a similar claim, the US government apparently threatened to hold the passports of the selected team and this put paid to any plans the organisation had of participating.
The Olympic Revolution
Many thought that the second straight boycott of the Summer Olympics would have forever blighted the event and with it the IOC. The Olympic Games of Los Angeles in 1984 however marked a significant watershed in the fortunes of the international Olympic movement and this despite the attempt by some countries, including Cuba, to call another boycott. While the boycott was not as successful as 1976 and 1980 it nonetheless left a blemish on the movement and required much work to ensure the success of the event.
Many have heaped the kudos for this on Juan Antonio Samaranch. However, research may well reveal that far more credit would have to be paid to the then Chairman of the Organising Committee for the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Peter Uberroth.
It was for the Los Angeles Olympics that the concept of having a number of large international corporations involve themselves in long-term sponsorship of the Olympic Movement came into being.
It was also the Los Angeles Olympics that was credited with the first major breakthrough in the lucrative business of the sale of television rights for the Games.
Uberroth emerged from the 1984 Olympics as something of an Olympic hero though within the Olympic movement there seemed much anxiety to shower praises on Samaranch.
Riding on the success of Los Angeles, the first Olympics of the modern era to emerge with such an accolade in the financial sphere, Samaranch led the movement through the next several years with great skill and some may suggest, guile.
In 1988, in the lead up to the Seoul Olympics, in an effort to ensure the end to boycotts of the Olympics Samaranch engaged in a global campaign, visiting several NOCs urging them to desist from supporting any boycott. He also suggested that the IOC would consider putting an end to assistance from Olympic Solidarity should they so engage themselves.
Seoul was also the first time that the doors were opened for professional athletes to participate in the Olympics, albeit, under some agreed conditions. This was the beginning of the end to pure amateurism at the Olympics. The horrific judging in Boxing in Seoul also caused the IOC to give stern warning that the sport risked expulsion should the leadership not effect meaningful change. The profits began to roll in. The organisation had changed.
In one encounter with the author in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Samaranch boasted that the inclusion of professionals was necessary. It was the way forward. The Olympics must showcase the very best in the world in sport. The Seoul Olympics is perhaps best remembered for the 100m scandal with Ben Johnson. Drugs and doping were to play a major role in the Samaranch era to such an extent that at the turn of the century he dared to suggest that International Federations should consider abandoning all existing world records and starting afresh in the new millennium.
Through to his final Olympics in 2000 Samaranch had established an amazing record; one that included the Salt Lake City scandal that forced several IOC members to resign over allegations of corruption. How he was spared may well remain a mystery to many analysts.
Interestingly though, in writing on the death of Samaranch, one author penned:
By the time Juan Antonio Samaranch completed his two decades as the unchallenged strongman of the Olympic “movement” in 2001, de Coubertin’s quaint 19th century ideals of pure amateurism, the transcendent value of competitive effort and the improvement of the whole person through sport had long been swamped by millionaire professional “dream teams,” performance enhancing drug and bribery scandals, and vast television and sponsorship riches, transforming the five rings into one of the most powerful brands on Earth.
The same writer described Samaranch’s impact on the modern Olympics thus:
His, not Pierre de Coubertin’s, was the true face of the modern Olympic Games, an old unrepentant Spanish fascist who understood the art of consolidating power behind closed doors, who didn’t see what he didn’t want to see, and who had a remarkable gift for making a buck.
In the book, Lords of the Rings, Samaranch was in many ways exposed as was four other world sport leaders as being less that what we should expect in terms of leadership in this sphere of activity. In response, a book most favourable to the Samaranch years, “The Olympic Revolution,” was published.
Today, in hindsight, many will continue to analyse the Samaranch era. What is clear is that he did oversee significant change sin the Olympic movement. Whether they were all good for the institution is still open to question.