The Stench of Samaranch

The most interesting Olympic trials are coming after the games leave town these days. Federal corruption trials in Utah are only the tip of the iceberg that has sent amateur sports spinning in disarray. Ice skating has begun to take on the trappings of professional wrestling, and bribes had become a way of life for many members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Just last week, board members of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) have been told by their ethics task force to disband, so the USOC can start over from scratch.

Good for the USOC. But the IOC will be a much tougher nut to crack. It has been the centerpiece of Olympic corruption for the past twenty years, and true reform will have to begin there. The media, whose profits depend on access to the games, have by and large downplayed the corruption in favor of loads of happy talk about amateur sports. Corrupt members of the IOC have availed themselves of this inclination, so their cynical exploitation of young athletes has been largely unimpaired and unreported in recent years.

The corruption reached truly Olympic proportions under the guidance of one man, who transformed the modern Olympic movement into an endless and scandalous charade. He is Juan Antonio Samaranch, who headed the IOC for twenty years until his retirement in 2000.

Samaranch had spent some time as a toady of Spanish Caudillo Francisco Franco early in his life — Franco, like many of history’s truly towering figures, managed to attract a lot of third-raters as hangers-on. Franco himself was truly an accomplished man — after all, he saved Spain from communism, drove Adolf Hitler nuts, and ran a tight ship for forty years, bringing Spain fully into Europe before his death in 1975. He was also incorruptible, and had sound political instincts. During the 1950s, he told Eisenhower’s personal emissary, the future ambassador Vernon Walters, that he had no plans for successors (answering the question that Walters said he was afraid to put so bluntly), but that he would promise Eisenhower three things: a Spain with a restored monarchy, a strong middle class, and a military that would be subject to the civilian government by the time he died. He delivered on all three.

Samaranch had no such historic accomplishments, and, sadly, no such lofty designs. All he acquired from politics was a venal attachment to power and prestige. In 1966, he wormed his way into a position from which he ran the Spanish government’s sports programs, and got himself appointed to the IOC. In 1977, Spain’s budding post-Franco government awarded him the dubious distinction as Spain’s first ambassador in years to the Soviet Union. He arrived just in time to enjoy the waning of Brezhnev’s rule and the dawning of the age of Andropov and Chernyenko.

Wedged between such fossils of deceit and decadence, anyone with even a whiff of Franco’s mettle would have raucously razzed the commies at every opportunity. Ever since Stalin, Moscow had hated Franco’s Spain, the only country to defeat communism since Lenin started keeping score. Ambassador Samaranch, with his diplomatic immunity, could have lit up the Moscow nights, taunting the apparatchiks with his very presence by constantly reminding them of their worst enemy — his benefactor, his hero, the victorious “El Jefe.”

No such luck. Samaranch, himself a consummate apparatchik, burrowed in and befriended the mid-level bureaucrats of the Soviet bloc whose view of public service reflected his own. In the Soviet Union, he learned to wink, nod, and admire those luxurious dachas enjoyed by the party elite in the People’s Paradise. By all accounts, the venal relationships he forged in Moscow provided the margin of votes he needed to be elected head of the IOC in 1980.

Even though the Soviet bloc always cheated at the games, the IOC itself was remarkably untainted by scandal before Samaranch took over. Members were required to pay their own travel and lodging expenses, and, under Avery Brundage, the brilliant American who headed the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1929 to 1953 and the IOC from 1952 to 1972, the Olympic tradition had been polished to a luster admired throughout the world (which is why the Soviet bloc cheated so much to win the coveted gold medals). Profiteering and corporate exploitation was strictly forbidden in Brundage’s IOC.

When he took the helm, Samaranch considered all this concern about ethics and exploitation to be an obstacle to his ambition and his expensive tastes. He immediately expanded the IOC membership, recruiting a gaggle of fawning supporters, many of whom were thoroughly corrupt to begin with (ex-Stasi members, even one of Idi Amin’s generals, made the grade. Saddam Hussein’s son Uday ran the Iraqi IOC affiliate for years). Samaranch opened the floodgates to financing (with little accountability) by corporate sponsors and host governments, and turned a blind eye to millions of dollars in unadulterated graft.

The corrupt and corruptible among the IOC members caught on quickly, eager for booty as they traveled the world under Samaranch’s new all-expenses-paid regime. To be sure, some of their colleagues were from the old school — drawn from European royalty and, here and there, great figures in amateur athletics — but Samaranch made sure he polluted enough members to maintain his power.

Since the 1980 Moscow Olympics were boycotted (remember Afghanistan?) by the U.S. and other western countries, the Soviet Bloc boycotted the 1984 games in Los Angeles. Samaranch hailed these games as a stunning financial success — reaping a “profit” of some $215 million for the IOC’s coffers. However, the “success” represented by such a figure depends on your point of view: if one considers putting a price on a venerated, 2,500-year-old tradition exemplifying the best in worldwide amateur athletics, $215 million is chump change, less than what one NASA bureaucrat threw down the rat-hole when he forgot to convert inches to centimeters in the (crashed) Martian lander’s computer a couple of years back.

Soon the IOC would bring in billions. In short order, Samaranch and his IOC cronies turned the Olympics into a cash cow, and a sacred one at that: there are hilarious accounts of his insistence that people treat him as a virtual head of state, with a gaggle of servants who were required to call him “Your Excellency.” He allowed his sycophants to secure for him a regal headquarters and private penthouse in Switzerland, with expense accounts and trappings worthy of royalty.

Samaranch made it perfectly clear that ethics were not his strong suit; he once awarded the highest Olympic award to a troika of degenerates so base that it seems a parody: Nicolae Ceaucescu of Romania, Erich Honekker of East Germany, and Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria (whose son-in-law, Ivan Slavkov, Samaranch appointed to the IOC in 1987). Samaranch made these awards instead of barring the countries from the games because of rampant doping and cheating.

With such a crop of world-class representatives of the Olympic ideal, how could any remaining sane IOC members have expected anything other than a future filled with corruption and abuse?

Samaranch often insisted on being treated as a gentleman member of the nobility, but his notion of chivalry wasn’t exactly right out of Don Quixote. In fact, he left his dying wife in Spain so he wouldn’t miss the opening of the 2000 summer games in Sydney, which were designed to immortalize him. Upon arriving, according to the AP, he invited Dawn Fraser, Australia’s most famous Olympic swimmer, “as his personal guest and stand-in as u2018Olympic first lady’ for Friday’s opening ceremony.” When his wife interrupted his little parade by dying, he briefly left in a private jet to attend her funeral in Madrid, and then jetted back to Sydney.

As the uproar over corruption at the Salt Lake games in 2000 roiled the IOC, Samaranch calmly planned his last IOC meeting — in Moscow, for which he had acquired such a warm fondness. From the protection of that bastion of sportsmanship, where no one writes about corruption for very long, he proclaimed China the site of the 2008 summer games. Whatever bribes and other consideration were exchanged, we should not hold our breath waiting for an independent Chinese press to break the story.

It’s unlikely that the Olympic genie of corruption will go quietly back into the bottle. The scandals might cause the IOC to implode, but billions of dollars are at stake, and there will always be new generations of young, bright-eyed idealist-athletes to exploit. By Congressional fiat (naturally), the U.S. Olympic Committee owns the invaluable sole use of the Olympic trademarks, and it regularly hounds anything called “Olympic” — from salad dressing to restaurants — to change its name or be sued out of business. Even if Congress rescinded the USOC’s monopoly, the IOC, self-perpetuating and operating under the laws of Switzerland, would not necessarily reform: only the most flamboyantly corrupt of Samaranch’s appointees were required to leave after the Salt Lake City bribes came to light. However, if Congress rescinded the American Olympic monopoly, the world’s athletes might have one country where sports organizations would compete with each other to offer athletes the best Olympic venue, instead of subjecting them to bribes and unending scandals every even-numbered year.

This problem does not trouble Samaranch. His IOC cronies have assured for him a rich and luxurious retirement, paid for by worldwide amateur athletics. And he is so certain of a prosperous future that he has brazenly appointed as Spain’s new IOC member the most prominent, accomplished, able, and ethical Spanish sports personality — who happens to be his son, Juanito Samaranch.

The stench of Samaranch will linger, it appears, for many years to come.