Juan Antonio Samaranch, former president of the International Olympic Committee who took the organization from financial instability and turmoil and steered it to global influence and prosperity, only to see his legacy tarnished by the specter of doping in sports and a corruption scandal, has died. He was 89.
A Spaniard who served as IOC president from 1980 to 2001, Samaranch died Wednesday at a Barcelona hospital after experiencing heart trouble. He had been in failing health since he collapsed one day after the last of his four terms ended, in July 2001.
Samaranch, who was both politician and diplomat, honed his skills over two decades as a government official under Spain's fascist dictator, Francisco Franco. During Samaranch's tenure, the Games became a global television event, one funded primarily by corporate endorsements.
For all his successes — achieved with what was often perceived as an authoritative grip — Samaranch was never able to control the use of performance-enhancing substances by Olympic athletes. Critics said he had no desire to wade into the controversy.
Late in his presidency, a corruption scandal erupted amid revelations that bidders in Salt Lake City had showered IOC members with more than $1 million in cash and gifts in a winning campaign to land the 2002 Winter Games.
Of the IOC's first seven presidents, Samaranch was the most important in 105 years, said John Lucas, a Penn State University professor emeritus and an Olympics historian.
"This does not mean he was a man without flaws or one who did not make serious errors," Lucas said.
Current IOC President Jacques Rogge compared Samaranch with Pierre de Coubertin, IOC president in the late 19th century.
"De Coubertin created the modern Olympic Games," Rogge said. And in the late 20th century, "Samaranch created the modern Olympic movement. He had a clear vision of what was needed. And he had the time to do it."
Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 2004 to 2008 and chief of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics — the Games that launched the economic transformation of the movement —observed: "He really did an incredible job of taking an institution that had very little net worth and very little direction and making it arguably one of the two or three most powerful [non-governmental] organizations in the world."
The IOC that Samaranch took over in 1980 was a club made up mostly of white men from Europe. It faced severe financial pressures.
Now the IOC is a billion-dollar enterprise supported by many of the world's leading multinational corporations. Thanks to his efforts, the boycotts are over. There are more member countries in the IOC than in the United Nations.
The IOC includes a significant number of delegates from the Third World and some women. Female athletes have taken part in increasingly large numbers at the Games. Professional athletes, the best from each nation in each sport, now take part in the Games.
He was fanatically devoted to the possibilities of the Olympic movement, arguing that the power of sport could advance the cause of world peace. At his last Summer Games, in Sydney in 2000, Samaranch engineered the joint procession of athletes from North and South Korea — two nations still at war — in the opening ceremony.
Throughout his presidency and beyond, Samaranch remained a source of controversy.
He either did not know — or did not want to know — the scope and nature of institutionalized doping that came to plague the Olympic movement, and in particular the wide use of anabolic steroids that characterized the Olympic sport system in the former East Germany.
In 1998 the Salt Lake corruption scandal erupted on Samaranch's watch. It led to the resignations or expulsions of 10 IOC members and to the enactment in 1999 of a reform plan that included a ban on visits by IOC members to cities bidding for the Games.
The Salt Lake City scandal sparked savage criticism worldwide of Samaranch, and many calls for him to resign, which he resisted. He was typically described as aristocratic, aloof and out of touch; reference was often made to his suite at the Palace hotel near IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, his base for many of his years as president.
The fifth-floor suite actually consisted of two rooms — a bedroom with a ratty blue blanket from the Lake Placid Winter Games of 1980 that Samaranch draped over his bed and a living room where he frequently worked into the night.
Samaranch's life was full of such contradictions.
He worked for 21 years as IOC president without being paid a salary. His expenses were reimbursed, including about $200,000 annually for the Palace suite. Experts in executive compensation said he was a bargain.
Much of the world saw him as imperious or autocratic. Family and close colleagues said he was shy but generous, patient, sometimes even impishly funny.