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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

IOC Chief's Wife Dies of Cancer

Necrology: Samaranch was on plane back to Barcelona when wife succumbed at 67.

September 17, 2000|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — After cheerily wishing the world, "G'day!" to open the Sydney Games, Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, hastily departed Saturday for Barcelona by private jet, hoping to see his gravely ill wife once more.

He did not make it in time.

Maria Teresa Salisachs de Samaranch, 67, died at noon local time Saturday (3 a.m. in Los Angeles) after a long fight with cancer. Samaranch was notified of her death while in the air, a source close to the IOC president told The Times.

"She was a wonderful woman," Samaranch later told reporters in Barcelona. "I not only loved her, I admired her."

As a sign of respect, the interlocking five-ringed flag at Olympic Stadium was lowered today to half-mast. But the Games carried on.

For the past several months, while enduring lashing criticism from the world's press over the Salt Lake City corruption scandal, Samaranch--president of the IOC since 1980--had shared with only a few trusted souls the details of his wife's failing health.

Mrs. Samaranch, whom friends called "Bibis" but who was often described as "the First Lady of the IOC," usually accompanied her husband to the Games and key IOC meetings. But her public visibility since June 1999--when she went with him to an IOC session in Seoul--had been markedly reduced.

The first time he let on in public that she was ill was Thursday, when he announced that he had invited Australian swimming icon Dawn Fraser to sit with him in the presidential box at the opening ceremony. Even then, he said simply, "My wife is sick."

In fact, her condition "deteriorated severely in the hours around the [opening] ceremony," said Francois Carrard, the IOC director general.

Michael Knight, president of the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, who sat in the box Friday night with Samaranch, said the IOC president was in "great personal distress."

Knight added: "Very few people knew how much pain he was in fulfilling his duties at opening ceremony."

The ceremony ended about 11:15 p.m. Friday. Arrangements were hurriedly made for Samaranch to fly to Barcelona on a private jet belonging to IOC member Mario Vazquez Rana of Mexico.

The plane departed from Sydney on Saturday morning.

He reached Barcelona, however, a few hours after she died at a local hospital. The cause of death was not disclosed.

The IOC announced that the Olympic flag at the stadium would stay at half-mast for a full day. It also said condolence books would be placed in the lobbies of the three hotels in Sydney housing the extended "Olympic family" during the Games.

Under IOC protocol, Vice President Dick Pound of Canada will assume Samaranch's duties in his absence. Pound said it would be business as usual.

It is highly unusual but not unprecedented for an IOC president to leave while the Games are on.

Samaranch himself left the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, to travel to Sarajevo, the 1984 Winter Games site--to lobby for an end to the war then engulfing the former Yugoslavia.

The second IOC president, Pierre de Coubertin of France, did not even attend the 1904 Games in St. Louis. Those Games, however, lasted more than four months and, according to historians, were lost in the chaos of a world's fair.

Mrs. Samaranch's death prompted a flurry of speculation in some quarters, particularly in the Australian media, about her husband's immediate future. He is due to retire next July.

Samaranch had come to Sydney hoping to put behind him the last two years, during which he became the focal point of the biggest scandal in IOC history.

The scandal centered on revelations that Salt Lake had won the 2002 Games after wooing IOC members with more than $1 million in cash and other inducements.

Ten IOC members resigned or were expelled and critics called for Samaranch to step down. He resisted, and instead last December pushed through a 50-point reform plan aimed at making the IOC more open and more accountable.

Several sources on the IOC's ruling Executive Board stressed Saturday that they expect Samaranch to return to Sydney as soon as possible. "He is coming back," South Korea's Kim Un Yong said. "That's definite."

Samaranch and his wife had been married for nearly 45 years. Though he has lived in a hotel suite near IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, and she has remained in Barcelona for most of that time, they were a close couple, speaking by phone at least twice daily.

She was born Dec. 26, 1932, into old money and their marriage cemented his station in Barcelona society. Salvador Dali designed their wedding menu card.

On Saturday, friends described her as his perfect partner: elegant, graceful, a social mixer who was fluent in several languages, supportive of his commitment to the Olympic movement and tolerant of his travels. They had two children and several grandchildren.

"I've said of her that she was an exquisite woman," said IOC Vice President Anita DeFrantz of Los Angeles. "She was generous of herself and giving of him to the Olympic movement."

Added Belgian IOC member Jacques Rogge: "She was very warm, very charismatic and had a lot of class. It's a great loss, especially for the president--but we all feel pain."

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