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Controversial Samaranch made London 2012 happen

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Adrian Warner | 13:14 UK time, Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Former International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch, who has died at 89, was a controversial figure who will go down in history as the man who turned the Olympics into a commercial brand but who also allowed a cancer of corruption and lavish living to grow in the IOC.

Samaranch had plenty of critics who said a man who had pursued a career in sports politics in dictator Francisco Franco's fascist Spain shouldn't be allowed to run the IOC.

They accused him of running the organisation with an iron fist during his 21 years as president from 1980-2001.

Juan Antonio Samaranch. Getty Images
But the Spaniard also played a key role in rescuing the Olympics during difficult days in the 1980s.

Then, few cities wanted to bid for the Games, having watched Montreal taxpayers pick up the huge bill for the 1976 event. The Games were also under serious threat of dying after nearly a decade of political boycotts.

Under Samaranch's presidency, the IOC started to market the Games properly, selling the TV rights competitively and setting up a sponsorship programme for blue chip backers which is a model for international sport today.

He also encouraged professional sportsmen and women to come to the Games after an era of amateurism.

With the extra cash and prestige, the IOC was then able to pay cities serious money for hosting the Games (around half of the £2 billion for the organisation of 2012 Games will come from the IOC).

The result was that many more cities started to bid to host the Olympics. The problem was that the races were often so competitive that it led to some IOC members accepting bribes from the cities in return for votes.

Senior aides once revealed to me that Samaranch went close to resigning in the middle of the 1999 crisis when the corruption around Salt Lake City's bid for the Winter Games was front-page news around the world and many newspapers called for his head.

But Samaranch had many friends in the Olympic movement and he survived. He generally got his way through personal persuasion and clever politiking rather than shouting and screaming.

When I first interviewed him one-to-one 13 years ago, I remember how he sat me down and asked me a series of questions before I was allowed to begin the interview. They were aimed at charming me. What did I think of the world athletics championships we were attending? How was my sports editor, a man who was well respected in the IOC? What were my views on the IOC?

I still asked the tough questions I wanted to afterwards but I walked away, thinking he probably turned on all that charm whenever he talked to IOC members or TV executives. He knew how to press the right buttons and persuade members to come to his point of view ie he was a shrewd politician.

One IOC observer once said Samaranch could play political chess in three dimensions to get his own way. And he usually got it.

But the corruption scandal, which lead to some members being expelled from the organisation, will probably tarnish the image of the IOC for many years yet. Samaranch made the Olympics a money-making machine but he also failed to stop a damaging culture of corruption growing together with that commercial success.

One final thought...The Olympics wouldn't be coming to London in 2012 without him. Samaranch backed the bid of rivals Madrid but he helped London beat Paris by whispering in IOC members' ears that London would be a good choice if Madrid were unsuccessful.

When Madrid went out and London and Paris made the final round ot voting, enough votes switched to London to bring the Games to Britain. Samaranch made that happen.



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