Led by a subtle Spanish diplomat, the Olympics have undergone a quiet revolution

JOHN BARBER February 2 1988


Led by a subtle Spanish diplomat, the Olympics have undergone a quiet revolution

JOHN BARBER February 2 1988



Led by a subtle Spanish diplomat, the Olympics have undergone a quiet revolution

When Juan Antonio Samaranch took over as president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1980, he immediately filled his office with cherished paintings, icons and sculptures, including images of St. George, the legendary dragon slayer. The fabled figure has long been a favorite of the former Spanish diplomat, gracing the many places that Samaranch calls home-his Barcelona apartment, his farmhouse near the Costa Brava and his suite in Lausanne’s Palace Hotel. The dragon slayer was, and is, a fitting source of inspiration for a contemporary champion of the Olympic movement. On taking office Samaranch was faced with a dragon of his own: the spectre of bankruptcy and dissolution that hung over the Olympics. It was common wisdom that the Olympics were becoming too dangerous and too expensive to stage. Indeed, in 1978 Los Angeles was the only city in the world to finally submit a bid for the 1984 Summer Games. Then, days after Samaranch became president, 60 Western nations boycotted the Moscow Games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Pundits around the world agreed: the drastic EastWest division signalled the end of the Olympics.

With deft sword work and little fanfare, the 67year-old Samaranch has slashed his dragon down to size. In the past eight years he has revolutionized the Olympics, earning a reputation as one of the most influential leaders in the history of the Games. He has instilled a new sense of purpose in a formerly quiescent and increasingly irrelevant organization, forcing it to confront a series of divisive issues. Under his direction, the organization has abandoned one of the movement’s most cherished

precepts-that only amateur athletes should compete in the Games-by throwing them wide open to professionals. Samaranch has overseen an aggressive campaign to commercialize the Games, upsetting traditionalists while infusing the Olympic movement with unprecedented riches. As well, the former ambassador to Russia has succeeded in forging a fragile political accord between the East and West. That relationship is now being tested to the utmost as Samaranch shepherds the Summer Games in Seoul through a treacherous political minefield. Says Sir Cecil Cross, a committee member from New Zealand: “Our current president has taken the ioc out of the 19th century and brought it into the 21st.”

In bringing about his revolution of the Games, the current president has been a model leader. Samaranch is a wily pragmatist who operates with a studied blandness perfectly in keeping with ioc tradition. His speeches are comfortably platitudinous, and he prides himself on having never cast a vote at an ioc meeting during his presidency. Yet his aristocratic charm masks a tough, uncompromising man of action. Says the ioc’s vice-president, Montreal lawyer Richard Pound: “He is already, in my opinion, one of the three great ioc presidents, the other two being Pierre de Coubertin and Avery Brundage. It is because of Samaranch that the Olympics have come to grips with the realities of the world.”

Incredibly, the seventh president is the first to have tackled the job on a full-time basis. After a bitter struggle, ioc director Monique Berlioux resigned in 1985. Under part-time presidents Brundage and Lord Killanin, Berlioux had virtually ruled the committee for 15 years. Says Marc Hodler, a Swiss committee member, “She hated

the idea of a president in the office every day.

She hid correspondence.” Firmly in command, Samaranch has shaken up the committee and buried its reputation as a moribund club of ineffectual idealists. Says Cross:

“When I joined in 19691 was surprised by the number of lords, dukes and princes. But what surprised me most was that they did not have a close association with sport. Today that has all changed.”

Although the transition is far from complete-the average age of the 91 committee members is still 64 and only five are women-a new sense of direction is apparent in the team that Samaranch has gathered around him.

Among the most prominent is Pound, who has become Samaranch’s spokesman in North America. Another rising star is Anita DeFrantz, a 35-year-old black California lawyer, activist for athletes’ rights and former Olympic rower. She admits that she has been “pleasantly surprised” by her ability to get along in Samaranch’s ioc, adding that her colleagues “accepted me absolutely and immediately as a peer.”

A wealthy banker, Samaranch combines sharp business sense with an easy, elegant manner. He rarely ventures out without a polished chestnut from Santa Christina de la Polvorosa, a village in northern Spain where he and his wife, Bibis, own a home. It is his amulet, glossy from constant rubbing. He began his career in amateur sport as president of the Spanish roller-skate hockey association.

But it was in Moscow, where he served as the ambassador from 1977 to 1980, that Samaranch cut his teeth for his current mission. As the first ambassador since the Spanish Civil War, he took a crash course in realpolitik and also developed contacts that have proven invaluable in his efforts to bridge the deep ideological rift in the organization.

Indeed, when Samaranch took office, the Olympic movement had strayed far from the ideal formulated by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Games in 1896.

De Coubertin sought “to construct a better and more peaceful world” through amateur sport. The tragedy of the 1972 Munich Games, in which a terrorist attack left 11 Israeli athletes dead, underlined the movement’s vulnerability to political manipulation.

Elected days before the 1980 Moscow Games,

Samaranch was unable to prevent the Western boycott. But the Eastern Bloc nations were widely perceived to have unanimously supported his bid for the presidency. After the Moscow debacle, the committee looked to Samaranch as the only person capable of healing the wound. Few doubted that, if left untended, it could kill the Olympic Games.

To justify such faith, Samaranch has worked hard. At an Olympic Congress held the following year in West Germanywhich had boycotted the Moscow Olympics—the president emerged with a fragile reconciliation between East and West. He scored a more impressive victory with his solution to one of the thorniest problems then besetting the Games, the question of Taiwanese representation. By persuading Taiwan to participate under the flag of its Olympic committee rather than its national flag, he was able to bring the People’s Republic of China back into the Games after an absence of 36 years. Later, Samaranch travelled

tens of thousands of miles and attended hundreds of meetings in an ultimately fruitless attempt to head off Moscow’s boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Samaranch took the boycott as a personal defeat. Still, the Games were an overwhelming success. Says Pound: “What was proven is that if you are a boycotting country, the Games go on without you. Everyone is sorry you are not there, but if you were invited to the party and you didn’t come, that is really your problem.”

During the preparations for the Calgary Olympics, Samaranch became concerned about the tarnished public image of Olympiques Calgary Olympics (oco), the local organizing committee. Last May he took the matter into his own hands, asking Mayor Ralph Klein, whom he called “public relations No. 1 in Calgary,” to establish a committee on media relations for oco. It proved to be an effective move. But as Samaranch himself acknowledges, “If you

compare what kinds of problems we are facing in Seoul and what kinds of problems we are facing in Calgary, it’s next to nil.” The 1988 Summer Olympics could add up to the greatest challenge of Samaranch’s career. As Pound bluntly admits, “Our top priority is to get out of Seoul alive.”

The trouble began in 1985, four years after Seoul won the right to stage the Games. At that time, North Korea unexpectedly demanded cohost status and threatened to lead another boycott if its demands were not met. Since the Games are awarded to a city rather than a country, North Korea did not have a strong case for complaint. Samaranch spent months pursuing a compromise, meeting with Soviet and Chinese officials, jetting in and out of Seoul and lobbying Eastern Bloc officials. He even showed up at a meeting of Communist sports ministers in Hanoi. Last year, as he waited for North Korea to respond to his offer that it stage five events within its borders, Samaranch had managed to secure commitments from all major Communist nations except Cuba. The countries want to avoid a boycott, says Oh Jee Chul, a senior sports ministry official in South Korea, because “their promising

young athletes cannot be sacrificed anymore.” Pessimists have pointed out that potential conflict at the tense demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, just 40 km north of Seoul, poses a more serious threat to the Games than a boycott. But a more realistic concern is the threat of political violence within South Korea itself. When rioting students battled police last spring in the streets of Masan, 290 km south of Seoul, a cloud of tear gas drifted across a nearby field during the President’s Cup soccer match. The unrest set off a flurry of speculation that the ioc would have to relocate the Games. But Samaranch has refused to designate a backup site, declaring that the Summer Games will take place as planned or not at all.

Samaranch’s political savvy has introduced a refreshing sense of reality to the Olympic movement. The same is true of his push to admit professional athletes to the Games. To his predecessors, especially Chicago millionaire Avery Brundage, amateurism was a sacred cause. But in Samaranch’s eyes, the decision was a simple matter of honesty. “Professionals have been in the Olympics for a long time,” he says. “What we are doing now is telling people the truth about athletes’ status. We want everything clear and clean.”

For years the committee has been edging toward a more realistic definition of amateurism. Under Samaranch, the committee’s solution was elegantly simple: it has left all decisions on eligibility up to the international federations that govern each sport. The new system will allow each federation to enter the Olympic fold at its own pace. Inevitably, the radical decision stirred up strong sentiment within the ioc. Retired Toronto lawyer James Worrall, 73, who has been a member of the ioc since 1967, is one of those who is disappointed. “I am disturbed by the rapid transition,” he says. “There was certainly a degree of hypocrisy before. But I have a gut feeling that something has gone out of the Olympics.” The ioc decision to market the Olympic trademarks was even more radical. In 1976, the Montreal Olympics was left with a $1billion deficit. But a dramatic shift in emphasis to private funding has brought enormous riches to the Olympic coffers. Peter Ueberroth, president of the Los Angeles Summer Games in 1984, financed a $540-million event with nongovernment funds, chiefly from the sale of television rights and the marketing of the five-ring Olympic logo. Ueberroth demonstrated that the previously under-exploited symbol was a veritable gold mine and that corporations would pay handsomely to use it. To date, television rights have been the major source of income for the Games. ABC paid a staggering $386 million for the American television rights to the Calgary Games. But in the past four years advertising revenues for televised sports have dropped off sharply. The network now expects to lose $50 million in Calgary. The legendary bidding session in 1984 took 12 hours to complete. Pound called Samaranch in his hotel room to tell him of ABC’S final bid. Even Samaranch was shocked. As Pound recalls, the president gasped, “Ah, it is too much.”

Samaranch has launched a massive drive to exploit the corporate connection. After the surprise success of the Los Angeles Games, the local organizing committee kept every cent of its $240-million profits for redistribution to various U.S. athletic organizations. The

ioc moved quickly to assert its control over all Olympic symbols, trademarks and words. In 1985 it hired a Swiss firm, International Sports, Culture and Leisure Marketing (ISL), to oversee the global marketing of all Olympic properties, chiefly the five-ring logo. Corporations have responded overwhelmingly to the call: ISL is expected to raise $500 million by the end of 1988. After the agency takes its 10-per-cent commission, the ioc receives a six-percent cut, with the remainder going to the Seoul and Calgary Games as well as to national Olympic committees. Says Pound: “It had to be done for the Olympics to survive.”

The commercial bonanza has helped finance the development of amateur sport throughout the world, particularly in the Third World. Still, the ioc’s connection with ISL has been under attack from the start. Critics noted that the ioc awarded the contract without competitive tendering. As well, the founder of ISL was the late Horst Dassler, the billionaire president of the Adidas sports empire and a close friend of Samaranch. In defence, the ioc president stated that no other firm was interested in the job at the time. He also bristled at suggestions that the powerful Dassler had exerted undue influence on the ioc. Samaranch told Maclean ’s that the businessman “was not an adviser. He was a friend, and he did a lot for the developing countries.”

In the rush for dollars, however, critics say that the ioc has sacrificed a certain amount of Olympic prestige. To some observers, the emblazoning of the five-ring logo on such products as beer cheapens the tone of the Games. Others have accused ISL of being greedy. In 1985 ISL was so eager for clients for the ioc that Samaranch himself wrote a letter to American Express Co. chairman James Robinson m.

American Express had balked at the $ 15-million price tag for sponsorship rights to the Calgary and Seoul Games, VISA International wound up buying a similar package for $18.9 million. Campbell Soup Co., which paid $650,000 to be a sponsor of the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games, was astonished that the cost had climbed to $9.4 million for the 1988 Winter and Summer Games. “It was an outrageous price,” says Paul Mulcahy, president of esc Advertising Inc., Campbell’s own agency. “They were overestimating the value of the property based on what the accepted price was for Sarajevo. And after Sarajevo, not once did they call to ask, ‘Did you think it was worth it?’ ” Traditionalists, including former ioc president Lord Killanin, are still weighing the pros and cons. “The good thing is that the money is spread throughout the world,” Killanin told Maclean’s. “The bad thing is that sponsors may dictate to the disadvantage of the athlete and the international federation.” Indeed, commercial considerations are shaping the Games to an unprecented degree. With little fanfare, the ioc voted in 1986 to change the Olympic schedule. After 1992 the Olympics will occur every two years rather than every four, alternating the Winter and Summer Games. The division will give each event more prominence in its own right and, in doing so, make them more valuable to television networks and merchandisers. The ioc has also embarked on a campaign to reduce the size of the elephantine

Summer Games. One solution being examined is to do away with certain events. “We should be looking over the past 10 Olympics to see how many countries actually participated in sports like fencing and equestrian, handball and weight lifting, or modern pentathlon,” says Pound. “Then we must ask ourselves, ‘Does this really represent the current trend in sport?’ ”

The sweeping changes of the Samaranch regime have left the old guard of the Olympic movement bewildered and dismayed. But opponents must admit that in 1988 the Olympics are more popular than they have been in years. The spirit of optimism is a welcome contrast to a gloomy and all-too-recent past. Samaranch’s home town of Barcelona spent $13 million in its extravagant and successful bid for the 1992 Summer Games. In 1986, at the ioc’s annual meeting in Lausanne, competing cities staged lavish banquets, operas and circuses. Indeed, the competition to host the Games has become so fierce that the ioc has recently introduced

strict new spending guidelines for future campaigns. Still, the Toronto Ontario Olympic Council has already raised $5 million to back its bid for the 1996 Games. Toronto’s chances are considered slim in the face of competition from Athens, the sentimental favorite. That decision will be made in 1990.

It is difficult to guess how Baron de Coubertin and his band of idealists would react to the presence of professionals competing in the modern Olympic Games, or the millions of dollars now pouring in from corporations around the world. But even the most disapproving purist would have to concede that the Olympic movement is much healthier now than it was a decade ago, when financial crises and world politics threatened its extinction. Says Pound: “The Olympics have weathered just about everything that can be thrown at them, but they have emerged unscathed and, in many ways, better.” The heart of the Olympic movement is beating strongly. It is perhaps too soon to say what will become of its soul.