David Owen

Here’s a question for International Olympic Committee (IOC)-watchers in the interstice between Olympic and Paralympic Games: is it time to reassess Juan Antonio Samaranch? 

Before you write this off as of purely historical interest and get back to the latest calamities affecting international sports, I should perhaps specify that I mean Juan Antonio Samaranch Salisachs.

That is to say not the man who presided over the IOC for 21 broadly successful years, but his 56-year-old son, whom I last bumped into commenting approvingly on the venue at the Rio 2016 beach volleyball stadium on Copacabana beach.

I’d like to say Samaranch and I entered the Olympic Movement at the same time; except it would probably be more accurate to suggest that he has been wrapped up in it one way or another since his school days.

What I mean is that the IOC Session at which the Spaniard was elected a member - Moscow 2001 - was the first I attended.

It was also the Session at which Jacques Rogge succeeded Juan Antonio Samaranch senior as IOC President.

The IOC has hence had a full member bearing this name for exactly half a century now.

This satisfyingly symmetrical if rather too convenient succession provoked accusations of nepotism.

If these soon died down, the accompanying murmurings, to the effect that Samaranch junior was a bit of a lightweight and decidedly not of the stature of his eminent father, tended to linger.

IOC member Juan Antonio Samaranch Salisachs speaks during the final presentation of the unsuccessful Madrid 2020 bid in Buenos Aires ©Getty Images
IOC member Juan Antonio Samaranch Salisachs speaks during the final presentation of the unsuccessful Madrid 2020 bid in Buenos Aires ©Getty Images

The situation was probably not helped as “Juanito”, as he was known not always entirely respectfully, seemed perennially to be campaigning on behalf of Madrid, which ran three consecutive unsuccessful bids to host the Summer Games between 2003 and 2013.

I can recall times when this interminable, decade-long drive to win over his colleagues seemed to frustrate and dispirit even him.

As the momentous 2013 IOC Session - at which sport’s most powerful club took decisions on the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games host, the Olympic sporting programme and the identity of their new leader - drew to a close in Buenos Aires, I was told that Samaranch had ended up on the losing side in every single significant vote.

This included even the run-off between Ser Miang Ng and C K Wu to determine which of the six Presidential candidates would be the first eliminated from the race.

And yet, here he is, less than three years later, a newly-minted IOC vice-president, having been elected to the post in Rio by an emphatic 69 votes to six.

How has this happened? And what are we to make of it?

Well, one possible interpretation, I have to acknowledge, is that not much has changed; that Thomas Bach, the politically watchful IOC President, is keen to have vice-presidents who are not going to cause him any problems, and that “Juanito” ticks that box.

That seems, to say the least, a reductive analysis, however, and one that omits other elements worth taking into consideration.

Spain, for example, is an increasingly important centre for the IOC: it houses both the headquarters of Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) and the main technical and production base of the Olympic Channel, one of Bach’s pet projects.

As chairman of the board of the channel’s Spanish arm, Samaranch will be a key figure as the venture strives to make its mark.

Also perhaps pertinent to future developments are the Spaniard’s personal skills: he makes friends easily and appears for the most part, so far as I can tell, good at keeping them.

In early 2013, wrestling’s Olympic future was placed in extreme jeopardy after a vote that modern pentathlon had been expected to lose prior to a successful rearguard action widely credited to Samaranch, who is a vice-president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM).

Yet I have never heard wrestling’s new leadership, which ultimately secured a reprieve for the sport, speak ill of him.

A facility for friend-making is not generally mentioned, in my experience, as one of Bach’s chief qualities.

The older Juan Antonio Samaranch was President of the IOC for more than two decades between 1980 and 2001 ©Getty Images
The older Juan Antonio Samaranch was President of the IOC for more than two decades between 1980 and 2001 ©Getty Images

Then again, it can certainly be argued that an effective leader cannot afford such luxuries; a capacity for making chums is not usually cited as one of the key characteristics of Samaranch senior, who died in 2010, either. 

I cannot imagine that Bach has his eyes on anything less than a 12-year Presidency.

If he succeeds in that presumed ambition, then it might well be too late for Samaranch junior, should he so desire, to accede to the post once held by his father: it would be 2025 and, as things stand, the Spaniard is due to retire from full membership at the end of 2029, unless the rules change or he is granted an extension.

If things continue to go wrong for Bach, however, might there be calls for an alternative candidate in 2021? Could that conceivably be Samaranch?

I think it is too early for such a scenario to be seen at present as anything other than a distant possibility.

For one thing, Samaranch is essentially in the same boat as Bach over Russia, having been part of the three-member IOC panel that cleared the way ultimately for hundreds of Russian athletes to compete at Rio.

Nevertheless, given the sharp upward trajectory of the graph-line plotting Juanito’s Olympic fortunes in recent times as he has stepped out from behind his father's aura, I shall be watching his progress with renewed interest.