Freelance Spain
Freelance Spain Biography

Juan Antonio Samaranch
Ex- President of the International Olympic Committee

Juan Antonio Samaranch, elected as head of the International Olympic Committee in 1980 (the seventh to hold the post since the IOC was established in 1894), was one of the most influential Spaniards in the last two decades of the 20th century. Re-elected as supremo of the prestigious sports organization in 1997 (the IOC rewrote an old rule which called for retirement of the president at age 75), charges were removed in 2001. His last Olympic Games, in Sydney in 2000, were tinged by the death of Maria Teresa, his wife of 45 years.

During his tenure the IOC has had to deal with the Eastern Bloc boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, controversy over drug use among athletes, and scandals involving generous handouts to Olympic committee members from cities aspiring to host the Olympic games. But generally, he is recognized as the man who plucked the ailing IOC from the brink of bankruptcy and turned the Games into a profitable business as well as a truly planet-embracing event.

In Spain he is now seen by most as a hero, in spite of his close links in the past with the Franco dictatorship. Spaniards tend to forgive the sins of public figures once they've reached the requisite age to become beloved septuagenarians. Still fresh in the memory is Samaranch's finest hour, when he announced that his home town of Barcelona was to host the 1992 Olympics. The resulting extravaganza, together with the Expo 92 exposition in Seville and Spain's commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America, was seen as the ultimate expression of the modern "New Spain" which had emerged after the dark years of Franco.

Juan Antonio Samaranch was born to a well-to-do Barcelona family on July 17, 1920. His father was a self-made textile magnate. From an early age Samaranch showed both an affinity for sports - he tried his hand at sports writing at one stage - and a burning ambition to reach the top. He served as a city councillor. As the director of an industrial conglomerate, he used part of his wealth to promote sports, starting with a roller hockey team. In 1966, the Spanish dictator Franco appointed him as government secretary in charge of sports. That same year he was elected as a member of the IOC.

In 1955, Samaranch married a Barcelona society beauty, Maria Teresa Salisachs Rowe, whose mother was British. They had one son.

During the twilight years of the Franco regime, he was appointed as provincial political head in Barcelona. Following the death of the dictator, the most expedient way for the Spain's transition government to deal with him - he was by now vice-president of the IOC, and therefore already an international figure - was to offer him a "golden exile", as Spain's first ambassador to Moscow (1977-1980). The contacts he made in the Soviet government - the old "sworn enemy" of the Franco period - helped win him votes for his election to the top seat in the IOC.

When he took over, the Olympics were living under the cloud of the US boycott of the Moscow games, and the IOC was a discredited organization with reportedly less than $500,000 to its name. Samaranch's strategy, using a combination of diplomacy and hispanic charm, was to increase the number of participating nations. While the Eastern Bloc countries failed to show up for Los Angeles, 160 countries took part in the 1988 Games in Seoul. The honor of hosting the Olympics became an object of desire for cities, and the activity started to generate gazillions.

The IOC post is a non-paying job, but all travel expenses are paid - and Samaranch is usually traveling, in style by most accounts. Drawing the line between expenses and baksheesh has been one of the big sources of trouble during the Samaranch era. In 1999, ten IOC members were forced to resign over scandals involving the way Salt Lake City had secured the 2002 Winter Games.

Usually described as tenacious but tactful, a dapper dresser, Samarach continues to work out daily, eats frugally, goes to bed early and gets up at dawn.

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