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    The end of the era of Samaranch

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    Juan Antonio Samaranch passed away on April 21, 2010, three months before his 90th birthday.

    Juan Antonio Samaranch passed away on April 21, 2010, three months before his 90th birthday.

    Pierre Fredy was the man responsible for the rebirth of the Olympics. Juan Antonio Samaranch Torello will go down in sports history as the IOC president who made the Olympics a commercial enterprise, enriched the committee and allowed professional athletes to compete in the Games for the first time.

    Participation, not victory, had been considered the most important part of the Olympics. That all changed in the era of Samaranch.

    The Olympic rings became a lucrative commodity under Samaranch's stewardship, and athletes began to parlay their Olympic success into lucrative advertising deals.

    Many opposed Samaranch's commercialization of the Olympics. Even now, nine years after he passed the torch to Jacques Rogge, many still pine for the good old Games, free from the profit motive, the pomp, the drug abuse and the corruptible judges. However, the idealistic voices grow fainter with each new Olympics, while the role of big business grows ever stronger.

    When Samaranch took the reins of the International Olympic Committee, he found an organization in crisis. It was having a hard time finding Olympic hosts, as the host city had to bear the full cost of the Games and the idea of making a profit was out of the question. Samaranch not only rescued the IOC financially, he made it a force that even the most powerful corporations had to reckon with. Now the Games are an opportunity, not a burden. The committee now picks sponsors and television channels from a long list of applicants. Wherever there is big money, talk of corruption inevitably follows, whether justified or not. The IOC and its president did not escape suspicion.

    Ironically, Samaranch, a Spanish aristocrat who sided with the Falange and was close to the dictator Francisco Franco, was also accused of cozying up to Moscow. He was even accused of being a KGB agent, though there wasn't a shred of evidence to back it up.

    No doubt, the Soviet Union gave Samaranch a lot of support during his bid for president of the IOC. He had served as the Spanish ambassador to the Soviet Union, and so he had lots of friends among the Soviet sports elite, particularly Vitaly Smirnov, deputy head of the Moscow Olympics Organizing Committee for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Smirnov lobbied socialist countries hard on Samaranch's behalf. Samaranch's tenure as president began in Moscow and ended there 21 years later with the election of Jacques Rogge. His reign had come to an end, but the era of Samaranch lived on until his death on April 21, 2010.

    Muscovites referred to him affectionately as Ivan Antonovich, both behind his back and to his face at casual mixers. The wealthy, refined aristocrat accepted his Russified name with a smile.

    He never made a secret of his Falangist past, even though it was often used against him. These criticisms were unfair, as they ignored his trademark political flexibility and realism.

    He was already displaying those gifts back in 1977, soon after he was appointed ambassador to the Soviet Union. Samaranch often recalled the episode, and a detailed account is provided in a book by Alexander Ratner, Samaranch's irreplaceable interpreter, who was the Soviet Olympic Committee press attache at the time: "The Soviet capital was hosting a major international forum a few days after I first arrived there. The guests included a delegation of Spanish Communists led by Dolores Ibarruri and Santiago Carrillo. I went to the Palace of Congresses in the Kremlin to find them and told them that I would be pleased to receive them at the ambassador's residence. They accepted my invitation and came. With that we proved that Spain's political problems were a thing of the past. A new era had begun..."

    Vitaly Smirnov came to Samaranch's rescue in 1992, immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when it looked like they wouldn't send a Russian team to Barcelona, leaving its main rival, the U.S. team, to clean up. For Samaranch, who exerted a great deal of effort to win the Games for his hometown, the news came as a heavy blow. Barcelonans would be deprived of the main event - the epic battle between the Soviet and U.S. teams, and revenues from sponsorship and advertising would dry up without a sensational Cold War battle to attract viewers. Smirnov managed to put together a CIS team for Olympics, which was popularly viewed as the Soviet team.

    As the honorary IOC president for life, Samaranch promoted the Russian bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics. He continued to attend all the big sporting events, from the Olympics to the Champions League finals, for as long as his health permitted. When he spoke, people listened till his dying day.

    MOSCOW. (Alexander Gorbunov for RIA Novosti)

    Alexander Gorbunov is a sport observer of the Sport Den za Dnem weekly.

    The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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