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  • Three Friends Remember Samaranch


    (ATR Memorials to the late Juan Antonio Samaranch now include a service Thursday in Lausanne attended by IOC staff. And three people who knew the former IOC President in different ways offer their remembrances to Around the Rings: long-time aide Fekrou Kidane, IOC member Alex Gilady and Olympian Donna DeVarona.

    Fekrou Kidane worked with Samaranch at IOC headquarters for years, last as chef du cabinet, retiring from the IOC in 2001 when his boss stepped down.

    Alex Gilady, IOC member from Israel, casts his thoughts back to April and the services held in Barcelona the day after Samaranch died.

    1964 Olympic gold medalist Donna DeVarona remembers Samaranch for the impact of his political prowess on what the Olympics have become today.

    Fekrou Kidane Knew Samaranch for More Than 40 Years

    It was in 1968 in Mexico during the consultative meeting of the National Olympic Committees that I met for the first time Juan Antonio Samaranch.

    He was then the President of the Spanish NOC and I was the Secretary General of the Ethiopian NOC. It was the period when the NOCs were trying to organize themselves under the leadership of Giulio Onesti (Italy), Raoul Mollet (Belgium) and Raymond Gafner (Switzerland).

    In fact it was in 1975 in Lausanne where I was present to cover the IOC Session that I had my first discussion with Samaranch, in his capacity of Chairman of the IOC Press Commission.

    I was trying to get assistance to organize seminars for African sports journalists on Olympism.

    It was however in 1969 that Samaranch exposed in an article published in the periodical ‘Deporte 2000’ his vision for strengthening and renewing the IOC. Juan Antonio Samaranch thought and his analysis left no room for doubt that he would one day embark on this labor of renewal.

    Fekrou Kidane and Juan Antonio Samaranch in 2003. (ATR)
    After Samaranch become President of the IOC in 1980, his policy of renewal has completely changed the landscape of the Olympic Movement.

    Samaranch was a diplomat and he was therefore interested in the social, economical and political activities of the society.
    He entrusted me with the task of following and reporting to him on the apartheid issue before appointing me as his advisor for matters pertaining to developing countries. He also set the Olympic Solidarity fund to provide assistance to the NOCs.

    Samaranch’s main concern was to prevent boycott of the Olympic Games because of political reasons. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the fate of Sarajevo, the South and North Korea relations, the recognition of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei, the establishment of cooperation with the United Nations system and with inter and non-governmental organizations, the observance of the Olympic Truce during the Olympic Games are among the subjects dealt by Samaranch during his presidency.

    Sport and environment, women and sport, humanitarian activities have also been a concern to the Olympic Movement. Juan Antonio Samaranch was very happy about the release from prison of Nelson Mandela, the end of apartheid and the return of South Africa to the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992.

    Samaranch has visited 199 countries in the world and met with the heads of state and governments and ministers of youth and sport of the concerned countries and territories through their respective NOCs.

    Juan Antonio Samaranch, Marqués de Samaranch, was a great leader. I had the privilege to serve as Director of his Executive Office.

    As IOC President Jacques Rogge said in Barcelona: Samaranch was the second renovator of the Olympic Movement after the founder of the IOC, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

    Alex Gilady: In the Presence of Greatness

    There was something very special in the air the day we said goodbye to Juan Antonio Samaranch.

    For many days afterward, I tried to identify and understand what exactly that was.

    It could not have been the grave feeling of sudden loss; he was not a young man and the list of his life achievements was lengthy.

    Nor could it have been that he was still the president of the International Olympic Committee. He had been out of office since 2001. The organization continued to prosper with Dr. Jacques Rogge standing firmly at the helm.

    Moreover, in those nine years, Juan Antonio Samaranch had not been a healthy man.

    He almost passed away in July, 2001 -- the day after he came back from Moscow as an honorary president.

    He recovered then, but we all knew very well he was aging. He came to meetings, and kept coming, and it was obvious just to see him that he was getting older.

    There were no tears, then, when his day finally came.

    Alex Gilady was elected to the IOC in 1995. (ATR)
    So what was it?

    I finally realized.

    It was not about him.

    It was about us.

    We were lucky.

    Lucky to have worked for him and with him.

    Lucky to listen to his counsel and honored to be in his presence.

    We were lucky to live in the presence of greatness.

    No other word describes better the achievements of this giant.

    That day, at the most noble ceremonies in the Generalitat and in the Cathedral, we were all very very quiet.
    We exchanged gentle hugs and glimpses of smiles, as if we were saying to each other, "Well, the time has come."
    And I thought that day of the thousands of meetings I had with Juan Antonio Samaranch, and of one in particular.

    This one surfaced time and again in my mind.

    It was in the heat of the Salt Lake City scandal. I entered his office and sat in the side chair without saying a word.

    None was necessary.

    A pile of papers summarizing the calls from all over the world for him to resign were on the desk.

    From time to time, he would hand me a page -- a particularly nasty call for him to step aside.

    Later that evening, he looked at me with his almond wise eyes and said "52 newspapers called for my resignation. But this is an important opportunity to reform and stabilize the Olympics! I will not resign!".

    He was right, of course, once more.

    All those who managed to come to pay last respect in Barcelona probably felt as I did -- the feeling there that we were honored to live in the presence of greatness. And now, simply, it was time to say goodbye.

    In closing, permit me to borrow the last paragraph from the El Pais obituary: "Samaranch left a legacy of sport, a legacy of values and a legacy of peace that will be difficult to surpass. We will not see a figure like Juan Antonio Samaranch again -- no country will."

    Donna de Varona: Juan Antonio Samaranch's Legacy

    The international sporting community is mourning the death of former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch. An Ambassador to the Soviet Union under Spain’s Franco, Samaranch deftly used his diplomatic skills to work his way into the IOC presidency. Elected to the position in 1980 after U.S. President Carter’s call for a boycott of the 1980 summer games in Moscow, he was faced with daunting economic and political burdens.

    Credited with leading the movement out of near bankruptcy into prosperity and launching a progressive global sporting initiative of inclusion, diversity and solidarity Samaranch came to power just in time to save a sporting movement in trouble.
    After all, when Los Angeles bid on the 1984 Olympics only one city was willing to take the risk of staging the games. Under Samaranch’s leadership, TV and sponsorship rights fees grew into the billions.

    Women’s participation on the field of play and as first time members of the IOC was mandated. Athletes were appointed to an official commission and eventually given voting status. The Court of Arbitration for Sport was established. An award-winning Olympic museum and new IOC headquarters were built.
    Donna DeVarona with Samaranch during a 1987 visit to Washington, D.C. They are in the office of then U.S. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, on the right.

    Additional sports and events were added onto every subsequent Winter and Summer Olympic Games calendar drawing more countries than ever before into the sporting arena. Finally, global solidarity programs were given financial support to bring more countries into the Olympic movement.

    From 1980 almost up until the Sydney Games in 2000 Samaranch seemed to have the Midas touch. In 1992, Samaranch’s Barcelona Games embraced the participation of a record number of participants, events and countries and for the first time professional athletes were invited to compete.

    The US dream team ‘s debut lead the way for athletes to put aside playing for pay to compete for the rare honor of winning Olympic gold.

    However, with success came dangerous temptations and challenges. Simmering beneath the surface of fast times and bid city efforts to claim the prize of staging the games creeping corruption resulted in two major controversies. Without serious world wide anti doping programs the use and abuse of performance enhancing drugs escalated.

    International sports federations and National Olympic committees looked to each other to solve the problem. Only when the French caught cheaters on the coveted Tour de France did the sporting community and then government leaders campaign for a 'real" solution. Slow to come to terms with the issue, the IOC took the heat and President Samaranch took the blame. The outcome of the crisis was the establishment of the Independent World anti doping agency.

    It was then that Samaranch hired a research firm to evaluate what the IOC should be doing to regain credibility as well as anticipate other problems. Late again on another issue, such as the practice of some bid cities to give favors and pay money to a handful of needy and some greedy IOC members for votes, Samaranch and the IOC was embarrassed again. The outcome of the Salt Lake City favors-for-votes scandal resulted in a rigorous and tightly controlled Olympic bid city process with Samaranch favoring the changes.

    Indeed Samaranch was a visionary, a strong leader and a warrior. In bidding to bring the Games to Madrid in 2016, he declared it was his dying wish to host the Games once again in his country of birth.

    A man for the moment, he thrived on challenges and survived the crises that threatened to undermine him and the Olympic movement.

    No, Juan Antonio did not get his last wish but he did fulfill the dreams of thousands and even millions who have embraced this festival of hope he so dearly loved.

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