By David Owen

It was on a sultry Moscow Monday nearly nine years ago, in the pistachio and white splendour of the Hall of Columns on the fringes of the Kremlin, that the Samaranch era appeared to draw to a close.

That was where the election of Jacques Rogge, the then 80-year-old Juan Antonio Samaranch’s successor as International Olympic Committee President, was announced with all the solemnity of a state investiture.

That event constituted my baptism into the mysterious ways of the Olympic Movement.

So it is only retrospectively that I have come to appreciate the supreme skill with which this seemingly diffident Spanish administrator controlled this unwieldy and rather pompous institution for more than two decades.

Such accumulation of power in the hands of one individual can be a recipe for disaster.

But Samaranch, who died yesterday in his native Barcelona, first rescued the Movement from the perilous position in which it found itself in the early 1980s then set about transforming it into a global powerhouse.

Michael Payne, who worked closely with Samaranch for many years as the IOC’s Marketing/Broadcast Director, today gave me a characteristically pithy summation of what he sees as the late President’s achievements.

When he took over in 1980, Payne writes, "Most commentators…were writing the obituary of the Olympics – saying that they had become too political, too costly and too out of touch to survive...

"When Samaranch retired in 2001,… the IOC was generating billions of dollars from broadcasting and sponsorship revenues, allowing the IOC to properly fund the Games and support all the National Olympic Committees and Sports Federations around the world. Cities were queuing up for the privilege of hosting the Games, and the term boycott had been banished from the Olympic lexicon."

Two days before Rogge’s election, indeed, the IOC had taken the momentous decision to award the 2008 Olympics to Beijing in preference to rivals as heterogeneous as Toronto, Paris, Istanbul and Osaka.

A host of global personalities from footballer Zinedine Zidane to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien had been drawn to Russia to witness and play a part in the drama.

Long-serving Canadian IOC member Richard Pound - who might have succeeded Samaranch had things worked out differently - is another man well-qualified to assess his achievements at the head of the world’s most important sporting movement.

When I called him today in Montreal, Pound told me how Samaranch’s predecessor, Lord Killanin, had presciently predicted just prior to the then little-known Spaniard’s election, "He will be much better than you think".

He also explained that the man who served as the IOC’s seventh President always kept three “main lines” in his mind.

These were, in Pound’s words:

● "We have to be financially independent otherwise we have no chance of freedom of action."

● "We have got to make sure the Movement is as universal as possible."


●  "We have to make sure all the stakeholders in the Olympic Movement work together. If you are going to be a movement, you have to be internally cohesive."

As Pound also acknowledges, the emphasis on universality meant that the Movement "ended up with a few folks who, in an ideal world, you wouldn’t have".

This led eventually to crisis in the shape of the Salt Lake City scandal, stemming from revelations of wrongdoing by some IOC members during the US city’s successful campaign to host the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Even here though, Samaranch and his chief lieutenants acted decisively enough to head off any serious threat to the Movement’s relatively recently regathered momentum.

Writes Payne: "Samaranch drove through a series of reforms in just six months, which, under any normal circumstances, would have taken decades to achieve."

Samaranch’s taciturn demeanour and modus operandi, along with aspects of his past life, meant he was not always popular and had to endure frequent criticism.

Here too I think Pound gets it just about right in a long passage devoted to Samaranch’s leadership in his 2004 book Inside the Olympics.

"He had…been a minor governmental official under the Franco regime, of which more has been made in the media than it probably deserves," Pound writes.

"At that time, the alternatives in Spain were rather limited: one was within the regime or outside it, which in those days meant one was a Communist. Whatever he is or was, Samaranch was not a Communist."

"He worked 365 days a year for the Olympic Movement - and nights," Pound goes on, as our conversation winds towards a conclusion.

"I think he will go down as one of the three great IOC Presidents: De Coubertin got it started; [Avery] Brundage kept it going; Samaranch made it really an international Movement that has financial clout and even political clout."

Back at the start of this article, I evoked the Moscow meeting at which the Samaranch era "appeared to draw to a close".

Actually, his influence over the body he hauled back from the precipice remained substantial for almost another decade.

Without him, I severely doubt that Madrid would have run heavy-hitting Paris and London so desperately close in the race for the 2012 Olympics.

I have been told his influence was once again in evidence in the 2014 contest won by Sochi.

And, of course, he retained the title of Honorary President, with the IOC covering the cost of his residence expenses - $310,000 in 2008.

Even at last year’s IOC Session in Copenhagen, at which Rio de Janeiro won the right to stage the 2016 Olympics, some still believed in the grand old man’s capacity to conjure another miracle.

Two of the most experienced and respected Olympic observers told me on the day of the vote that they expected Madrid to win.

I had even had a speculative flutter myself at generous odds.

In fact, Copenhagen was the moment when it became clear that the Samaranch era finally was over.

In this context, another anecdote from Pound’s book is particularly poignant.

When athletics supremo Primo Nebiolo died in 1999, Pound called Samaranch and was told, "This man, he is so lucky".

"Lucky?" Pound replied. "For God’s sake, Juan Antonio, he’s dead!"

"Yes," said Samaranch, "but he died as president [of the IAAF]".

"It was an indication," writes Pound, "of what he was thinking for himself".

Today the Olympic Movement has lost its greatest servant since De Coubertin.

David Owen is a specialist sports journalist who worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering last year's Beijing Olympics. An archive of Owen’s material may be found by Twitter users at