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Samaranch - A giant of the Olympic movement

22 April 2010

Juan Antonio Samaranch, who died on Wednesday aged 89, was a giant of the Olympic movement, heading the IOC for 21 years for the longest tenure after the body's founding father, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

The Baron was the man who brought the Games into the modern era, heading the IOC from 1896 to 1925.

But it was under Samaranch's tutelage the movement really took off in the age of increasing global mass media and growing influence of sport.

The man from the Catalan metropolis of Barcelona, who died after being admitted to a Barcelona hospital with heart trouble, became one of Spain's most influential figures of recent decades.

Born on July 17, 1920 into a rich Catalan family who made their fortune from the textile industry, Samaranch - whose last international public appearance was in Copenhagen last October for the attribution of the 2016 Games to Rio - started off in the family business.

But the keen amateur athlete soon turned his hand to international sporting matters.

By 1951 he had organised the first rink hockey world championships in his home city and led the Spanish team to the title.

Such activities brought him to the attention of Spanish military dictator General Francisco Franco, of whom he was a sworn admirer, once dubbing him "one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th Century".

After taking a business diploma in Barcelona, Samaranch became in quick succession an economics teacher, then chairman of the powerful Catalan savings bank and a member of the "Diputacion", or provincial council of the Barcelona city authority, soon becoming the body's chairman.

In 1967, Samaranch was appointed national delegate of physical education and sport, the equivalent of secretary of state for sport in Franco's administration.

Samaranch had already been appointed a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1966 and then became his country's first ambassador to Moscow (1977-1980) after relations were restored with the Soviet Union following Franco's death in 1975.

And indeed, the Spanish duly sent a contingent to compete in the Moscow Olympics in 1980 despite a US-led boycott protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous year.

However, they were one of fifteen countries to compete under the Olympic Flag at the opening and closing ceremonies instead of their national colours to show an element of solidarity with protests over Afghanistan.

From 1974 to 1978 Samaranch was IOC deputy president before securing the top job in 1980. He was re-elected in 1989, 1993 and 1997.

In 1991 he was awarded the title of marquis by King Juan Carlos for his work in the Olympic movement, culminating in the award of the highly successful 1992 summer Games to Barcelona, a city the event transformed.

On October 1, 2000, following his last Games as IOC chief, Samaranch dubbed the Sydney Olympics "the best of all time".

Samaranch's wife Maria Teresa Salisachs-Rowe, another scion of a Catalan textiles dynasty, predeceased him on September 16, 2000.

Samaranch had two children, Maria Teresa and Juan Antonio Jr, who in July 2001 was elected an IOC member.

The final years of his presidency saw Samaranch dogged by poor health and he was taken to hospital in Lausanne on his 81st birthday on July 17, 2001, for "extreme fatigue" following the IOC congress in Moscow.

A day earlier he had announced Belgian Jacques Rogge would replace him.

Two days before that, Samaranch had declared Beijing would host the 2008 Games.

In August 2001, Samaranch was again hospitalised with high blood pressure after the "enormous effort" expended in presiding the Moscow congress and six years later he suffered from another similar attack.

Honorary president for life of the IOC, Samaranch, who helped to revolutionise sponsorship and broadcasting deals for major events, seeking global sponsors instead of national federations making their own local arrangements, remained active in the movement even after handing the reins to Rogge.

But he was unable to secure Madrid the 2016 Games as Rio secured the accolade.


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