Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The death of the great sporting autocrat

The death of Juan Antonio Samaranch is already seeing many glowing tributes about his role in the Olympic family, not least from Britain as London prepares to host the Games in 2012.

The obituary pages may perhaps prove of greater interest in capturing the complexities of a public life with a good claim to have spanned, and successfully surfed, the turmoil and transformations of the last century perhaps rather more than any other single individual: born in 1920, Samaranch rose under Franco's fascist dictatorship in Spain; inherited the amateur Olympic movement in Moscow 1980 at the height of the Cold War boycott era; and led the transformation of global sport into a multi-squillion pound industry in the age of TV and economic globalisation, while always ensuring it remained one of the great bastions of unaccountable power.

Nobody could doubt that his legacy was to sport was enormous - and few would deny that it mixed the good, the bad and the corrupt.

Strikingly, he was the sixth of just seven IOC Presidents since 1896, in a period when we have had 21 British Prime Ministers and 21 US Presidents.

I wrote extensively about the Samaranch legacy in a Foreign Policy Centre pamphlet 'Democratising Global Sport' published as he prepared to pass on the Olympic flame in Sydney a decade ago:


When Juan Antonio Samaranch extinguishes the Olympic flame in Sydney on October 2, he will close an era in sporting history. When he tells the people of Sydney that they have hosted truly "the best Games ever," his customary accolade – denied only to troubled Atlanta in 1996 – will this time mean something more. For it closes the final Olympics of the 80 year old's twenty year reign as the most powerful man in sport – his sixth and final term as President of the International Olympic Committee. And Samaranch follows from the stage his contemporaries and collaborators Joao Havelange, who bossed world football from 1973 to 1998 and Primo Nebiolo, who ran international athletics for eighteen years after 1980. Together these visionary and charismatic autocrats seized the opportunities of the global age to change the face of sport. Their successes and their failures cast a long shadow for those chosen to succeed them. We shall not see their like again.

In many ways, global sport has never been more successful. The Sydney Games will be simply the biggest show on earth – 10,300 athletes from 200 countries, over $600 million in sponsorship, and up to 3.7 billion people watching. When Samaranch took over as IOC President, the Olympics faced an uncertain future – threatened by boycott politics and financial insolvency; discredited by the hypocrisies of the long age of 'shamateurism'. The Games have survived, even thrived – but the sporting spirit faces new challenges today, and many doubt whether sport can handle the pressures of its global transformation. For it has also been the worst of times for sport. Sporting scandal has replaced political sleaze and sexual shenanigans in the headlines. Every major sport has been shaken to its foundations by scandal – from Hansie Cronje in the dock to Olympic hosting bribery, from the "tour de dopage" to baseball strikes, and 'bungs' at motorway service stations taking European club football into the realms of the spy thriller.


As I explained in this commentary published as Samaranch stepped down in Moscow the following year, I was, on balance, never much of a fan.

1 comment:

David said...

I will say this about the Atlanta games. No matter how crass and commercial it ended up being, it provided an excellent spur to Atlanta's infrastructure, sporting and otherwise, and a relatively small cost to the taxpayers. Atlanta had relatively few "white elephants" of the kind that plague Beijing these days. The city replaced its 30 year old multipurpose stadium with a new baseball stadium, paid for entirely by the organizing committee (i.e. Coca Cola and co.). As cities across the country instead were blackmailed by sports teams into subsidized stadium construction, Atlanta got a free ride. Moreover, they used the already built Georgia Dome with state bonds to host the Basketball and Gymnastics rather than construct bold new arenas, and in the intervening years its drawn various sporting events in basketball and American football with their tourist dollars. They packed the more niche sports into a prebuilt convention center rather than build new pretty things.

Beyond that, the city itself has greatly benefited from the Games' side projects. Refitting the city to be the media capital of the world led to an absolute glut of fiber optic cable laid right on the eve of the tech boom. The athlete's village was used as new dorm housing for the two downtown universities, Georgia Tech and Georgia State, aiding the former's transformation to a world class engineering school and the latter from a commuter school to real university. Centennial Park transformed west downtown from a slum area into a tourist hub and attractive in town living area.

The point is, it's easy for the media to blame the crass commercialism of Atlanta and worship the aesthetic grandeur of Beijing or elsewhere. But of the cities that have hosted from 1996 and beyond, Atlanta provided a successful blueprint to use the games to benefit your city without bankrupting it. They hoodwinked the corporate sponsors into upgrading the city in a way that benefited the average citizen. For me, that's a gold medal.